Keenen Ivory Wayans

Active - 1983 - 2009  |   Born - Jun 8, 1958 in New York, New York, United States  |   Genres - Comedy

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Biography by Hal Erickson

The second-oldest child of the Wayans Brothers comic dynasty (brother of Damon, Marlon, Shawn, Kim, and Dwayne Wayans), "renaissance" man Keenen Ivory Wayans retains the highest profile among his siblings as a director and entrepreneur, and claims a brief but spectacular career, which qualifies him as a bona fide role model to young African-Americans interested in carving like paths in comedy or entertainment. A graduate of the Tuskegee Institute, Wayans entered the comic arena in the mid-'80s by stepping up to the mike and honing his stand-up act, but he later branched out into movies, by scripting the low-budget black satire Hollywood Shuffle (1987) and the aptly-titled comedy vehicle Eddie Murphy: Raw (1987), both for director pal Robert Townsend. Wayans broke through to a larger audience with I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), a rollicking parody of 1970s blaxploitation flicks which he directed, produced, and starred in -- as Jack Spade, a black war vet who heads home to the ghetto, only to discover that his brother Junebug died from an "OG" (or overdose of gold chains). For credibility and weight, Wayans intuitively cast blaxploitation vets Isaac Hayes, Bernie Casey, and Jim Brown in leading roles; the film also features Chris Rock's debut.

In 1988, Wayans created, produced, and starred in the Fox network's iconoclastic, influential, cutting-edge comedy-variety series In Living Color, which not only made "Wayans" a household name (synonymous with African-American comedy), but also solidified the stardom of comedians Jamie Foxx and the rubber-faced Jim Carrey (who, with his Fire Marshall Bill character, appeared as the ensemble's obligatory white schmuck). A dispute over the show erupted between Wayans and Fox in late 1992, as Wayans felt that the network was overrunning In Living Color in syndication; he argued that it would reduce the program's longevity. Yet Fox refused to back down. Consequently, the whole Wayans family left the program, leaving Jim Carrey center stage. In Living Color lasted two additional seasons, and wrapped in late summer 1994.

For several years, Wayans retained a low profile (save limited involvement with straight-faced actioners like The Glimmer Man), but bounced back in 2000 with the multimillion-dollar box-office champion Scary Movie. Initially a parody of Wes Craven's Scream series, the film spawned three sequels, in 2001, 2003, and 2006 respectively; Wayans abandoned the franchise after Scary Movie 2, by which point, the films had expanded their satirical scope to include non-horror pictures and other elements of popular culture.

In 2004, Wayans directed the farce White Chicks, about two black FBI agents, Marcus and Kevin (played respectively by the director's brothers, Marlon and Shawn), who disguise themselves as Caucasian sorority girls to foil a kidnapping plot. Despite scattered favorable notices, most critics despised the picture (Roger Ebert remarked, "Here is a film so dreary and conventional that it took an act of will to keep me in the theater"), but it soared at the box and became one of the top grossers for several weekends. The three brothers re-teamed for a follow-up (as co-producers and co-screenwriters, with Keenen directing) for the crass 2006 comedy Little Man, a kind of Clifford remake that revamps the adult-in-the-child's-body concept. Marlon plays a dwarf criminal, Calvin, who -- in an effort to retrieve a diamond he has stolen -- takes advantage of his size by masking himself as a baby and hiding out in the home of a wannabe dad (Shawn Wayans).

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  • Studied engineering in college.
  • Began his entertainment career performing stand-up comedy in New York and Los Angeles.
  • Coproduced and cowrote Eddie Murphy's hit concert film Raw (1987).
  • Hosted a short-lived late-night talk show, The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show (1997-98).
  • Appeared in the documentary The Black List: Volume One (2008), which consisted of interviews with influential black Americans. 
  • Is a vegetarian, and has appeared in a "Do It for Someone You Love" PSA as part of a campaign to encourage people to eat healthier.
  • Says he prefers directing small-budget films.
  • Received the Entertainment Icon Award at the 15th Annual American Black Film Festival in July 2011.