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Cedric Yarbrough on Speechless, Reno 911!, and getting a Jheri curl for The Goldbergs

Photo: ABC
Photo: ABC

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: When Cedric Yarbrough first arrived in Los Angeles from Minneapolis, he started out on the standard path that most actors travel and happily took whatever one-off roles on TV he could secure. He soon became a recognizable presence on the small screen thanks to his role as Deputy Jones on Comedy Central’s Reno 911! Since then, Yarbrough has been up and down the TV dial, popping up in series like Arrested Development, Comedy Bang! Bang!, and The Goldbergs while also adding to his filmography with appearances in Meet The Fockers, Black Dynamite, The Boss, and many others. Currently, Yarbrough can be seen in his highest-profile series-regular role since his Reno 911! days, starring alongside Minnie Driver in ABC’s Speechless.

Speechless (2016)—“Kenneth”

Cedric Yarbrough: I read the pilot, and I thought it was really, really interesting. It’s something that I’d never seen before, and I thought, “If this could actually get on the air, it could be really, really cool.” I was also up for another role, but I really wanted this one, so we went gung-ho for this puppy. [Laughs.]

The A.V. Club: How would you describe Kenneth?

CY: Kenneth is a nurturing, heartwarming guy who will stick up for people that he feels that need it, including himself. He doesn’t mind getting in the muck. But he doesn’t heighten situations. He likes to defuse them. But he still will defend himself. Maya, Minnie’s [Driver] character in the show, she’s a fireball. But Kenneth isn’t afraid of that. He won’t go to the way that she’ll see a situation, but he doesn’t mind. Sometimes it pisses people off when you’re not being as angry as they are, and that defuses the situation, or it makes you feel a little bit better because you didn’t stoop to a certain way. And I think that’s how Kenneth’s character is: He chooses his battles, but he doesn’t mind battling.

AVC: How is it working with your young co-star, Micah Fowler, who plays J.J.?

CY: Micah is an amazing guy… I think America’s just going to fall in love with him. He’s a great little actor. And to have someone like that to be able to bounce ideas off of and act with, it’s going to be fun for me. I always like working with people that I actually enjoy working with. It’s such a chore when you start to work with people that you don’t really like.

AVC: That extends beyond acting, let me assure you.

CY: Definitely! But when you have a genuine affection for someone and you have a genuine, real like for them, it helps. Especially with this character, where Kenneth has no idea how to be an aid to anyone! But his heart is in the right place. He really likes that kid. You know, he’ll stick up for him. There are a couple of situations where he says, “You know what? If I was in that situation, you’d do the same for me. I know you would. So I’m going to do it for you.” And there’s a genuine trust and a genuine appreciation for each other that I think—I hope!—comes out and that you can feel. Not just between myself and him, but that it comes through the camera and that you guys will be able to feel it as well.

Mulligan (2000)—“King”

AVC: It looks like your first on-camera rolebased on IMDB, anywayis playing a character named King in a film called Mulligan, which I am assured from the DVD box is a cross between Caddyshack and Clerks.

CY: Man, that’s an embarrassing first role! Okay, so that movie I did when I was still living in Minneapolis. It was a movie that was put up with a shoestring and some gum, and we tried to make a film. And I know nothing about golf. I’ve never golfed. But apparently I looked the part, so there you go.

AVC: How did you find your way into acting and comedy in the first place?

CY: I went to school in Minnesota—Minnesota State University—where I did a lot of dramatic theater. A lot of Shakespeare, a lot of straight plays, a lot of music theater, too. And when I graduated, I wanted to bring more to auditions, more to scripts, but I was still pretty shy, so I thought getting into improv and sketch comedy would help me break out a little bit more. And they have a wonderful theater in uptown Minneapolis called the Brave New Workshop. It’s a sister company to Second City where they teach you improv and sketch and teach you how to write, and from there I was able to really hone myself. I was, like, “This is my path, right here. This is where I feel like I fit.” And from Minneapolis I moved to L.A., and I’ve been working ever since.

Andy Richter Controls The Universe (2002)—“Other Andy”

CY: I played Other Andy—or Black Andy—on the show. But Other Andy was definitely the credit name. [Laughs.] We all worked in the office. Andy Richter’s character on the show was also named Andy, and then he started to get upset because my character was really lovable, whereas his was kind of a grump, and people were like, “We like Other Andy!” And he was like, “Well, do you have to call him Other Andy? Can’t we call him Black Andy?” [Gasps.] “How dare you! We don’t like you anymore, Andy!” So people just started loving my character.

Curb Your Enthusiasm (2011)—“Customer #1”

CY: Ah! Customer #1, which… I ended up probably being, I think, Customer #2, really. Because there was one woman ahead of me.

AVC: Are you suggesting that IMDB has given me false information?

CY: [Laughs.] Yeah, you can’t always trust IMDB. This was the “chat and cut” episode, where Larry had this technique of getting in line and chatting, but then cutting the line while he’s chatting and being able to get to the bank earlier, or if you’re in a line for a buffet, you’re able to get cheese earlier than everyone. You just pretend like you’re talking, and then you just cut in line.

I was hip to that. We’re at Pinkberry, and he and Jeff Garlin’s character—his manager at the time—were doing a little chat and cut. And I said, “Uh-uh. Uh-uh, I know what you’re doing. You’re doing the C&C. You’re doing the chat and cut. You’re not doing that here.” And the whole place of Pinkberry yells at him and makes him feel like… Larry. [Laughs.]

I enjoyed working with Larry. That was fun. You know, Reno 911! was an improvised show, but the way the Curb Your Enthusiasm people did it was a little differently. They’d give you a slip of paper, you’d read it—what you are, what the situation is—and then you’d go in. With Reno, we would ask the auditioners, “Are you a perp or are you a victim?” And then you’d choose, “Okay, yeah, I want to be a perpetrator here.” “Okay, so what did you do?” “I… got caught masturbating on an elevator.” “Okay! And… go!” That was all we needed, and you’d be off. But Larry’s improv was, uh, a little more structured than ours. [Laughs.]

The Goldbergs (2013-present)—“Vic”

Photo courtesy of Cedric Yarbrough

CY: I worked with Jeff [Garlin] on Curb and then on The Goldbergs. You never know, ABC might let me go back and work with Jeff again. I wouldn’t mind donning the Jheri curl again, though, for that show.

AVC: You say that like going the Jheri curl route isn’t necessarily your favorite experience.

CY: No, I asked about it the first day! I went in, auditioned, and booked it, and then the first day I went in and on set, I asked them, “Can I please—please!—have a Jheri curl for this show?” And they said, “You know what? Yeah! Yes, you can!” And it was a dream of mine that came true, because we weren’t allowed to have ’em growing up in the ’80s. My mother specifically told us. [Laughs.] We asked. Me and my brother, my younger brother by three years, we asked her, “Can we get Jheri curls?” She’s, like, “Okay, you can either eat or you can have a Jheri curl.” And of course we choose the Jheri curl.

AVC: Oh, really?

CY: Yeah! We’re kids. We’re dumb. We want the Jheri curl! And she’s, like, “You know what? You’re idiots.” [Laughs.] “You’re going to eat. I posed to you that question, and you still choose wrong. No, you’re gonna get food. That’s what you’re gonna get.” I guess Jheri curls were very expensive, so we never had them. So I got my childhood dream to come true by wearing my Jheri curl on The Goldbergs.

Black Dynamite (2009)—“Chocolate Giddy-Up”

CY: What a fun film and TV show that was. Michael Jai White had been a fan of my work from Reno 911!, and I’d been a fan of his forever, all the things he’s done, and he wanted to have a meeting with me. So we met at his place, and he showed me this idea, Black Dynamite, this super amazing dude, and I was, like, “Wow! This is bananas!” He said, “I want you to be a part of this movie. I don’t know how we’re going to get it done, but we’re gonna get this thing done.”

A couple of years later, a script comes in. He said, “Here are the pimps. You have your choice of which one you want to be.” I said, “I hope no one has chosen Chocolate Giddy-Up, because I have got to be that guy. Whatever that is!” We didn’t have a character. We just had a name.

AVC: Did you have any say in your wardrobe?

CY: No, I just showed up and they had the pink cowboy hat and this outfit, and I was, like, “Okay, that’s who that is, I guess, and we’ll figure it out!” So that’s what we did. They showed me the costume, I put it on, and we were shooting that day, so we just kind of worked with it. A lot of it was improvised. I’d be, like, “Michael, do you mind me just kind of going a little bit?” And he said, “Yeah! Do it!” It was really a cool dream come true, because we had Arsenio Hall, we had Captain Kangaroo Pimp, in the room. It was an amazing day we had.

I always thought Black Dynamite would’ve done better. I don’t think enough people realize how great that parody of blaxploitation films was. Much like in the vein of Airplane! or Police Squad, it didn’t make fun of the era, it showed love for it, and it had a really good reverence for that era. It’s so genuine in the way it looks, the way we dressed, and the way it sounded. The music for it was so good.

The Boss (2016)—“Tito”

CY: Oh, yes! Tito was an opportunistic kiss-ass. [Laughs.] Oh, man, that was another fun, improvised part that I was able to do. But Melissa [McCarthy] and I just kind of rolled with it. Tito’s this guy who just loves her to death. He’s very kiss-ass-y, but he’s not really her friend. He’s just kissing her ass to make the money. And he’s got a weird relationship with Claire. He doesn’t like her either! But, yeah, it was so much fun. You know, you bring these roles up, and I’m, like, “Wow, I’ve really gotten a chance to work with some great people who’ve given me a chance to mess around.”

The Bernie Mac Show (2004)—“Monroe”

CY: That was such a fun week for me. Niecy Nash was playing Bernie’s sister, and this character Monroe was a suitor, and he ends up marrying her on the show. [Adds a twang to his voice.] And he’s this country-western kind of guy who is also a singer-songwriter kind of a person, but he’s got no kind of career—at all. He actually works at a stereophonic stereo store, but he has aspirations to be a singer of some sort. But Bernie was so cool and so generous that I just thought, “If I ever get to have a show of my own, I will be that way, the way he is with me.”

He didn’t know me from anything, but he never felt threatened; he never felt like I was trying to get bigger laughs than him. He would invite me over to his dressing room. We would talk—and this was when he was pretty sick, too. But he always had time for people. He loved to have them in his dressing room and talk to them about anything and everything. And when we talked, he said, “You know, I’m here every day. It’s called The Bernie Mac Show. So when you come in and do what you’re doing”—because I was doing a lot of improv—“it’s only helping my show, and I appreciate you coming in here and making it funny. Make the show funny! That’s what matters!” A lot of times you work with people who are pretty big, and they feel threatened, but he never felt like that. And I vowed that if I ever got a television show, that’s how I would want the show to be run. No one’s getting yelled at on set, and it’s very generous. It’s a welcoming place for everyone to play.

But Bernie, man, was the coolest millionaire I ever met. [Laughs.] Him and Dustin Hoffman. Those two are, like, the coolest rich people I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with.

Meet The Fockers (2004)—“Prison Guard”

CY: I worked with Dustin Hoffman when I did Meet The Fockers. I worked on there for two days. I played a guard on that. The first day, [Robert] De Niro was extremely quiet. The second day, I couldn’t shut him up. He was so cool. We talked for a long, long time about kids and his family and acting. But with Dustin Hoffman, it was, like, right away he was the grandfather I never had. He was fucking around with me while we’re getting ready to do a take. He’s pinching me! I’m, like, “Oh, god, okay, I’m about to do my lines, and Dustin Hoffman’s doing a bit.” But that was another very cool experience about how to handle yourself on set, and to watch these legends having such a good time, really enjoying working together, and having the genuine respect from the people that they’re working around and with.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015)—“Calvin Young”

AVC: You got to sing on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

CY: Well, I improvised that, too. I watched that show, and I’m like, “I’m going to be singing on this show. There’s no way that you’re not going to let me.” But they didn’t have a song for me, so I improvised that. And luckily they kept it. [Laughs.] They didn’t have to keep it. But they did.

The Boondocks (2005-14)—“Tom DuBois”

CY: The Boondocks, that’s an interesting story. I was a fan of the comic strip, and I thought they were making a live-action version of it, so I went out on an audition, and I had on a suit like Tom DuBois does in the comic strip, but while I was there for the audition, no one was looking at me in the audition room. Little did I know that they were just trying to hear my voice for what they wanted. Luckily I got the callback, and that’s when it was, like, “Oh, they’re doing an animated series!” So I got that, and history was made. That was an amazing show, and I wish it was back right now so we could have a little balance in the order of things right now, hearing what that family might think about the current administration and the race for the next administration.

AVC: Were you at all aware at the time of the kerfuffle with Aaron McGruder and his absence from the last season of the show?

CY: I was definitely a part of that little fiasco. That was… something. Because our roles were also being auditioned for! There was some stuff that was going on with Sony, and I don’t know if it ever got worked out, but that’s one of the reasons why it was our last season. I wish things had worked out better. It would’ve been nice to keep that series going. But it’s gone.

Justice League: Crisis On Two Earths (2010)—“Black Lightning/Firestorm”
BoJack Horseman (2014-16)—“Officer Meow Meow Fuzzyface”
Batman Unlimited: Monster Mayhem (2015)—“Dr. Silas Stone”
Justice League: Throne Of Atlantis (2015)—“Sub Technician/Thug”

CY: Something that’s been really great is that I’ve been able to balance the on-camera stuff with a bunch of this animation stuff. I’ve done some DC things, and I’ve also done some Marvel things here and there, along with some video games. Growing up as an actor, you always want to be employed, and that’s the key: Learn as much as you possibly can and be a quadruple threat if you can.

Comedy Bang! Bang! (2013-16)—“Steve Smiley”

CY: Steve Smiley! Yeah! I was looking at a football player for the Denver Broncos, and I can’t remember his name, but he’s now a commentator, and he has such difficulty speaking sometimes. His lips don’t wrap around his teeth. It’s hard for him to speak. So I tried to pattern my lip flap and my vocal pattern after this guy, and they liked what I was doing, so we went ahead with it. That’s such a fun show to do. I love those kinds of shows where it’s, like, “We’ve got a barn. Let’s put on a show!”

Reno 911! (2003-09)/Reno 911!: Miami (2007)—“Deputy S. Jones”

CY: It was supposed to be for Fox, and they hated it. [Laughs.] They didn’t like the show. Well, actually, it was a sketch comedy show called Ugly Americans. They thought it was too similar to Mad TV, so we scrapped that idea and thought, “Let’s do a show like Cops, but the cops are just as inept as the criminals.” We were, like, “Saturday night: 8 p.m. Cops; 9 p.m., Reno 911! It’ll be the perfect marriage!” And Fox was, like, “No, we don’t like it.” So it sat on the shelf for two years, and then Comedy Central miraculously picked it up. Back in those days, networks let go of shows like that. They don’t really do that anymore.

AVC: So how did Ugly Americans come together, then?

CY: Well, like I said, it was a sketch comedy show, so I came in with characters. I had an Aaron Neville character. [Laughs.] I had this Baby Gap vest, because Aaron Neville wears his clothes very tight; I had a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup that I put on my head for his mole; and I sang a lot of Aaron Neville songs.

And they were, like, “Yeah, he’s a nut like us. Let’s bring him along!” So they cast me, but then that show, they just didn’t like it very much. But we still had a really great cast, so we tried to come up with a great concept that we’d all enjoy, and that was Reno 911! It didn’t go anywhere except the shelf for two years, and we all went away and did other things with our lives, but then I get a call one day from Tom Lennon, and he’s, like, “Comedy Central might want to do the show, so we’re gonna redo the pilot. Are you in?” I’m, like, “Yes, I am. I’m definitely down to do that!” And we did six great seasons and a movie, we had a lot of fun, and we ran around the worst parts of Los Angeles that we could find, to make it look like Reno.

Maybe there’ll be a reunion of some sort. It’d be kind of nice to do kind of a True Detective-type thing where there’s one case that we just keep bumbling. But it’s so fun when you look back at that show, because so many of our guest stars have gone on to amazing things. Jonah Hill, Paul Rudd, Keegan-Michael Key, Nick Swardson, Zach Galifianakis… the list goes on and on. So it’d be nice to bring the show back and just bring back everybody who was a guest star.

AVC: Hey, if they can do it with Wet Hot American Summer

CY: Then why not us? But let’s not wait that long, though. I mean, I can’t run like I used to. [Laughs.] That’s another thing: They always had me running on that show. They always had me chasing people. If my guy has a desk job now, that’d be great.

Beverly Hills Chihuahua 3: Viva La Fiesta! (2012)—“Hollis”

CY: Oh, wow.

AVC: There doesn’t have to be a story. It’s just, y’know, a credit like that begs to be asked about.

CY: Well, there is one. Do you remember the actor’s name who played Uncle Phil on The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air?

AVC: James Avery.

CY: James Avery! So the only little story is that James Avery and I were up for the same role in Beverly Hills Chihuahua 3. I go in, I audition, and the director and other guys are laughing and enjoying themselves and having a good time. And I come out, and James Avery is going [stone-faced]. “Well, I guess you booked that one. I guess that one’s yours.” I was, like, “Oh, man.” And those were the first and last words I ever spoke to James Avery.