Gary Owen is coming to the Houston Improv. The comic, veteran and co-star of big-screen hits like Daddy Day Care and Get Hard, has been smiling and telling jokes since 1997, right after he exited the Navy. In fact, Owen’s smile was well known during his service. “Everybody always told me I was funny,” Owen says. “You get these jackets when you’re in Honor Guard and they put a nickname on the jacket, only you don’t know the nickname until you see it. When I was presented my jacket, it said ‘Smiley’ on it, because I’m a cheerful guy, I think.”
That smile served Owen well as he cut his teeth in the Southwest comedy scene, where he found success playing prominently African-American rooms. “Trying to get stage time in San Diego, I was only getting one show a week, if I’m lucky,” Owen says. “A couple of black guys I was stationed with in the Navy told about other spots, quote-unquote black spots – spots white comics wouldn’t play. But I started going! A lot of times I’d be the only white guy there, but I didn’t care – I just wanted to get onstage!”
The gambit paid off, as Owen developed a following, even being named “Black America’s Favorite White Comic” by Ebony Magazine in 2011. That turned into a relationship with Tyler Perry and BET, which will produce his upcoming self-titled series in October – a first for the network. “I’m the first white lead!” he exclaims. “I didn't realize I was until I read the write-ups. I didn’t give any thought to it.” Owen credits BET’s “aggressive interest” in the project as a green light to make the show he felt passionate about. “It made the most sense to go with BET, because that’s my audience. They didn’t have to sell me as a new talent with a new show; they just said: ‘We got a new show – you already know Gary.’”
Reflecting back, Owen wagers that being himself onstage was vital to finding fans. “Here’s what I learned: At that time, the only things on TV were Def Jam and Showtime at the Apollo,” Owen says. “People made assumptions that black audiences were rowdy and booed all the time, and that’s not true — they just wanted you to be funny. I’d see white guys go up at the black rooms and they wouldn’t be themselves; they’d become a character onstage. Black audiences saw right through that. I’ve always just been me onstage and they’ve embraced it.”
After nearly two decades slinging jokes, Owen still finds himself inspired by the fellow funny folks. This year, Owen’s Think Like A Man Too co-star Kevin Hart was named the highest-paid comic of 2016, raking in more than $87 million, topping perennial list topper Jerry Seinfeld for the first time in a decade. “The biggest difference since Kevin became the richest comic on earth is now, he’ll spring for the lattes when we’re together!” Owen quips, busting a gut. “Kevin deserves it; he works so hard. And Wendy Williams said it best: ‘The difference between Kevin’s 87 million and Seinfeld’s 40 million, is Seinfeld’s getting his by sitting on a couch.’ To make what Kevin’s getting, you gotta work.”
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On the much-hyped PC-ification of the modern comedy audience (particularly college students, as Seinfeld himself has griped), Owen says he’s learned not to push his envelope too far. “College kids used to want to change the world; they were ‘say what you want,' freedom-of-speech [enthusiasts]. Now it seems like a lot of college kids want to be offended. They want to have a cause,” the comic wonders. “I don’t know. Maybe we’re just at a down moment.”
The Gary Owen Show, which premiered on the cable network on October 11, will offer a peek inside Owen’s real life, starring his wife, Kenya, and three children: Emilio, Austin and Kennedy. “In this time of the election and the police brutality cases, the media has the general public thinking [that] black and white people aren’t getting along, that we’re at each other’s throats. That’s not the case. We have fun with race, and we aren’t scared of it. My wife is black, my kids are mixed and we have cultural differences. My act’s been dealing with that for years.”
Unlike the current vogue of shows about comedians (as stand-ups Louis C.K., John Mulaney and Marc Maron have done recently), Owen says his series won’t go into his life onstage, but instead go directly to the source. “Eighty percent of my act is just me talking about my family,” he says. “This way, we’re bringing my comedy act to life.” But don’t expect trash TV, Owen warns. “This ain’t Love & Hip-Hop! No hairs getting pulled, no drinks getting thrown.” The only bet Owen will place is who he expects to be the breakout star. “My wife is gonna end up being like Sharon Osbourne when this airs,” he predicts. “It was Ozzy’s show, but when you watch, you saw that Sharon ran that house.”
Performances are scheduled for 8 p.m. on October 13, 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. on October 14, 7 and 9:30 p.m on October 15 and 7:30 p.m. on October 16 at 7620 Katy Freeway. For information, call 713-333-8800 or visit improvhouston.com. $40-50.