Airplane jokes are a standard part of any comic’s set. And sometimes, says Sinbad, they write themselves.
Last week while on a flight from a gig in Jacksonville, Fla., Sinbad’s plane got downed by a flock of angry birds — six turkey buzzards at 3,000 feet.
“They blew the engine out,” he says by phone from his home in Los Angeles. The plane returned to Jacksonville, where it sat on the runway for 45 minutes. And then black storm clouds rolled in, grounding flights for the rest of the evening.
“I was thinking, Maybe I’m not supposed to go to Mississippi,” says the actor and comedian, whose given name is David Adkins. “It’s the first time I had to cancel a show because of an act of God.”
His trip to Winston-Salem this week to perform on the opening night of the National Black Theatre Festival, he hopes, will be less eventful.
He’s been here before — in 2001, at the suggestion of the choreographer and actor Debbie Allen and character actor Glynn Turman, one of his co-stars from the 1980s TV show “A Different World.”
“It was incredible, man,” he says.
“A Different World” — which ran on NBC from 1987 to ’93 — was a departure for Sinbad, who up to that point had only done comedy. He played Coach Oakes in the first four seasons in the sitcom built around a fictional HBCU in Virginia — a groundbreaking concept that he says never would have gotten off the ground if it weren’t for Bill Cosby, whose own TV show opened the door for shows, storylines and roles for black actors that defied easy racial stereotypes.
“Cos was the man,” he says. “Black kids in college? He orchestrated that. You don’t think the networks wanted that, do you? They never wanted to make it.”
Cosby went on trial for sexual assault last month — a mistrial was declared after a hung jury could not say with certainty that he had drugged and sexually assaulted the defendant in 2004, though dozens of other women came forward with the similar accusations. A new trial has not yet been scheduled.
But before his fall from grace, Cosby inspired a generation of black actors and paved the way for a more dignified portrayal of black folks on TV.
“Cos said, ‘I didn’t like what I was seeing [on television],’” Sinbad remembers. “’And either you’re a part of the solution or you’re a part of the problem.’
“It’s a shame that this is the thing he will be remembered for,” says Sinbad, who maintains his relationship with Cosby. “It’s a shame that this is what his legacy will be reduced to. There’s a bit of truth and a bit of falsehood to everything I’m hearing — but it’s hard for me to separate the man that I know with what he’s being accused of. It’s a hard separation for me. I can’t even begin to understand what it must be like in his mind, to go into a room and be larger than life and then be persona non grata, nobody wants you there. That’s gotta kill the spirit.”
Sinbad’s four-decade career has been free of scandal — unless you count the legions of people on the internet who swear he played a genie in a movie called Shazaam in the 1990s.
Fact: He wasn’t.
“Man, that’s funny to me,” he says of this Snopes-worthy urban legend.
Since he first came to prominence by winning the 1980s talent competition “Star Search,” he has been known as a “clean” comic, though he admits his earlier nightclub routines were pretty raw.
“Sometimes I wish I never cleaned my comedy up,” he says. “I wish I never changed it because it started to define me, and that’s the least defining thing about me. ‘Clean’ is not a compliment.”
Comedy, he says, has changed dramatically since his early days.
“The stuff we talked about, these scenarios we created in sitcoms, it got real,” he says. “Reality TV, you can’t beat that now. You got the crackhead mom, you got the Kardashians with those big, fake booties, you can’t make this stuff up. You got a president who would have been a joke in a movie — a guy who’s crazy and accidentally becomes president — but that’s what happened.”
He cites Being There, the 1979 Peter Sellers film, and Dave, a movie from 1993 that enacted a similar trope.
“The difference between those movies and what’s really happening,” he says, “is those guys had good hearts. They ended up becoming good presidents because they had good hearts.”
He remembers a perennial bit from a comic named Pat Paulson, who campaigned for president in 1968, 1972, 1980, 1988, 1992 and 1996.
“That was the funniest running gag ever,” he says. “But it’s not a joke anymore.”
On stage, clean though he may be, he does not shy away from political material.
“I don’t call it ‘political material’ anymore,” he says. “Politics has gotten woven into real life. You cannot run away from politics now. You got a president who tweets every day. We can’t look away. I don’t think we should look away. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat or a liberal — we’re at that point where the country is so divided. You meet someone and they ask who you voted for, and that directs where the conversation goes. You’re almost gonna have a hatred for someone or a dislike of someone based on who they voted for. Alternative facts. Now nothing is real; all news is fake; everybody’s lying. So what are we gonna do? If all the news is a lie, if all the media is a lie, why are you watching?
“It’s the circus, man,” he says. “We’re all like the circus.”
He says he can’t predict what he’ll say on Saturday night at the National Black Theatre Festival. He likes to wing it: pull people from the audience and bring them onstage, bring the opening act up for a back-and-forth, setup a DJ and a sax player. Sometimes he pulls out his bass.
“I call it ‘controlled insanity,’” he says. “I let my ADHD take me where it goes.
“To put it in musical terms,” he says, “I got a playlist, but sometimes we kick it to the curb.”