Making it in show business can be extremely difficult, especially when you spend your days standing across from a mustachioed cop in booty shorts who has a crush on you. But Cedric Yarbrough loves his role as Deputy S. Jones on Comedy Central’s Reno 911, perhaps because it beats his old job making color copies at Kinko’s. Yarbrough recently checked in with us to talk to us about doing improv comedy, working with Judd Apatow and dealing with Thomas Lennon’s man-crush.
Where are you originally from and where do you call home now?
I’m originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota and I reside now in Los Angeles, California.
How exactly did you get into acting, and when did you decide this is what you wanted to do for a living?
I got into acting right when I got into a community college. I played sports in high school. I wasn’t very good, so I ended up going to a community college in Minneapolis and they didn’t have any sports there. I needed to do something with my time and acting always intrigued me, so I started taking acting classes there. Then I ended up transferring to Minnesota State University and became a theatre major. That’s when I got hooked.
Once you made the decision, how tough was it to break into the business?
Right after college, I got in to some local theatre there and that was fairly easy. Maybe it was because of the talent pool, maybe it was because they needed a tall black guy, whatever it was, it was easy for me to break into the Minneapolis theatre community. But once I moved out of Minneapolis and moved to L.A., it was pretty difficult. Even though I got a fair amount of success when I moved here, it still proved to be pretty difficult.
When I moved here July 4, 2000, the show Reno didn’t air until two or three years later. So I hustled and bustled and waited a lot of tables and due to the success of Reno, it’s provided me with some opportunities to do other TV shows and other films.
Was there ever a point where you thought about giving it up or did you have enough success early on to carry you until you got Reno 911?
Oh yeah, I think about giving it up every day. It’s still difficult. There are still things that happen – there are a couple of disappoints I’ve had this week where I was up for a couple of roles and I didn’t get them. It’s still a grind, it’s still difficult, but I really love doing what I do. I’m also really crappy at everything else I do, so this is it. This is it for me.
I really do like it and, being a theatre guy, I think I’ve gone through my paces and I’ve worked the ropes quite a bit, but this is something I really like to do and it is fun. It’s a great thing to do, especially the genre of acting that I’ve been able to work on – improv acting and funny guy acting is really fun. It’s a fun process. I don’t have to cry a lot. Even though on Reno, I do cry a lot, but it’s funny crying.
You had a brief, but fun cameo in The 40 Year Old Virgin. How much fun was it to do that scene at the health clinic?
It was great; it was amazing. It was fun, really fun. I didn’t know too much about what was required of me. I auditioned originally for the store manager role. The store manager role was named Paul and they changed the role after the saw Ms. Lynch come in and blow me out of the water. So they changed the role to Paula. But they still had me in mind; they still liked me and liked my audition and thought I worked well with Steve [Carell] when I came in and auditioned.
So, I think I was working on Reno or something else at the time, they called and asked, “Could you come in and do this dad role for us? Come in and play with Dave Koechner and Steve.” And I was like, “Yeah. Of course, I’d love to.” It was fun, it was all improvised. Steve is one of the best guys in Hollywood – a real cool dude. It’s weird to say, but sometimes that is hard to find. A lot of guys out here aren’t as giving and as smart as he is. I think that is also one of the reasons why he is so successful. Judd and Steve are really funny and smart.
Judd Apatow tends to like to use the same guys over and over again in his projects. Do you think he will be using you more in the future?
Yeah, he does tend to use the same guys. He produced Drillbit Taylor, an Owen Wilson film, and he put me in that. And I just did a table read with Judd Apatow for a new film called Funny People with Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler. And I’m not sure if I’ll be doing that film, but I know he keeps me in mind. I know he’s a guy who we like to make fun of each other. I think I’m one of his guys in his repertoire, which is a good group – Jonah and Paul Rudd and Seth and all those guys.
We have actually had the pleasure of interviewing Jonah Hill. It’s interesting because both of you have small parts in The 40 Year Old Virgin, but you both manage to give memorable performances. Your delivery of the line, “My daughter is, for lack of a better word … dumb,” is perfect.
With Judd, it’s cool because he really likes words. He’s really into dialogue. And if you can come up with something, he’s all about it. He encourages it. What’s cool about Judd too is that even the smaller roles, he doesn’t just give them to anybody. He gives them to actors that he really trusts. Yeah, we could probably do a lot more than “Guy holding goldfish in heels” or “Father in Planned Parenthood scene,” but he really likes comic actors and he won’t just give those smaller roles to anybody. He gives them to people that he really, really likes.
You are probably best known for your role as Deputy S. Jones on Reno 911. How did you get cast in that show and how was the show described to you initially? With so much of the show being improv, was there a clear direction in the beginning or was there a lot of room for you to develop your character and to help shape the direction of the show?
As I said before, I moved to L.A. July of 2000 and I met up with Tom Lennon, Ben Garant and Kerri Kenney-Silver in October of that year. And they were auditioning for funny people, comedic actors good with sketch comedy for a new show called Ugly Americans and it was supposed to be produced by Fox. I went in, auditioned and did a bunch of stuff. They really liked what I did. Shortly after that, they got a group of us together, we tested, were all approved and we were going to do this sketch comedy show.
Well, I guess the note was that it was a little too much like Mad TV and they already had Mad TV, so they wanted to go in a different direction. I think we still had some money left and we still had Beth McCarthy-Miller, the director, she used to direct SNL back in the 90s and early 2000. She was still slated to direct this pilot for us.
So I believe it was Tom who came up with this idea of, “Since they don’t like that idea, let’s do a show like Cops where the police officers are just as crazy and weird and ridiculous as the criminals. Why don’t you all go home, write your character, come up with ideas and storylines and backgrounds and all that, do your homework and come back and we’ll work it out.” So that’s basically what happened; it was birthed out of we still had money, so let’s come up with something else. It’s funny because he thought, “They have Cops at eight o’clock, why not have a show like Reno 911 at 8:30 on Saturday nights?”
The pilot, I thought it was really funny, but Fox apparently didn’t and it sat on the shelf for a couple of years and I think it was Jim Sharp at Comedy Central asked Tom and Ben and Kerri, “Do you guys have anything in the works or any pilots that you did?” because they still had a relationship with Jim Sharp from their Viva Variety days and they said, “Yeah, we have this show called Reno 911. What do you think about it?” And away we went.
How much of the show is scripted and how much of it is improvised?
A lot of it is improvised. You’d be shocked at how much is improvised. We are. It’s scripted in that there is a very, very loose synopsis of what we hope will happen or what the scene is kinda, sorta about, but everything else, all of the dialogue is improvised and a lot of the plot is improvised. A lot of times we’ll come up with something on the spot or we’ll say, “Okay, that’s probably the point of this whole arc of this show or this episode or this scene.” But yeah, it’s I would say 90 percent improvised. A lot of people don’t know how much improvisation goes into this show.
Does a lot end up on the cutting room floor or have you all gotten to a point where you know what you need to do to make it work?
Yeah, tons of it is still on the cutting room floor. Not as much as it used to be. We’ve all kind of gotten the formula of the show. With the first season, we were all kind of floundering and trying to figure out what this show is. We knew we could make some funny stuff up, but to get the exact tone of it was a little difficult. It took a couple of seasons, I think.
Now a lot of it is you set somebody up and you know where they are going to go; you don’t know exactly what they are going to say, but you know that they’ve got something going in their brain so you set them up and they do the same. It’s a great, great job. You play cops and robbers and you fuck around with your friends all day. You crack each other up. It’s fun, it’s a fun improvised show and it’s a great opportunity, especially because not many actors get to basically write their show. I don’t really know too many – I don’t know if there are really any shows right now that do that. I know that there have been copycat shows that have tried this formula a little bit, but none I think have been as successful or really do it the way that we’ve done it.
How tough is it to do a scene with Thomas Lennon while he is wearing those ridiculous shorts?
It’s not difficult anymore. It’s painful and disgusting, but I look past it now. I feel for him because he has to wear that shit all day and night. But my sympathy only goes so far because he wrote it – he chose to write this character wearing short shorts. So he only has himself to blame.
It’s never been mentioned on the show – what does the “S” in Deputy S. Jones stand for?
I don’t know if that will ever be revealed. I know I have revealed it and I know it has been on the cutting room floor. Maybe it will be revealed in later seasons or maybe it will be revealed in, we have a new cut of the Reno 911: Miami movie and maybe it will be revealed then. But I’m not sure. It’s always been a secret, but it was never meant to be and now it’s just a secret. (Laughs.) It was funny – I saw it on the first season “Deputy S. Jones” and I’m like, “I know my first name, but they haven’t revealed it. That’s weird.” So now it’s this ongoing joke.
Out of the reoccurring characters the Reno sheriff’s department encounters, do you have a favorite?
Some of my favorites – I like Jim Rash who plays Andrew, the guy who is always doing something really, really graphic and awful either in the brothel or in the strip club. He’s put dildos on his forehead, he’s asked the strippers to wash their hands and he doesn’t believe they have washed their hands; he does always weird, weird things. Jim Rash is really funny – he’s one guy who comes out of The Groundlings. He teaches improv there too; he’s really hilarious.
Of course, Nick Swardson is a fellow Minnesotan. He’s another really funny guy who plays Terry. He’s really, really funny – always comes up with warped things. But the thing about Nick is he laughs at himself more than anybody. (Laughs.) He laughs at his own jokes all the time. It’s funny because a show like this is improvised and you don’t know what people are going to say, but you try to hold it together. Nick doesn’t even try to hold it together anymore. He just laughs at himself.
Is it to the point where he is ruining scenes?
There are times when you just have to shoot it again. Or we also have a great camera guy named Joe who will see Nick ready to break up and then just go over to the person who isn’t laughing. That way it won’t ruin the whole scene. But yeah, Nick is great.
But that’s the thing about this show – we’ve really been blessed because it has been such a happy accident with it not being picked up by Fox and then it being picked up by Comedy Central and then with us not really having a script and just improvising it and somehow still pulling off a good show. Then, finding great guest stars that get our sensibility, get the tone of the show and can somehow get into our world. It’s a pleasure; it’s a blessing that we’ve gotten such great people that really get what the hell we’re doing even though sometimes we don’t even know what we’re doing.
Reno 911 has been on for five years. How long do you see the show continuing? Do you think you can all continue to come up with ideas or do you think there will be a point where you will run out of things to do?
Yeah, people have been concerned about that since the first episode. A lot of people said, “It’s funny, but it doesn’t have a long lifespan.” This thing can go years and years and years. If you watch the show Cops, it’s still hilarious, it’s still hysterical and that thing’s been running almost 20 years now.
This has that type of shelf life especially now because I believe the shows are becoming even better. We know the tone of the show; we get what works and what doesn’t and what the audience wants. We hear what people want to see on the show. So I think this show can last as long as everyone’s happy, but not because of content or because of running out of ideas. I think there are ample amount of ideas.
Do you think you will do any more Reno 911 movies?
There has been talk about that. I don’t know how serious it is, but there has been talk about it. I’m not sure, I don’t know. We’ll see what the future holds and what the powers that be want to do with the franchise here now. But I have heard rumblings about it. We’ll see.
Has the show ever helped you get out of parking tickets or anything like that?
Yeah, it’s a pretty damn cool thing. The perks are pretty damn nice. I’ve been pulled over a couple of times and get the old, “You’re that black son of a bitch from Reno 911, aren’t you?” I’m like, “Well, yes I am.” “Go ahead, get on outta here. Keep drunk driving.”
I’m driving right now and in L.A., we have a hands-free law where you get ticketed if you’re on your cell phone, not a hands-free device. Actually holding the phone up to your head and speaking and driving is illegal now. But I’m doing it because I have no fear.
Plus those Bluetooth headsets make you look like a douchebag.
Really, yeah. We’re not in the future. We’re in the present right now. They look ridiculous.
We think it’s worth breaking the law and wrecking your car to look cool while driving.
Damn it, I’m going to hold my phone to my head.
The way God intended it.
Well, I don’t know if it’s the way God intended it, but cancer be damned, I’m going to put the damn phone to my head.
You are a rebel. That’s what makes you so cool.
From your lips to God’s ears.
What goals have you set for your career? What would you like to see yourself accomplish in the future?
I want to be able to do more films. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to do some really cool and some funny ones – Meet the Fockers and like you said, 40 Year Old Virgin and Get Smart. I’ve got a couple more films coming out. So I’d like to be able to do more film, more comedic acting. Hopefully that will happen. And with the success of the Reno show and the other films that I’ve done, it seems like that can happen.
Also, I have another show called The Boondocks, an animated series. I’ve been able to do some cartoon work too. That’s also been kind of a dream of mine and that’s fun to do.
What would you be doing for a living if you never got in to acting?
Oh man, if I never got into acting, I’d probably still be working at Kinko’s in Minneapolis, as sad as that sounds. That was one of the worst jobs I ever had. (Laughs.)
Would you at least be the manager of the Kinko’s at this point?
I think I’d still be on the color copier. I don’t think I would have any ambition to manage that place. No way. People go in there and they are so depressed and angry and mad and if you don’t get their copies right, they are going to kill you. And that’s where I’d probably be.
Now my dream job if I wasn’t acting maybe would be an orchestra conductor. I think that would be kind of cool.
Have you done any conducting before?
No, no. Just being in a tux and waving a stick around seems really easy. And I think they make a lot of money. I don’t know, do they?
We don’t know. But you get to be called maestro, which is pretty cool.
Yeah, that too. And I think a lot of those guys are wearing wigs, so I could pop on a white wig. That would be awesome. I think that’s a great job.
What do you do when you are not working to unwind?
When I’m not working, what do I do? Drink. Party. Watch So You Think You Can Dance?.
Aren’t actors supposed to be against reality programming? Doesn’t that take jobs away from you?
No. No, no, no, no. See, the thing is, I already have a job. So, we make fun of it. (Laughs.) I already have a job, so it doesn’t take any work from me. And So You Think You Can Dance? isn’t so much a reality show as I think a talent show, which, let’s face it, I don’t have a whole lot of. So that kind of thing, I don’t think they are taking any food off of my table. So You Think You Can Dance?, that’s fine.
Maybe shows like I Love New York, those things kind of piss me off. Like the black guys vying for New York’s attention. I could vie for her attention way better. I could act way better than what they’re doing. Come on, we all know she’s disgusting and unattractive, but you could be way more loving.
Thomas Lennon is more convincing with his love for you on Reno 911 – which may be real, who knows?
Yeah, Tom has a man-crush on me. He’s very happily married to his lovely wife – she’s beautiful, she’s gorgeous – but, let’s face it, she’s not me. (Laughs.) She doesn’t have what I have.
As you mentioned above, all of you helped build the show and got to create your own characters. So do you think that with Dangle’s attraction to Jones, perhaps Reno 911 was really just an elaborate scheme Thomas Lennon concocted to try to date you that ended up turning into a show?
No comment. You said it, man. I’m glad someone finally said it.
It’s nice that you can finally talk about it because it must have been very difficult for you.
I’m not sure I can talk about it. That’s why the “no comment.”
Tell us something not many people know about you.
Most people don’t know that I’m a huge nerd. I have a real cool exterior, but inside lurks a total dweeb. Not in a collecting figurines kind of way, but in a book nerd, I love reading and movies. I still get really, really excited when I see a naked woman.
As you should.
As I should. Red-blooded American boy, but I’m a man now and to be extremely giddy and giggly isn’t probably the coolest thing.
But if you ever get to the point where you see a naked woman and are like, “Eh, whatever,” that’s when you really have a problem.
Definitely, definitely. But there should definitely be a middle ground between “tee-hee-hee-hee” and “I don’t fucking care.”
What does the future hold for you?
The future. Hopefully more work. Hopefully good health and keep working in the industry. This is a town where it’s very difficult. One percent of actors actually act out here and I’ve been blessed that I’m part of that one percent. This work has afforded me a fun, fun life and I’ve been able to help out my family out in Minneapolis, so hopefully it will keep going and I can keep this 15 minutes going for another 15 minutes.
If not, do you think Kinko’s would take you back?
At this point, I don’t think they would. They probably wouldn’t. That and I waited tables at Buca di Beppo as well. That was bad. I was so bad that they put me on a Saturday morning shift at an Italian restaurant. Who wants pasta in the morning on a Saturday? No one. That’s how bad I was. I don’t think I would be able to retain any of my old jobs.
Then you better make this acting thing work.
I better fucking work it, shouldn’t I?
So last chance, can you tell us what the “S” stands for?
Yeah, I’d like to, but the powers that be, Tom Lennon, won’t let me reveal it yet.
Do you think that is another way he is trying to possess you?
Ownership? So maybe “S” stands for slave?
This interview has gone really awry. It went off the tracks a long time ago.
It’s probably best if we just end things here.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy, August 2008. Reno 911 airs on Comedy Central; The Boondocks is part of The Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.
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