Mr. East 14th

Mr. East 14th

An Oakland-bred actor makes art from his oddball past.

The son of a pimp and stepson of a devout Jehovah’s Witness, actor and comedian Don Reed, who grew up in Oakland in the ’70s, knows from juxtaposition. His odd upbringing was the focus of his breakout 2008 show, East 14th: True Tales of a Reluctant Player. Reed’s new one-man show, The Kipling Hotel (playing at the Marsh Berkeley through July 15), picks up his life story as a UCLA student making ends meet as a waiter at a senior residence hotel. Before these forays into the confessional zone, Reed had put in many years as a stand-up and TV/movie vet. But it wasn’t until he started mining his singular past that he really started to gain the attention all performers crave. I called him in L.A., where his day job is warming up the crowd for “The Tonight Show,” to see if all the attention has gone to his head.

Paul Kilduff: Do you have to overcome some kind of big challenge to make it in show business?

Don Reed: I have found that it’s two different things. It’s either from a rough, challenged, and slightly crazy upbringing, which is my end, or from the parents [who] are super wealthy and the kid can do whatever they want, so they dive into the arts. It’s either, “Oh, my goodness, my life is insane. I don’t have any choice but to go into entertainment,” or “I think I’ll do something [as] crazy as going into entertainment.”

PK: You had no choice.

DR: I never wanted to. I did stand-up for 15, 20 years and never mentioned a word of this.

PK: Really?

DR: And then I was at NBC working on a voice-over project. And a guy said he was doing a one-man show about his Jewish family that was always on his back about what he’s going to do with his life. He said, “So, how did you grow up?” I said, “Oh, I grew up in Oakland in the ’70s and my stepfather forced me to be a Jehovah’s Witness and my father was a pimp.” He’s like, “You need to do that one-man show.”

PK: Was the show well received by people wanting to book you for stand-up gigs?

DR: I only told these stories in the backyard to friends over beers. And they would say, “You need to perform this live.” I’m like, “No, I’m not talking about this stuff on stage. Are you kidding? This is craziness.” I never cross-pollinated the two. I always did the one-man show in theater settings but I never did this work on the stand-up stage.

Christopher Titus, who was very successful with his one-person shows and had the Fox show “Titus” for a few years, did that. And comedy club owners went crazy, like “Whoa, whoa, whoa, what are you doing? People are supposed to be laughing. What’s this about your father falling down, an alcoholic, whatever?”

PK: I know a guy who dabbles with stand-up comedy. He’s a black guy from Nebraska. I remember him telling me, “I get from club owners that I don’t talk enough about black stuff on stage.” Is that something you have experienced?

DR: To clarify one thing first, there’s a black guy that was born in Nebraska?

I was introduced to performing from a completely different angle than the ’hood. And I was always trying to run from the ’hood. When I started doing stand-up, I was always doing impersonations of existing pop culture. But I did have some big walls hit me because I wasn’t being, quote unquote, black enough. I signed contracts with “In Living Color” to be a cast member and then the Fox executives said, “He’s too white. It’s not going to work out.”

And then, “Saturday Night Live,” I was down to the wire. Six guys went up to perform and two of them were David Spade and Rob Schneider. And the word that got back and, I’m not afraid to say it, was that I was too white. I was articulate but I wasn’t using any energies from my real life. Now that I do work excavating my time growing up in the ’70s in Oakland, and in the ’80s in L.A. at a retirement hotel serving breakfast to the elderly—because being a stripper didn’t work out too well—I see what they meant, in some respects.

PK: So, maybe if you had been doing that, you would have been on “In Living Color” or “Saturday Night Live” 20-some years ago.

DR: I can virtually assure that if I was doing [the character] Trout Mouth (the pimp from East 14th) or George (the old Jewish guy from The Kipling Hotel), I would have been on the show automatically.

PK: So, you have regrets about that?

DR: No, I don’t. Because if I’d done them in those forms then they would have been kind of piecemeal, just little peeks at those people. Whereas, when I do the one-person shows, not only do I get to do them in their full sculpt but their real sculpt. The language, every element is unfiltered. And I also still own the characters. Whereas if you do something with “Saturday Night Live,” whatever you bring to the show, NBC or whatever owns it into perpetuity. But now I’m able to present these characters for as long as I would like. The difference between stand-up and one-man shows is stand-up has an expiration date on it. And theater pieces, I could have done them 10 years ago. I could do them 10 years from now.

PK: Don, what would have happened to you if you were to walk down East 14th Street, or International Boulevard, as it’s known today?

DR: Absolutely nothing. [But] I cannot bring myself to say that other street name.

PK: International Boulevard, is that too PC for you?

DR: Yeah. It’s East 14th. It’s not that other thing that starts with an “I.”

PK: If you really examine what pimps do and the taking advantage of women, I don’t support that. Yeah, it’s colorful, but that’s where my support for that sort of ends.

DR: There are many different kinds of pimps. Gorilla pimps rule through physical abuse and controlling with drugs. And then there are so many others. [My father’s] style was more like a madam/middleman to a bunch of traveling truckers and women who were established call girls and lived in their apartments. So my father was the interlinking piece, and it’s totally not legal, but he didn’t have anything to do [with] recruiting or corralling. And thank God, his whole goal was, “You’re not doing anything to do with what I’m doing. You’re going to be going to college.” And he woke me up every morning and said those exact words. “You ready to go to college?”


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DON REED Vital Stats

Age: 52

Birthplace: Oakland

Astrological sign: Sagittarius

First real job: Teamsters stockman, Montgomery Ward, age 16

Last real job: Waiter, age 27

Motto: You don’t have to rehearse the truth.

Book on nightstand: Six to Five Against: A Gambler’s Odyssey, by Burt Dragin



Faces of the East Bay