Actor and stand-up comedian Mike Epps is one of our funniest and favorite guys whose been making us laugh for a long time. But behind the laughter is a story of pain, poverty and possibly a life in prison. In just a few hours before Epps kicks off this long-awaited book tour in lower Manhattan’s Strand Book Store, he gets serious with EBONY.com contributor Dr. “Tea” Traci E. Alexander in his first sit-down interview to discuss racism, poverty, jail, and all the many mess-ups that he has experienced along his journey from a small town in Indianapolis, Indiana to Hollywood, unscripted and unapologetically told in his new book, Unsuccessful Thug; One Comedian’s Journey from Naptown to Tinseltown.
EBONY: What is an unsuccessful thug?
Epps: I came up with “unsuccessful thug” because I was unsuccessful at it. I tried many different jobs but could not hold [one] down, and my environment was a place that introduced me to a lot of different things. There were not a lot a great role models in my neighborhood.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana. It is known as Naptown, which was just like many ghettos that were once nice neighborhoods, but times changed.
I had the opportunity to read your book, and I must thank you for being so honest and sharing your journey. I appreciate how you describe growing up in Naptown, which was a struggle. I see your mother, a woman who helped raise her 10 siblings, who had to hold it down, and then comes you and your brother Chaney. Tell me about you and your little brother Chaney. The two of you are both a hot mess!
Chaney is one of my seven brothers but he is right up under me, so you know when you have a bunch of brother and sisters, it is either the one up under you or the one right over you, and when you are the one in the middle you kinda share everything with the one that is closest to you. That was me and Chaney. We had a special bond because we were both right in the middle.
But that bond also kept you two in trouble. For example, the teachers would often call your mother [about you]. I appreciate your honesty about getting in trouble to get a pair of Jordans and sometimes to make ends meet.
When I was young, [I had] a teacher named Ms. Sierra who tried to get my mother to put me on Ritalin, but my mother would not let them do it–at first. When they did try, they stopped giving it to me because I outsmarted them. I would act like I was taking it [when] I wasn’t. So I was still who I was, and they just said, “This dude is crazy because he is on meds and nothing is calming him down.” I started thinking about it: When you eat three, four bowls of Cap’n Crunch cereal before you go to school, you are going to be jumping off the walls.
You were in a predominately White school?
I went to an all-Black school until the segregation came, then with the bussing I went to a White school as a teenager. Indianapolis is a segregated city. People on the East Coast and on the West Coast have opportunities to meet all different cultures of people, but when it is just Black and White it is hard because you really feel it. When you are Black in a segregated city like Indianapolis that is predominately White, you cannot share that struggle with no other race. You are the only one. It is either Black or White, so whatever came on the Black side I felt.
When you are on the stage, it is almost like you are fearless. It is like you are Superman, but you talk about the pain. How do you use the pain to make people laugh?
It is therapy for me to be able to talk about something that I am in pain about and [have] you laughing about it. If I can make you laugh about my pain, it makes it easier for me to deal with. You do not know if I am telling the truth or not, it is a joke. But when the laughs stop, it is back to reality for me.
You write in the book, “This is what Richard Pryor knew: Comedy comes from pain, and the more pain you fought through, the funnier you can be.” I bring this up because you talk about being that unsuccessful thug when you were young and how you spent some time in jail. What was that experience like?
If you walk through some of these jails or correctional facilities in America, you will see all kinds of children and young guys in there that have no business being in there. Because for a long time, jail became a badge of honor for young Black men in the ghetto. We had to find a way to glorify our failure; we had to glorify the fact that we had been gone. We glorify that by our stories, our look, lifting weights, looking good and coming home. It was something special about that in the ‘hood to young Black men.
I call it the seduction factor when we look at the man with the big house or the cars . . . and think they are the heroes. But somebody said that you did not belong in jail.
It was a guy named Swift from Indianapolis. He was a career criminal who used to rob everybody. He caught me and said, “I am going to take your shit now.” I said Swift you are the OG and I love you. He said, “He was going to take my shit, but added, “I am going to trade you with something that you are going to need and that will last you for the rest of your life.” He then said, “You got to be born with this. These streets ain’t for you.”
That is a jewel right there.
I [didn’t] understand what he meant, but I figured it out. You cannot tell a false story in your life. You can’t make up something. You have to actually and literally go through it. You have to live it.
That is the grit that you talk about in your book, the grit that you have to have when you get up on that stage. The harder we laugh, the deeper the pain. It is almost like Swift saved your life.
He did. He was one of many who said something that stuck. Something I realize about kids is that you think they don’t listen. They listen, but they store it and it always shows up in their darkest moments. All the teachings they collect in their life, all the things they heard their mama tell them [was right or wrong] shows up in their darkest moments.
This gets me to your success. You were not driven by a career to be a successful actor. You were driven by survival.
It is about survival. Having low self- esteem, having been through hardships, humbles you in a way where you can never be on a power trip because you never have room for one. Struggle will not allow you to power trip.
In the book, you talk about forgiveness. You say, “The good news is that one sin is not bigger than the other. Forgiveness is a powerful thing, to be able to live with yourself through forgiveness is a strength. It is something that you have to go through and work out just like a muscle in the gym.” You have been through something to write about that. Forgiveness is what this book is all about.
After we exchanged a deep hug, Epps and his team exited our makeshift interview room upstairs in one of the Strand offices to greet a packed room of book readers–of all ages and ethnicities–waiting to hear how the seriously funny man became the “unsuccessful thug.”