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The mind of DeRay Davis - unfiltered and never fake

The comedian talks about his new game show on GSN and his Chicago roots

Nina Metz

Chicago Closeup

11:08 AM EST, December 12, 2013

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The Game Show Network hopes to wring some laughs from the old standby: Men think like this; women think like that. "Mind of a Man" debuts January 8 and is hosted by stand-up comedian DeRay Davis, who told me he had to adapt his R-rated instincts for basic cable.

"It's almost like going to meet a girl's parents for the first time, every time," the Chicago native said when I reached him at home in Los Angeles. "You have to be funny and keep them entertained, but not go left."

Go left? I needed that one explained. "It's like, blue. Or outside-of-the-box. And our show is really left. We go deep."

Two women compete to see who can guess what most men are thinking in a given scenario. "The questions would be something on the level of: After making love to his wife, what do you think a man wants first? Sleep, a beer or watch TV?" A panel of three comedians then chimes in with their own ribald opinions.

Many of the comics featured are from Chicago, including Damon Williams, Corey Holcomb and Deon Cole, the latter of whom is a writer for "Conan." "I made sure I reached out to the people who were my homies, who I could alley-oop to and they're gonna dunk it. We taped 40 shows back-to-back, so we had every-damn-body on. Everybody except Jesus."

They were given free rein, Davis said, "until close to the end when people were going crazy. Everybody was going a little bit too far. So I had to let everybody know, say what you want to say, but just remember, if you want it to air, say it differently."

Though based in LA (where he is better located to land roles in films such as "21 Jump Street"), Davis still maintains a house in Chicago. "I wanted to have something just in case it all ends one day, and Hollywood's not my friend anymore."

He returns to town next week to spend the holidays with his family, including his 12-year-old daughter, Brooke. He also will headline the annual New Year's Eve comedy show at the Arie Crown Theater.

I asked if Dec. 31 shows present any unusual challenges. "Oh, yeah! People are drunk before they get there! They've already told all their jokes in the car. They got the tickets before they knew how drunk they'll be."

And what kind of material is he working on? "You never know, because I'm so off-the-cuff. But definitely my family's involved. They're in more of my act than they used to be, because now I can actually handle the lawsuits. I have a nice legal team to handle that now. Freedom of speech!"

That sounded like both a joke, and not a joke. "Let me put it this way," he said, "my act is never fake, so some of the things I say, my family is like, 'Why would you say that?' I'm like, 'Cuz it happened. You really did come to my house and try to steal the TV.' Stuff like that. It's a lot of embarrassing moments, but I feel like people are ready for it."

Davis has been upfront about his childhood, which frequently comes up in his act. "My mom's been on drugs since I was 8 years old, swear to God, so there weren't no damn holidays" goes one bit, with the punch line: "My mama told us Christmas was a rumor!"

Things with his father weren't easier. He bounced between homes in Robbins and Dolton. "I lived every-damn-where. My address was Section 8 Illinois."

He has 11 brothers and sisters and said he randomly met one of his brothers for the first time while playing a game of pick-up basketball. "I would live the least possible (amount of time) with my dad, because he lived with women. He was one of those kind of guys: 'You can't be drinking all of Diane's Pepsis! You gonna get us put out of here!'"

Most of his family is still in Chicago. "All my free tickets to the New Year's Eve show are gone. I'm already getting the calls and just organizing who can sit by who, who gets along with who, who just got out of prison. That kind of stuff."

It was a family member who inadvertently introduced Davis to comedy.

"My uncle was a bartender at a comedy club called TNT's Comedy Hook in Lansing, Ill. He was in the back and he didn't even know I was watching the comedians, but I got the passion to do it out of no where. Like, I need this. I saw a comedian on stage and I thought, I can do this."

Over the years Davis has made some high-profile friends, including Kanye West and Rihanna, the latter of whom he joked about in his act shortly after her violent run-in with Chris Brown. I asked if there was any fallout from that.

"Um, it was touchy. It was weird. (The incident) was still fresh when it happened and it just came out organically on stage. I probably should have waited a month. And now, I look at it and think, I probably shouldn't have even done it. But, those are the things that set me apart from a lot of comics."

Would he think twice about making fun of Kanye?

"Nah, I would. But nothing can be said that hasn't been said already. I'd rather talk about him in my act with him there in-person, rather than him seeing it later on. I can make it more personal and more funny if he's there. It's like those Comedy Central roasts. It's a more fun to watch their faces when you're talking because then they're like, oh, OK, I get it."

Before we hung up, I mentioned that I noticed his given name is Antwan; DeRay is his middle name. "I didn't graduate high school in time, I had to go back for a fifth year," he said. "And I didn't want to be Antwan again; I wanted to be DeRay Davis. So I started to make everybody call me DeRay. They'd say 'Twan,' and I'd say, 'Don't call me that — 'Twan graduated last year. I'm DeRay, I'm an exchange student.' It was an alias. An escape from the fact that I had failed and had to do another half year of high school, which was embarrassing.

"It was pronounced 'deh-RAY,' but when I first went on stage Damon Williams introduced me as 'DEE-ray Davis' and it was stronger. And it stuck."

DeRay Davis comes to the Arie Crown Theater Dec. 31. Go to ariecrown.com. "Mind of a Man" premieres on the Game Show Network 7 p.m. Jan. 8. Go to gsntv.com.

More Chicago at Sundance

The Sundance Film Festival announced its out-of-competition films this week, including the anticipated Roger Ebert documentary from Chicago filmmaker Steve James ("Hoop Dreams," "The Interrupters") called "Life Itself," which he began work on prior to Ebert's death earlier this year. Those interested in an early look can kick in $25 to the film's indiegogo.com campaign (through Dec. 20) to receive a private link that will stream the film at the same time it plays at Sundance. Also on the fest lineup is Nick Offerman's "American Ham," which the Minooka, IL native has performed locally over the past couple of years.

Chicago on TV

Six TV shows filmed in Chicago this fall. The one comedy of the bunch, "Sirens," will premiere March 6 on the USA Network. Based on a British series of the same name and produced by Denis Leary (who does not appear on the show), it follows a group of knucklehead EMS workers. Co-star Kevin Bigley is a DePaul University grad and writing partners Andy St. Clair and Paul O'Toole are longtime iO and Second City alum.

Cate Blanchett, back in movie theaters

With an eye on Oscar season, Sony is re-releasing Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" in theaters this weekend, including 600 N. Michigan, Northbrook Court, Cinemark CineArts (in Evanston) and the Regal Lake Zurich 12.

Dusty and moody

A border-town neo-noir about human trafficking and an unsolved murder, "Go For Sisters" is the latest film from writer-director John Sayles ("Eight Men Out"). It comes to the Siskel Film Center this week, starring LisaGay Hamilton and Edward James Olmos. On Friday, Sayles will do a post-show Q&A via Skype. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org/go-for-sisters

Dueling Sherlocks

Before Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller landed separate gigs playing Sherlock Holmes on TV (Cumberbatch stars on the Masterpiece UK import; Lee on the CBS procedural), they teamed up in director Danny Boyle's stage adaptation of "Frankenstein," alternating the roles of scientist and creature each night. The 2011 National Theatre production was filmed (in London) and it screens 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Monday at the Music Box. Go to musicboxtheatre.com.

Cinespace

Nick Mirkopoulos, the gregarious 71-year-old movie industry entrepreneur who launched the massive Cinespace soundstage complex in Lawndale, died Saturday in his native Greece. He built his reputation 30 years ago with a major soundstage operation in Toronto that has become a favorite of Hollywood studios.

The Chicago outpost opened in 2011 and is run by Mirkopoulos' nephew Alex Pissios. Locally, the forthcoming sci-fi thriller "Divergent" was shot earlier this year at Cinespace, which sits on the sprawling former campus of Ryerson Steel. Perhaps most notably, Cinespace has helped Chicago sustain multiple TV projects. Currently shooting at the complex are NBC's "Chicago Fire" and the upcoming spinoff "Chicago PD," as well as the midseason dramas "Crisis" (also on NBC) and "Mind Games" (ABC).

According to Pissios, Mirkopoulos shared ownership of both the Toronto and Chicago studios with his brothers Larry and Steve, who will continue to run the company. "I can't believe all these handwritten notes from major studio heads I'm getting about Nick," said Pissios, who noted that uncle's death should not impact day-to-day operations or future plans.

"It's still a family business. Nick gave us a vision and pretty much marching orders on what he wanted to keep the legacy going. We have 18 stages built so far and we're actually moving forward in 2014 to finish the last building, which should add 10 more stages."

nmetz@tribune.com

@NinaMetzNews