LOS ANGELES -- There is a studio in the heart of seedy, old Hollywood near Sunset and Vine that they call "The Factory." From the outside it looks like two adjoining, pock-marked, abandoned buildings behind a weedy lot.
But inside, there are makeup rooms, dressing rooms, sleek conference rooms, photography studios and soundstages. It is a full-service publicity studio, and the product made on its assembly line is image -- as in, "Image is everything." Its special brand: African-American television images.
On a late Friday afternoon in July, as the rest of Hollywood is already into rush hour or happy hour, this is where you find Mo'Nique, the 31-year-old comedian and actress from Baltimore who is about to make her network television series debut. She is sitting in a high-backed canvas director's chair in a makeup room gearing up for several more hours in front of the cameras, headed toward the home stretch of another 14-hour day.
Mo'Nique is getting the star treatment; makeup people, publicists, still photographers, television camera operators and producers from the UPN network fuss over her. They are trying to capture the persona of a large, loving and raucous character with attitude to burn and package it for consumption to millions of viewers in a new sitcom called "The Parkers."
In the series, Mo'Nique plays Nikki Parker, a 35-year-old single mom from the Leimert Park section of Los Angeles who decides to enroll in junior college with her 18-year-old daughter, Kim, played by Countess Vaughn. Last year, Vaughn won an NAACP Image Award for her performance as Kim Parker on UPN's one bona-fide hit sitcom, "Moesha," starring Brandy.
Being a spinoff of "Moesha" and following it at 8: 30 p.m. in UPN's Monday night lineup already separates "The Parkers" from the pack of new fall shows. But something else truly distinguishes "The Parkers": Of the 37 new series from the six major networks, only two feature African-American characters -- "The Parkers" and "Grown Ups," which stars sitcom veteran Jaleel White and is also on UPN.
This underscores how difficult and improbable the journey from Woodlawn in Baltimore to that high-backed director's chair in Hollywood is for a performer like Mo'Nique.
"I am working long, long days. I'm up at 5: 30, out of the house at 7: 30, at the set by 8-something-a.m., and then I'm not back home until 8 at night," Mo'Nique says, looking straight ahead into a wall of mirrors as a base coat of "lightened chestnut" is applied to the comedian's face.
"But, you know what? I love it. This is easy," she continues. "Hard is being out on the road, driving and praying and playing some dead-end bar to three drunks at 3 a.m. in some place in Mississippi or Alabama or somewhere.
"Really, I'm telling you, compared to that, this is real easy. This is where I always dreamed of being. And, without sounding conceited, I always knew this day would come -- that some day I would be sitting right here in this chair in makeup getting ready to make a network TV show. This is where the journey was always supposed to take me," she says.
Two for the show
The journey started in 1991 when Mo'Nique, a graduate of Milford Mill High School who was working as a customer sales representative for MCI, went onstage on a dare from her older brother, Steven Imes III, to try stand-up comedy on amateur night at a local club. She was an instant success.
And, in a way, so was Imes. When the club manager offered Mo'Nique $25 to perform at the club a week later, Imes stepped in and said she wouldn't perform for a penny less than $30. The club manager agreed, and big brother Steve, who had bombed a few weeks earlier as a comic on the same stage, has been her manager ever since.
Mo'Nique kept her day job at MCI but started playing area comedy clubs at night and out-of-town rooms on the weekends.
"Being a woman out there in some of those places wasn't the easiest thing, but it was something I had to do to learn my craft. But talk about hard work and long hours," she says.
After about a year, she quit the day job. It was about the same time that Imes got a call inviting Mo'Nique to perform at the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem on the "Showtime at the Apollo" syndicated television show.
Imes says the trip to the Apollo was typical of those early days for the new manager and would-be star. Imes used rent money to buy Mo'Nique an outfit for her first national television appearance -- a purchasing decision that didn't please his wife. By the time he and Mo'Nique got in the car in Baltimore to drive to New York, all they had left was about $20 between them.
"And most of that was exhausted by tolls," he says. "On the way back, after we paid the tolls to get out of New York, we had enough for a hot dog, a bag of chips and a Coke, which we shared."
But onstage, Mo'Nique had done well enough to be invited back to the Apollo, as well as to get appearances on such TV showcases as HBO's "Russel Simmons Def Comedy Jam" and "BET Comic View."
Their own club
By 1994, Mo'Nique and Imes were running their own comedy club and restaurant in Baltimore, Mo'Nique's. She was also working as a co-host for a morning radio program on Baltimore's WWIN (95.9 FM), and starting to get invited to the bigger national and international comedy festivals. It was after her performance two years ago at the Montreal Comedy Festival, the showcase of showcases for comedians who want to do TV and film, that the television offers started to come.
Ralph Farquhar, veteran producer and co-creator of "The Parkers," describes her appeal by saying, "She's fresh, she's just completely fresh. The thing about Mo'Nique is that there's an honesty there that truly comes across on stage. You can't manufacture that. Either a performer has it or she doesn't."
In person, there is an honesty -- or directness at least -- that is impossible to miss. When I introduced myself to Mo'Nique at a UPN party, I stuck out my hand in greeting, but she pressed right past it and threw her arms around me like we had known each other for years. It wasn't a phony Hollywood air-hug either. Mo'Nique is a full-figured woman, and I felt the warmth in her arms.
In an interview a few days later, I asked her if she greeted everyone that way.
"No, but, hey, you were from my hometown, and I figure with the press, once you make people love you, the press will go along with it. The press doesn't want to attack me. So, why shouldn't I show the press some love until they prove they don't deserve it?" she said.
I had been following Mo'Nique for a week -- watching her meet with about 150 reporters and critics in the show's first press conference, hanging around during the publicity shoot and attending the taping of the episode that will premiere tonight.
When I mentioned my surprise at how poised she seemed in dealing with the national press, she said that she had been "practicing" for years.
"Like I said, I always knew this day would come in my life, so I used to practice being interviewed by the press," Mo'Nique explained. Sometimes she would play both parts, interviewer and respondent, she said. Sometimes Imes would be the interviewer.
After she told me about her make-believe interview sessions, I really started liking Monique Jackson, the offstage Mo'Nique, who is wife of 34-year-old Mark Jackson and mother of Shalon, 9, and Mark Jr., 13. As to her screen character, Nikki Parker, that is a more complicated question, and one that is going to have different answers for different viewers.
Mo'Nique says there is no difference between her and Nikki.
"She's all of me. All my comedy is based on me, and I am sexy, full-figured, very outspoken and a glamour doll. Nikki and me are very grounded, very loving, spiritual, funny, strict, demanding and aggressive. We're one in the same," Mo'Nique says.
In the pilot, viewers will see the mother and daughter head off to their Santa Monica junior college in big hair and stylishly outrageous matching denim dress outfits featuring feather boa piping. They will see Nikki sashaying her hips, batting her eyes and all but throwing herself into the arms of a handsome young professor (Dorien Wilson).
During the summer press tour here, some critics found the comedy too broad and loud for their tastes. A review in TV Guide this week says, "As joined-at-the-hip coeds, these dizzy divas favor loud clothes and louder lingo. They're like desperate drag queens on amateur night. But they do stand out."
If your idea of a great sitcom is "Frasier," you probably won't be crazy about "The Parkers." The sensibility of "Frasier" is that of French farce. "The Parkers," on the other hand, has a populist orientation and is similar to a brand of theater extremely popular with African-American audiences known as "urban circuit" (the term "chitlin' circuit" is also used, but some find that offensive).
In fact, Countess Vaughn is a star on the urban circuit, often appearing in one of the most successful plays in the canon, "Mama, I Want to Sing," about a gospel singer who wants to do secular music. Think of it as an African-American, female version of "The Jazz Singer."
Not that UPN is aiming exclusively at black viewers with "The Parkers." After all, "Moesha," the show from which it comes, has considerable crossover appeal.
Farquhar, who created the acclaimed but short-lived "South Central" sitcom in 1994 about the struggles of a single mom living in the inner city, stresses the universality of the messages at the core of "The Parkers."
"One of the most exciting things about doing this show is that it is the story of a lot of young mothers who had children very early. The question for them is how to lead their lives responsibly: be a parent, get an education and move forward. This show speaks to that," he says.
Citing former Vice President Dan Quayle's criticism in 1992 of single-parent families in connection with "Murphy Brown," Farquhar says, "What we want to prove with this show is that these families typically involve much more love, much more communication between mother and child, and a lot of work. These mothers -- black, brown, white, whatever -- should be saluted."
After the new fall shows were announced, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume excoriated the television networks in June for their "virtual whitewash" of our television screens. Mo'Nique brings the discussion back to issues he raised by saying, "I believe Hollywood needs to get more real. For me as an African-American woman, as a consumer, when I watch TV and there's no one I can relate to, what is that saying to me?
"But 'The Parkers' is not only for black viewers. Our show makes a statement and has a message for all viewers. I think all single mothers can relate to it. I think all daughters who have young mothers can relate.
"Nikki Parker has a kid at 17. Well, at 35, Nikki Parker goes on with her life. She goes back and gets her high school diploma. She goes to college and works and gets a college degree.
"I think with a lot of young single mothers, they stop. If you have a baby at 16, you get in a system, you stay in the system and you stop. The message we want to put out there: Keep striving and keep moving on. Be a responsible mother. Nikki is a very responsible mother, but she never gave up hope on life. I hope Nikki can make a difference for some viewers that way."
That is a lot to ask of a sitcom. But, whether "The Parkers" achieves those goals or not, it already has made a difference by simply making it on-air in a television season desperately lacking in diversity.
"I define a black show by who creates it, not necessarily who's in front of the camera," says Farquhar, who is African-American.
"The airwaves belong to all of us, and it's ridiculous that there are so few shows with African-Americans. But, for those of us who are lucky enough to be working, one of the things we do is create more shows. You know, 'Moesha' was one. Now, with 'The Parkers,' there are two."
What: premiere episode
When: 8: 30 to 9 tonight.
Where: WUTB (Channel 24)