Comedian Chris Spencer will always have a place in pop-culture history—who could forget his hilarious role as Preach in the 1996 comedy Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood. Since then, Spencer has had a long career as an actor, producer, writer, and podcaster.
This month, he's got his first movie out as a director, titled Back on the Strip, which just hit streaming services. The film—about an aspiring magician who ends up joining in a male stripper crew called The Chocolate Chips—stars Spence Moore and features Wesley Snipes, Tiffany Haddish, Bill Bellamy, Gary Owen, and J.B. Smoove.
LEVEL spoke with Spencer about the filmmaking experience, and also picked his brain about some of the top stories of 2023.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
LEVEL: How are you doing today?
Chris Spencer: Just walked the dog. I'm here trying to… I have all these scripts and I'm like, "I gotta sell these b**ches."
Is it getting easier to sell scripts and get stuff made these days?
So I've sold three or four movies before, right? With Kevin Hart attached. And for whatever reason, they didn't go. Kevin's busy, studio didn't like the movie, whatever. And then I just sold, directed and produced my first feature, Back on the Strip. It stars some very, very talented young people. And I think it's a very cute movie. We got beat up when we originally launched August 28 because of the [SAG-AFTRA] strike. Actors weren't allowed to promote. We finally got a permit to promote, a waiver. And some of them did, some of the representatives still talked them out of it. So we got hit hard. But now it's come out on digital and it's doing extremely well.
Are there more avenues to make movies like that or is it still a struggle?
It's always a struggle. Even Denzel, he might have a comedy, and they're like, "We don't think you're funny." So it's always a struggle of some sort. It's about your heat—what did you do last and the time before that?
What was it like to sit in the director's chair?
It was great. It was crazy having all of this control; people like Wesley Snipes looking to me for answers. I was a bit intimidated at the beginning when Wesley was on set because, this is Nino Brown! This is, "Always bet on black." I've grown up watching this dude. He's looking to me for direction and I'm like, "Do what you want!" But he doesn't want that. When you are a director, you have to have freakin' answers, I don't give a freak what level that person's on. They want to be directed. He made me so comfortable after the first day that I was like, "Wesley, get your ass over here."
You have a lot of credits writing for awards shows. We're coming up on awards season, what's the secret to writing a good awards show joke?
So this is what happens: A lot of times there will be writers for the show and then there'll be writers for the host. And many a time, the host is my friend. So I already know what he doesn't want to do or she does want to do. I get hired because I'm not afraid to tell the powers that be, "No, Kevin's not going to do that." Or, "Yes, Tracee Ross loves this." And I usually write for them and know their sensibilities.
Who do you like writing for?
Jamie Foxx is probably the easiest. Kevin Hart is one of the easiest. Anthony Anderson is very easy. Regina Hall: incredible. Tracee Ellis Ross: incredible. I've been fortunate to work with Cedric the Entertainer, Mike Epps. I've been very, very lucky.
Who are the comedians that make you laugh most?
Everybody I've said, of course. [Dave] Chappelle and [Chris] Rock. Katt Williams, of course. But Some underground people—a guy named Darrel Heath, who I grew up with. He kind of stopped doing standup for a while, but he's about to make a triumphant comeback. And boy, is the world going to be in trouble. Alex Thomas is funny. Rodney Perry. Some vets that haven't gotten that superstar title, but they're great. Tony Rock, Sydney Castillo. Zainab Johnson, who has a special on Amazon, is absolutely fantastic. Look out for her.
We'd like you to weigh in on some of 2023's biggest stories. I hope I'm not putting you on the spot.
I was born to be on the spot. Let's go!
Everyone's talking about the rise of AI. The Hollywood strikes were part of that. What's your take on AI?
I'm so glad Allen Iverson is being talked about again, he's one of my favorite basketball players. And I can't wait for him to team up with T.I. and do an album. [Laughs]
AI is incredible. When it was just ChatGPT, I was ahead of the game. And now I'm hearing about all these other things and it's kind of scary. It's almost like this interview can be done with you without me. That's a lot of problems we had with the Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild—it’s kind of making some of us obsolete. If I played with ChatGPT, I could say, “Write a treatment about a guy doing an interview with a guy.” But the nuances, the funny, the wit, isn't quite there yet. So I think I have a job for a couple more years. But it's incredible the things they can do. I saw one thing my friend sent me. Kevin Hart was doing an interview in English and then it went to Spanish and then went to French. And it was his exact same voice. Wow. And it wasn't subtitles. His mouth was moving exactly the way it should be for that language.
What's your take on Elon Musk and the fall of Twitter, or X, or whatever you want to call it?
He's got to be one of the smartest people in the world. We all like freedom of speech. But there's got to be some sort of cap on some of it. You just got to be careful because there's a lot of yahoos, a lot of extremists, and racist, homophobic people out there. People say sticks and stones may break my bones but words may never hurt me. It's a lie. Words do hurt. That's why there's been a lot of deaths from somebody calling somebody a b**ch or the N-word or talking s**t about somebody's religion. Words do hurt. By opening up this app for anybody to say whatever the hell they want, I think it was and is quite detrimental.
Do you have anything to say about the Middle East and Gaza?
I don't think there's anything funny, but it's so sad. Being an entertainer or being someone of not Jewish heritage, I can't say something bad about Israel without being considered anti-Semitic. It's unfair, because if you said something bad about Trump and the American government, that doesn't make you anti-Christian. It just [means] this government is wack.
A lot of my Jewish community friends, they're angry. I had to stop following some of them because, "If you're not standing for Israel, you're against us." I'm like, "Calm down." If you say anything in regards to swaying towards the Palestine side, your ass is in trouble. That becomes anti-Semitic, which is unfair. You could say, "Man, I can't believe what's going on over there. The government is killing these people." All of a sudden you'll get attacked from the other side saying, "Oh, you must be anti-Semitic."
And it's kind of the same way with Black people. Like, if you say something bad about one Black person, you're racist. So I understand where it comes. [If] I'm sitting with one of my boys, and he says, "That Black girl is ugly," I'm like, "Oh, you don't like Black girls?"
Now that the Hollywood strikes are over, do you get a sense that people outside of entertainment understood what the issues were?
I don't know. But I know people outside of entertainment want entertainment. I don't think they're lacking right now because there's so many damn channels, so many streaming networks. It's not like they were going, "Oh my God, all we're watching is old stuff." There's still new s**t coming out. So for the average person, I don't think they really are concerned like we are, because the stuff you're seeing we shot two years ago. I know the people outside of what we do aren't as concerned as we are. Just like the people who work in these factories and are striking—I'm not affected immediately [by] them. I need to actually acknowledge them and at least know what they're talking about so I could be for or against.
What do you think about Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith and all the attention their relationship has gotten?
No comment. They're friends of mine.
Any thoughts on Ketanji Brown Jackson being named as the first Black woman to the Supreme Court?
I'm so used to it taking so long. What can I say? "This country is racist.” Yeah, we know. So we have to be proud of the achievement for finally happening. But I'm not going to go and talk about the history of injustice to our people, because we already know it. So, congratulations to her.
What do you think about people leaving jobs because they're unhappy or demanding to be able to work from home since the pandemic?
The pandemic has gotten us lazy. When people ask me for an interview, I'm like can we Zoom? When movies come out, I'm like, "When is it coming on Amazon?" That whole period has A) allowed us to become lazy, and B) allowed us to go, "I could do all that s**t right here. I don't need to go all the way over there to do my work.”
What does that do to us as a society if we're all at home cocooning?
Clearly, we'll have more serial killers.
Is there anything else we haven't touched on that you've been thinking about?
The election is scary. Our front runner, our leader, is 120. The other one is 116. When did this start happening? I remember [President John] Kennedy was 45. [President] Barack [Obama] was less than 50. All of a sudden these people are in their 70s. Maybe because it's easier to control a 70-year-old old man as opposed to a 45-year-old man. I don't know what these next days are going to bring. I'm looking at some property in Ghana. Just in case we gotta get the hell out of here.
Back on the Strip is available to watch on AppleTV, Amazon Prime and other digital-streaming services.