Don Reed talks making own sketch show with ‘That Don Reed Show’

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Don Reed/Courtesy

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After being turned away from famed sketch-comedy shows “Saturday Night Live” and “In Living Color,” Don Reed decided to make his own. This became “That Don Reed Show,” a show including stand-up, sketches and music.

“That Don Reed Show,” written and performed by Reed himself, premiered at The Marsh in Berkeley on Nov. 24. After a string of one-man shows and roles in television and film, this is Reed’s first sketch-comedy show.

When it comes to creating a sketch-comedy show, Reed has learned from arguably the most famous one out there: “Saturday Night Live.”

“I learned my process by working with the executive producer of a sketch show, a guy whose father directed ‘Saturday Night Live’ for 15 or 20 years, so he actually taught me the process of laying out a show,” Reed said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “It’s done with color-coded index cards.”

Initial sketches are on regular white index cards. That gets narrowed down to red cards, then yellow, and the final sketches are on green index cards. The sketches that make it to green will have multiple layers to them.

“Usually, the funny idea comes first, and then the second layer (is) a deeper message,” Reed said. “Funny character, great voice and then as I write it, I find that other layer. That’s my pattern.”

Reed may have learned from “SNL,” but the show itself didn’t work out for him, despite his efforts. In fact, Reed was told by “SNL” that he was “too white.” Meanwhile, executives at “In Living Color,” a sketch-comedy show from the ‘90s, told him he was not “Black enough.”

“When I first heard it, I thought, ‘Huh?’ … But apparently, the situation with ‘SNL’ and ‘In Living Color’ (was that) they were looking for a more ‘urban’ (Black character), but I know how to do that kind of character in my sleep. I was doing … a wider scope (of characters),” Reed said. “Oddly enough, both of those perspectives came from white males saying, ‘Oh, he’s not acting Black enough.’ ”

Despite it not working out for him with “SNL,” Reed doesn’t think the show only promotes stereotyped Black characters.

“I think Kenan (Thompson)  and Leslie Jones are getting the opportunity to show a nice, full arc and I think, in their initial auditions, they (must have) showed the layers as well,” Reed said. “If I was living my full truth, I could have done some urban characters … (and showed) them a broader scope as well. In a way, I also learned something. I was running from those characters back then.”

Reed has learned a lot since his time between auditioning for those sketch shows and writing his own. He started performing in college during his time at UCLA and has since seen his writing grow in depth.

“It’s gotten richer. It was really kind of surface-level (before) — I was out for just the laughs. And now I’m out for laughs, maybe some hidden messages and definitely some feelings,” Reed said. “And I got that from doing the solo shows. Now, the sketch-comedy show isn’t just laughs — there are also some moving pieces. I knew I wanted those nuances, that dramatic tone.”

Over time, Reed has mastered how to balance dramatic notes within the overarching comedic tone of a show, whether it’s one of his solo shows or a sketch show. He has found that there are subtle ways to lead an audience in the desired emotional direction at certain moments.

“There are amazing things that can be done with music and pacing. You can have an audience laughing hard, then you just pause, and lead them with a facial expression and your tone, and they know things are shifting,” Reed said. “If you do it too fast, it seems erratic — like a yank — but if you take your time and pace it properly, they can go with you to the drama.”

This kind of balance is what Reed finds most rewarding both for him as a performer and for his audience. But, above all, he wants the audience to find a kind of escape in the entertainment of the night.

“While they’re here, maybe they can laugh about some of the craziness that’s happening on the planet right now,” Reed said. “I want them to escape and leave having had a good time. And as soon as they get in the parking lot, then they can think, ‘Oh, my God — my bills!’ ”

“That Don Reed Show” is playing at The Marsh in Berkeley through Dec. 23.

Nikki Munoz covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].