Craig Robinson is his name, comedy is his game

The Chicago-bred "Dolemite is My Name" actor has always been funny, long before his roles in "The Office," "Knocked Up" and "Hot Tub Time Machine"

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Craig Robinson was a 7-year-old growing up on the South Side of Chicago when he first laid eyes on "Dolemite."  

He was "definitely too young" to see it, he says, but that didn't stop him from watching it anyway.

Craig Robinson in "Dolemite is My Name."

"I remember the first scene I saw was Dolemite having sex with some guy's wife, and he ran out naked and went down a cliff or something," says Robinson, seated in a conference room at the Shangri-La Hotel during the recent Toronto International Film Festival. "It was amazing."  

Forty years later, Robinson is part of the "Dolemite" legend.

He's a member of the ensemble cast of "Dolemite is My Name," the wild new comedy about the making of Rudy Ray Moore's 1975 blaxploitation classic. In the movie, which stars Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes, Keegan-Michael Key and Mike Epps, Robinson plays Ben Taylor, the music man in Moore's crew. "Dolemite is My Name" opens in local theaters on Friday ahead of its Oct. 25 arrival on Netflix. 

Review: 'Dolemite is My Name' a hilarious, uplifting showbiz success story

Even early on, the young Robinson was no stranger to comedy; he's always had a gift for getting laughs, and he'd riff on children's tales when his father would read to him as a child. 

"I remember reading 'Three Little Pigs,' and I would improvise, not knowing I was improvising," says Robinson, who is best known for his dry, deadpan delivery. "We'd be going through the story and I'd say, 'and then he blew the house down, put on his gym shoes and ran away.' My father's like, 'what did you just say?'"

On family car trips, Robinson would put on a show for his sister and parents, talking like a radio DJ and pretending different callers were phoning in, doing all the voices himself. "Making my parents laugh, that's all I wanted," he says. It was a way to get attention and keep the tension down, and to also stay out of trouble. 

Robinson was drawn to comedy but didn't see it as his career path. It was an unattainable goal, something meant for others that he couldn't achieve himself. 

"Comedians, to me, were like superheroes," he says, mentioning heroes such as Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and Chicago comic Dwayne Kennedy. "I looked at it like, 'that's a different life. I'll never know what that is.'" 

Then while in college at Illinois State University he saw a couple of his friends perform comedy at a talent show during homecoming weekend, "and that blew my mind," he says. Suddenly the mystique was gone and his dream was within reach. 

He bought Judy Carter's "Stand Up Comedy: The Book" and studied it. He wrote a note to himself that said, "You are going to be a great comedian," and crossed out the part that said "going to be." He started hitting open mic nights and enrolled in acting classes and improv lessons.

But he had bills to pay. So while doing comedy on the side, he taught music to K-8 students, occasionally using his students as his audience. 

"I had to reel them in, so we started having 'yo mama' joke contests," Robinson says of this three-and-a-half years as a teacher. "They were really into it. I'd get in a yo mama joke, I'd get a laugh, and then I'd say, 'so, Beethoven...'" 

Meanwhile, Robinson — who frequently incorporates music into his act, and often performs in front of a keyboard — was getting more recognition for his comedy. He earned slots on Def Comedy Jam and Montreal's Just For Laughs Comedy Festival, and won first prize at the Bay Area Black Comedy Competition.

Small parts on "The Bernie Mac Show," "Friends" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" led to a recurring role on NBC's "The Office" and eventually his big break, playing the doorman who shuts Leslie Mann and Katherine Heigl's characters out of a nightclub in 2007's "Knocked Up." 

Craig Robinson, Katherine Heigl and Leslie Mann in "Knocked Up."

When he filmed it, he flew to Los Angeles from Las Vegas, where he was performing a string of shows, using a standby pass from his sister. 

During filming, he largely improvised his lines, and he says the path he chose — apologizing to the women for not letting them in, complimenting them on their looks and complaining that he hates his job — ended up changing the direction of the scene. (Originally, they were supposed to enter the club.)

From there, the 6-foot-2 Robinson has appeared in a string of hit comedies, from "Pineapple Express" to "Hot Tub Time Machine" to "This is the End." In 2016's "Morris From America," Robinson was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his role as a father who brings his son to live with him in Germany. 

Going forward, Robinson, 47, says he'd like to play an "Austin Powers"-like character, "something real silly, a character people can sink their teeth into," and get a trilogy out of it.  

He says the lesson he took away from "Dolemite is My Name" is something he saw manifested in his own career: the importance of self-confidence and perseverance.

"Believe in yourself above all, even in the face of zero odds for you," he says. "You've still got to believe in yourself and switch 'em in your favor."


'Dolemite is My Name'

Rated R: for pervasive language, crude sexual content, and graphic nudity

Running time: 118 minutes

Starts Friday in theaters, Oct. 25 on Netflix