Unlikely Replacement

Cedric the Entertainer Wants to Make You a Millionaire

The comedian’s new gig as host of ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ may be just what the show needs.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty

Cedric the Entertainer freely admits he isn’t much of a trivia buff. Still, he wants his future television audience to know that doesn’t mean he isn’t a knowledgeable guy or the perfect host for the new season of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire.

“I’m not a super-trivia person, but I’m the kind of guy who feels I’m smarter than most people,” laughs the man born Cedric Kyles. “Might be true and it might not be, but I always feel I know more than you do.”

The long-time comic’s smarts will be put to the test on Sept. 2 when he takes over Millionaire from Meredith Vieira, who left the show at the end of last season. Millionaire has been a solid hit for ABC since it debuted in 1999 with Regis Philbin. Vieira took over in 2002.

At first glance the 49-year-old funny man appears an unlikely replacement for a former journalist and talk-show host. But hiring one of the “original kings of comedy” to fill the host's chair just may be the breath of fresh air the long-running game show needs to attract a new generation of viewers.

Cedric has occupied a consistent if slightly low-key existence in Hollywood since 1992. After winning the 1994 Richard Pryor Comic of the Year award on Black Entertainment Television, he began a comedy journey he never thought he’d enjoy. Raised in Jefferson City, Missouri, Cedric loved making his family and friends laugh, but made no bones about following the traditional employment route after graduating from college.

“My mom raised us to go to school and get a good, dependable job when you graduate,” remembers Cedric, who also stars on the TV Land Show Soul Man. "When I was in school brothers were becoming engineers and lawyers. Those were the upstanding jobs to have in the late '80s and '90s, not a comic. My mother taught school and didn’t want to hear anything about me being a stand-up comedian.’’

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in mass communications from Southeast Missouri State University, Cedric settled into a comfortable and steady position as an insurance claims adjuster at State Farm Insurance. While he worked hard at his day job, telling jokes was his passion. One weekend a friend encouraged him to enter a local comedy competition just to see if he was as good as he thought he was. He won the competition with ease, as well as his mother’s approval.

“I was standing in the kitchen with her, telling her some of my jokes and she was laughing so hard she had to sit down,” said Cedric. “When she stopped laughing she looked at me and told me she wanted me to do what really made me happy. And if that means being a comic, she was behind me.”

Cedric didn’t have to be told twice. He quit his day job at State Farm and began traveling the country working as a stand-up comic. After successful appearances on Showtime at the Apollo and Def Comedy Jam, Cedric landed his first primetime acting gig with long-time friend Steve Harvey on The Steve Harvey Show. That show quickly cemented Cedric’s position as one of the top black comics in the business, and soon the former insurance adjuster was a must-have presence in any urban comedy vehicle.

“If I’m making a comedy movie Cedric is in there,” said Marlon Wayans, who cast Cedric in A Haunted House earlier this year. “He’s like this every-dude who’s like your funny cousin that gets invited to every party because he’s the best thing there.”

Ice Cube couldn’t agree more. The rapper cast Cedric in each installment of his highly successful film series Barbershop. That role saw Cedric portray a 60-year-old barber with more than a few negative views of civil rights leaders such Rosa Parks and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. While many in the black community took issue with the character, Cedric escaped virtually unscathed by the film’s critics. Most attribute the comic’s success to his easy-going persona, accessible comedy, and laid-back style.

“Cedric is just a cool dude, almost like a flash from the past in terms of his gentleman-like demeanor,’’ said O’Shea Jackson, a.k.a. Ice Cube. “He knows how to make any situation funny without offending anyone. You gotta admire that skill.”

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Cedric insists that his penchant for avoiding profanity and “off-color” jokes during his stand-up routines isn’t due to any particular code of ethics or beliefs. He says that sort of comedy just isn't his personal style.

“I had this conversation with Dave Chappelle one time,” said Cedric. “You have to do what makes you comfortable and comes natural. I enjoy those off-color jokes as much as the next guy and profanity doesn’t really bother me if it makes sense. I just feel it isn’t my best way of telling my kind of jokes.”

The comedian arguably found his most groundbreaking success as a part for “The Original Kings of Comedy” tour more than 13 years ago. The tour and eventual film directed by Spike Lee also starred three of his good friends, Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, and the late Bernie Mac.

“That film about the tour was a game-changer for all of us,” remembers the comic. “It brought us face to face with so many people that weren’t familiar with who we really were and what we did. It was incredibly amazing to be a part of.” Cedric says he remains close to the men from the tour as well as the family of Bernie Mac, who passed away in 2008.

“I definitely keep in touch with his daughter who is doing a lot to keep her father’s legacy alive,” says Cedric. “I wanted to help with that in any way I can. D.L. and I were recently up for a national radio show, which he got! So we run into each other all the time, which is fun. All those guys are like family to me so we keep in touch.”

Cedric adds that he often speaks with Harvey, who headlines his own popular radio show and talk show, and the two men often offer each other advice and inspiration.

“I let him know when I got this show and we talked about what it all meant,” says Cedric. “Ultimately it’s about bringing who I am to the show while working with what’s already there. Regis was quirkier, he’s that kind of grandfatherly figure that you trust and love. Meredith made the environment warm and cozy, which is good when you’re under the pressure of trying to win money. I plan to be a little of both and then add my own thing.”