If you like classic TV comedies like Sandford and Son, The Jeffersons, and All in the Family, Netflix’s new series The Upshaws, starring Mike Epps, Kim Fields, and Wanda Sykes, is worth tuning into because that is what Epps had in mind when he pitched the idea.
Both Epps and Sykes have comedy specials on Netflix, but it wasn’t that that brought them together. Epps was trying to figure out who would be perfect for the series he wanted to create, and Sykes was someone who came to mind as fitting right in that lane.
“Wanda is the type of woman that can bring it,” Epps tells Monsters & Critics in this exclusive interview. “She can bring it to any guy. She can bring it to any woman. She’s got the timing, and she’s got the comedy chops.”
In The Upshaws, Epps plays Bennie Upshaw, the head of a Black working-class family in Indianapolis, a charming, well-intentioned mechanic and lifelong mess just trying his best to step up and care for his family. Fields plays his wife Regina, and Sykes plays his sister-in-law Lucretia, who never has a kind word for him.
The series is set in Indiana, which is where Epps hails from, so the writers had to look to him for guidance on “Midwestern” comedy.
“I had to bring in a certain amount of notes to just fill them in on what it was about because this is right smack in the middle of America, so I wanted to bring that timing and that style to the show,” he continues. “I don’t know where everybody else is really from, but since the show was based in Indiana, I definitely think that they understand that type of comedy. We didn’t shoot a New York comedy.”
For more of the conversation on The Upshaws and what else Epps has been up to, read on:
Monsters &Critics: I’m going to presume that you are much cooler in real life then Bennie. So, what was the appeal of him to you?
Mike Epps: Bennie speaks for so many moments, so many people in the world. He’s a lovable guy that’s a little crazy and got a little dysfunction going on, but really, really a good person, a good guy, funny, loves his family, can’t quite get it right, but there’s something about him. There’s an innocence about him that you really, really love about Bennie that makes you want to keep giving him a chance, makes you want to laugh at him when he’s doing something wrong. You know? So, I think there’s a little truth in there.
M&C: The series is a comedy about a Midwest Black family, so you want it to be funny, but when you were making it, were you concerned only about making it funny or do you also want to get some kind of intention out in the world so that people can learn something from it?
Mike Epps: Well, you know, it’s always a good message behind a laugh. It’s always a good message behind the stories. So, we were definitely reaching for that. We were reaching, not only for the laughs; we were reaching for the message, as well.
M&C: What is that message?
Mike Epps: There’s so many messages. I think the key message is family. No matter how much dysfunction is in a family, no matter what people’s characters are in a family, it’s all we got. All we got is the message. The message is you stick together.
M&C: The message that I liked, in addition to that one, was loyalty. Bennie’s this really loyal guy. When his friend gets out of jail, he takes him into his house and hides him in the basement and all that. So, I thought he seems like a guy that really has a sense of loyalty.
Mike Epps: No doubt. That’s the glue that he uses to stay around. That’s one of the glues that he uses that keeps him around.
M&C: Is Bennie a car mechanic because you know something about fixing cars or is it more something that somebody in Indiana would do?
Mike Epps: I grew up around a lot of mechanics and, you know, we’ve seen the barbershop a lot. We’ve seen a lot of different places, but the car shop is very relatable. There’s a lot of humor behind the stories and the people that come through car shops.
M&C: Stand-up is something that you do all by yourself and the sitcom is collaborative. What was that like? I know you’ve previously done Uncle Buck, but what’s it like for you personally working with a group of people since you’re used to gettin the laughs yourself on stage.
Mike Epps: I love it. To be able to share humor amongst each other and bring it together and get one big snowball of laughs, it always works.
M&C: And how did COVID-19 affect this? Did you have to film and stop, or did you start after the protocols were in place to keep you safe? How did that work?
Mike Epps: We ended up shooting nine episodes, and then COVID [-19] came, and we had to stop. Then towards the end, we ended up going back shooting the other three, or four shows that we had with all the testing and the caution measures that we had to use.
M&C: What was the quarantine like for you personally to stay home when you’re so used to being on the road?
Mike Epps: Man, it was very interesting. I tell my wife all the time, I said, “Everybody uses the word silver lining,” and through it, I ended up writing some more material. All of the things that we’ve been wanting to do that we couldn’t do because we were always running and working, we were able to do them, cleaning out the garage and everything.
M&C: Did you learn anything about yourself?
Mike Epps: I did. I learned I could save a little money, you know? I never knew how to really save money, but there was nowhere to spend it except Whole Foods grocery store.
M&C: Since you enjoyed staying home, when everything goes back to normal again, will you go back out doing standup or will you have a modified schedule, so it won’t be as crazy as it used to be?
Mike Epps: I’ve been doing stand-up. I ain’t been sitting in the house. I’ve been back out. I’m one of them guys, I gotta go take my chances, and I gotta go work. It’s either go to work, or I’m trying to deal with my sanity here. For a comic, can you imagine I’m sitting up in the house with all these jokes? I got to give them to somebody.
The Upshaws is currently streaming on Netflix.