Marina Franklin is a rising star in the world of comedy. She’s not an overnight star. She’s been through all the preliminary steps that so many aspiring actresses take on the road to stardom—waitressing, off-off Broadway plays, standup comedy before tough customers. Lately, however, her road seems to be lit up with bright opportunities and glowing reviews. And she is taking it all in stride.
Franklin is now a regular on the new Jay Leno Show, one of several correspondents sent out to tape humorous segments. (She will be on again on Tuesday, October 13). On the AMC Network, she and Saturday Night Live alum Cheri Oteri banter back and forth in “Life Coach” segments that run between the movies. And Franklin still keeps a hectic standup schedule, appearing regularly at the Comic Strip and traveling to other venues in the U.S. and around the world.
“I thought she was really funny and really cute,” Leno says, introducing her to his audience. “She has a fresh eye.” Marina appears, dressed in a purple top and black leggings. Leno asks about her name:
“It’s not an African name,” she tells him. “I didn’t get the African name because, you know, African names have great meaning. My sister got the African name. Her name’s Nailah. It means, `one who succeeds.’” Her deadpan expression brings laughter from the audience. “My name’s Marina. It’s a place where you dock boats.” More laughter.
Marina’s low key delivery is part of her charm. While other comedians rely on shouting obscenities for laughs, she relies on her keen eye and wry sense of humor. Having spent time in both the black and white worlds in Chicago and New York, her observations bring laughs because they hit home. “One of the benefits to having white people in Harlem is that I can have a salad,” she says during her Harlem tour, entering one of the newly opened organic food restaurants.
The New Yorker, reviewing Leno’s show, singled Franklin out for praise. “Franklin…did a remote in Harlem that was unexpected and unexpectedly funny—it touched on gentrification and, fascinatingly, the great divide between black hair and what white people know about black hair. It took place partly inside a black-owned salon, and it was a glimpse into a world that most of Leno’s audience isn’t familiar with.”
Franklin herself found that she wasn’t as familiar with her own neighborhood as she thought she was. “I learned something from that sketch,” Marina says. While she understands people’s fears that gentrification could displace longtime Harlem residents, she’s also proud of how many black-owned businesses are now thriving. She marvels at the restaurant, Society Coffee, owned by a “beautiful brother, Karl,” described in one review as “a communal living room for the neighborhood.” Marina calls it “atmospheric.” She found a bike shop where the owner, Oye, donates a bike to Africa for every bike he sells.
While she doesn’t want to reveal too much about future segments on Leno, she has high praise for the comedian and his staff. “He has an amazing staff,” she says. “They are the sweetest most supportive people I’ve worked with.”
Marina was born and raised in Chicago, graduating from the University of Illinois and receiving her master’s degree in theater from Syracuse University. She moved to New York in 1997 and worked at the theme restaurant Jekyll and Hyde, on 57th Street. “It was hard work, ” she says, noting that the restaurant has five floors and she spent most of her time running up and down. While she was picking up acting jobs in small theaters, Marina realized she wanted to do comedy.
An encounter with an old high school friend solidified her decision. “I was telling him funny stuff about my grandmother and he said, `you know you just did a whole comedy routine,’” she recalls. After two years of living in New York she began to do open mike nights, putting her name on a list and going on stage when they called her number. “You performed in front of other comics,” she says. “It was brutal, because comics don’t laugh. They’re thinking of their own sets they’re about to perform.”
On the way up, Marina worked all kinds of rooms, in front of all kinds of audiences, at clubs in New York, Boston, and cities overseas, including Rotterdam. “I was very green at the time,” she recalls. “I did the Comedy Factory, a TV show. I destroyed them over there! I was at a comedy club one night and a guy said, `Marina Franklin! You’re famous in Belgium!’”
Her first big break came when she auditioned and won a spot on the second season of Last Comic Standing. “I was nervous that I wasn’t going to get it,” she says, “but it opened a lot of doors.” Marina survived all the way up until the final. Although she didn’t win that competition, being on the reality show raised her visibility. Requests for appearances began pouring in.
She received a call from a booker in South Africa and found herself appearing at the 2,000-seat Emperor’s Palace, a hotel-casino in Johannesburg. During her visit, she met Winnie Mandela, her daughter, Zendzi, and her grandchildren. Winnie Mandela hugged her and said, “Welcome home.”
Marina draws from her own experiences for her material. “You don’t think you’re funny until people start laughing,” she says. In her act, she talks about growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. Whenever she encountered racism, she used comedy. One challenging experience occurred during a summer camp. “I had the camp counselor laughing all the time. It’s a way of not making your situation so bad.”
At one point, her family moved from a predominantly black neighborhood to one that was mostly white. “My uncle used to teach me how to talk black,” so her black friends wouldn’t tease her. “The going back and forth makes you somewhat of a chameleon, having to change to fit the environment,” she says. “When Michelle Obama said `I talk like a white girl,’ that resonated with me so much. It was so cool to hear the First Lady say that.”
While being from the President’s hometown is certainly a plus these days, Marina’s success has come from years of hard work. Yet a certain amount of luck has been at work, too. The Leno gig came about after two scouts saw one of her shows. “It was the smallest venue, and I was in a relaxed mode,” she says. “I didn’t know there was industry in the room.” They e-mailed her after the show and asked her to submit a comedy routine. She pitched the Harlem segment. “Jay Leno loved it; the network loved it.” And now America loves Marina, too.
For more information on Marina, visit her website, www.marinafranklin.com
You can watch some of her performances by clicking on these links:
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: Melba’s in Harlem
Favorite Place to Shop: H&M, can always find fashion for less when I need clothes for TV!
Favorite New York Sight: Central Park—Peace from the City in a New York Minute!
Favorite New York Moment: On the train usually is the best you get in New York. I once had a guy try to hit on me on the train. He was really mean. He was too cool for school. He was sitting next to me on the train and as any New Yorker knows it’s very difficult to just walk away. He asked what I did for a living….like an idiot, I told him…Comedy. His response, “So you’re a f*!**@!#in Clown!” My response “Yeah..I guess so.” Thank God my stop was next.
What You Love about New York: The Diversity. Growing up in Chicago, there was not much of this, being one of the most segregated cities. In Manhattan, especially, you can see/experience all types of ethnicities. This I love! To me it’s an ideal universe.