Since he was a child, comedian Don Reed has always wanted to make it big. Growing up in the East Bay, he spent evenings perched in front of the television with his grandparents, wide eyes taking in “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” feeling that if he just dreamed big enough, one day that could be him.
Forty years later, Don Reed has, in fact, made it big — big enough to warrant his own one-man multimedia show at The Marsh Arts Center in Downtown Berkeley. Dancing, impressions, jokes, sound effects, old videos and some sweetly questionable singing are the mediums of the story of Reed’s life, which he tells with heartfelt comedic honesty over the course of 90 minutes.
While Reed warns at the show’s onset that the program will be loaded with name drops, he begins his story with in-depth depictions of his childhood. Audiences get a clear frame of reference for Reed’s identity through his father’s life’s motto to always run three feet past the finish line, his mother’s gentle nudging away from a singing career and his grandparents’ love of late night television.
All of Reed’s characters are rounded out, their edges smoothed and perfected, a feat accomplished through his impressive range of impressions. In addition to the warm, honest tones of his grandmother and the encouraging voice of his father is an extremely accurate impression of his grandfather’s electronic larynx, which Reed clearly mentions he did not like to use.
Reed competently employs lighting and old videos to emotionally emphasize turning points in his life. The biggest turning point? Nightly screenings of Johnny Carson, the comedian Reed held in highest regard throughout his life. When Reed first presents Carson, he grabs from offstage the very stool he used to perch on as a child while watching Carson’s show.
The lights dim and the music stops, until a single spotlight centers on Reed with his back toward the audience, enraptured by an old episode of “The Tonight Show.” Carson enters from behind a lush curtain to rounds and rounds of applause. Immediately, the audience is immersed in exactly what Reed’s dream is: that same sort of reception, at least once in his lifetime.
With these types of tonal chances, Reed indicates the moments that shifted his course and allowed him to prosper in the comedy world. While at times these themes are transparent — for instance, when Sammy Davis Jr.’s performance of “Once in a Lifetime” on “The Tonight Show” plays twice — they are necessary devices to move the plot of his life forward.
Often, Reed’s performance is bogged down by his own variety of talents. With the slew of impressions, references to celebrities old and new and his many life experiences — all delivered with comedic flourishes — the show’s pacing consistently feels too fast or too slow.
For example, Reed’s entire college experience takes about 15 minutes to illustrate. Going from Hayward’s Chabot College speech team to UCLA to the bars he used to haunt for free drinks to dropping the bomb that he was unhoused for the majority of his time in Los Angeles — all of this flew by. Yet, toward the end of his performance Reed skips over an entire thirty years of his life, explaining the fact that this time jump is necessary in order to better transition the audience to a new decade.
Nevertheless, as a writer, performer and director, Reed fully displays his talents in this one-man show. He cleverly brings jokes about Spike Lee and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” back around. He does incredibly realistic impressions of a German Shepherd and a very chilled-out dude he met at a Grateful Dead concert. And he busts astonishingly energetic moves during several dance numbers in the show.
While many of Reed’s references and quips may be better suited for older audiences, Reed will always be a joy to behold. His storied career as a voice actor, stand-up comic and the first Black warm-up comedian for a major late night show — for more than a thousand episodes on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” — has left him chock full of stories, and he is exceedingly ready to share them all.
“The Never Too Late Show starring Don Reed” runs at The Marsh Arts Center through March 26, with showings Saturdays at 8:30 pm and Sundays at 7 pm.