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The Entertainer

Suddenly, the Reverend Al Sharpton, with an assist from Saturday Night Live and a new reality show, is a crossover hit.

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Activist and reality-show host Al Sharpton.  

The Reverend Al Sharpton ordered Dover sole. He also ordered a Caesar salad and a Diet Coke. He was happily seated inside The Four Seasons Grill Room, home to a certain sort of New York power nexus, a crowd he’d been mixing with miraculously often these days; but, really, today his task here was of a rather low order. He wasn’t here to talk about why people should vote for John Kerry, nor to discuss police brutality or racial profiling. Instead, he’d come to boost a new reality-TV show called I Hate My Job, from the Spike TV cable network, in which eight guys compete for a career makeover, with him as host, providing instruction and inspiration as apparently only he can. As well, he wanted to explain why he, a recent candidate for the presidency of the United States, would stoop to the level of, say, Donald Trump.

“One of the things that drives me to do this kind of thing is, more young people are influenced by Comedy Central than by 60 Minutes, so if you understand that, you understand why Al Sharpton would do a reality show,” he said firmly. “Also, I happen to agree with the concept of people looking to discover what they’re really on the planet for, because I had to go through that. And it gives you an eight-week series—and I don’t know many people who’d turn down an eight-week series on TV!”

He patted at his famous gray-flecked coif, shot his cuffs crisply, and went on to say that ever since his highly successful mid-presidential-campaign appearance on Saturday Night Live, he’s received tons of proposals. He’s turned down most of them—for instance, he’s not sure he’s cut out to be a song-and-dance man on Broadway, in the play Chicago, high-paying offer though it was—but others have met with his approval, including recent cameos on such TV shows as Girlfriends, My Wife and Kids, and Boston Legal. He’s also in talks to maybe get his own talk show. To him, this is all pretty significant and suggests change of an elevated magnitude.

“I don’t think that everyone who stops me on the street or in airports necessarily agrees with my politics,” Rev said. “What I think SNL in particular did, it showed that I do more than just get angry and protest. The right wing would love to project me as a hater and all of that. But I think America that night said, ‘This guy ain’t no hater!’ That show got the highest ratings of their season, so it put a human face on me in front of a maximum amount of American people, and now I have people of all races coming up to me.”

He stopped for a moment, picked at his Dover sole, and said, “I have people that I think have a view that I represent this kind of cultural thing that I don’t know exactly what they see.”

Clearly, the reverend was boggled almost to the point of insensibility by the kind of cultural thing he’d recently become. Just a few years ago, he was viewed mainly as a pariah, based on the strife he so often seemed to promote as he swaggered around New York’s streets in his jumpsuits, gaudy medallions bouncing off his barrel chest to the beat of racial conflicts in Bensonhurst and Howard Beach, arson fires in Harlem, and most infamously the Tawana Brawley nightmare. And yet here he is, still on the scene, chowing down at The Four Seasons, the star of his own show.

If the SNL gig was what put a new face on Rev and maybe for the first time in his life made him agreeable to a larger audience, it almost didn’t happen. Almost all of his advisers were against it—they thought it was too risky—but Rev, as is so often the case, listened only to his gut. He went in, met with Lorne Michaels, found out that he could veto any skits he didn’t like, vetoed a skit that seemed to mock Jesse Jackson, refused to utter words like “bastard” and “S.O.B.,” and on December 6, 2003, stepped out onto the stage, going live in a dark, somber suit with an electric-blue hanky shoved into his breast pocket. He opened his monologue by making his goal for the appearance explicit: “Maybe tonight people can get to know the real Al Sharpton.” Then comic Tracy Morgan showed up, dressed as the reverend of old, in an eye-popping purple-velour jogging outfit, his hair much bigger than Rev’s, his gut much bigger, too. “I never looked that bad,” new Rev said. “Think again,” old Rev said.

And yet even while these things were being said, with laughter the result, Rev was still secretly unsure of himself. He still didn’t know if doing SNL was going to work in his favor. He was filled with doubt. But then Tracy Morgan mentioned that Rev had once been James Brown’s road manager, after which the two began trading verses of Brown’s signature song, “I Got You (I Feel Good).” It was at this moment that inspiration struck Rev, and his feet began to move in a very slick, funky-self, James Brown sort of way.

“No one, including Lorne Michaels, knew I was going to do the James Brown,” he said. “Just instinctively I decided to add that dance, but after that I was convinced in my soul that I’d done the right thing.”

Following that triumph, Bruce Charet, Rev’s entertainment manager in Los Angeles, went to lots of meetings on Rev’s behalf, as did his recently hired agents at the William Morris Agency, led by executive vice-president and worldwide head of television Sam Haskell, as did Rev himself. (Said Charet, “He has boundless energy. There’s never a problem getting him on a plane; he’ll come out here for lunch, if it’s appropriate.”) Spike TV first pitched Rev in early June and in an e-mail described I Hate My Job as a reality show in which the contestants “quit their job and are given three months to pursue and obtain their dream job. Think ‘You’re Hired’ instead of ‘You’re Fired.’ The contestants include the following: attorney who dreams of being a stand-up comic, cow-manure plant operator who dreams of being a model, [and] preschool teacher who dreams of being a nightclub entrepreneur.”

Rev wouldn’t say how much he was being paid for all this—“enough to get me to do it,” he said—but it’s clear that his days of claiming he didn’t even own his own suits, as he did in the Tawana Brawley case, are over.

The show has also paved the way for a number of other big entertainment-related plans; in mid-October, for example, he’s slated to head out to the Coast to meet with NBC, ABC, CBS, UPN, and the WB about shows that he might executive-produce, “everything from sitcoms to hourlong dramas, as long as they continue to serve the African-American cause,” Charet said.

After lunch, Sharpton stepped out onto 52nd Street and began returning phone calls before getting into his limo. He was, of course, widely recognized by passersby black, white, and other, who said things like, “What’s up, Rev?” and “How you doin’, Rev?” and “Holy shit, there’s the reverend!”

He’d be turning 50 in a week or two, and that seemed to put him into quite a contemplative mood. While riding around in the limo, Sharpton was uncharacteristically quiet. Then, out of the blue, he said to his driver, “You know what I never figured out? If I ride in the front all the time, why did we tint the windows in the back? We went through this whole thing. ‘We need tinted windows!’ And I never ride in the back. I mean, it doesn’t bother me. I like seeing people.”

Gospel music filled the air around Rev, but soon it was replaced by a recording of James Brown himself, singing a hard-driving song about payback.

“Revenge!” James Brown basically shouted. “I’m mad! The big payback! Got to get back! Need some payback! Payback! The big payback! That’s it!! Payback!! Revenge!! I’m mad!!”

Indeed, James Brown was much on Rev’s mind today, and when it came time for him to once again tell the truly miraculous story of his life, in abbreviated form, as a soliloquy, with considerable but understandable sanitizing, the legendary singer loomed large.


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