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Familiar Stranger: Comedian Mike Epps

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A few years ago, at a screening for the 2007 film “Resident Evil: Extinction,” two movie reviewers (older, white, female) sat in front of my friend, discussing how excited they were to catch Omar Epps in the flick. They praised his roles in “ER” and “House,” but oops, their bad. Mike and Omar may be cousins, but they’re not the same dude — Mike is distinctly, undeniably funnier, the kind of guy who has made the most of what Hollywood has thrown his way.

Whether he’s providing comic relief in the zombie-heavy second and third “Resident Evil” films, holding his own alongside Martin Lawrence and Cedric the Entertainer in family-friendly flicks like “Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins” and “The Honeymooners,” or being part of the highly entertaining identity mix-up in last year’s “The Hangover,” which made $467 million on a $35 million budget, Epps is inevitably the guy you immediately laugh at — even though you may first mistake him for his more dramatic relative.

And, yes, the films in which Epps is certainly the funniest — “Resident Evil: Apocalypse,” “Resident Evil: Extinction” and “The Hangover” — are also the ones in which he’s the only black guy onscreen, providing the most ridiculous (albeit true) observations.

Quite simply, he takes the stereotypes you would have about the “funny brother” film phenomenon and drop-kicks them back in your face, making them absurdly believable while also hysterically humorous.

For example: He rejects the gun offered to him by a group of white guys in “Resident Evil: Apocalypse” because he’s got his own souped-up pieces. In a lame twist, though, he’s the first person killed in “Resident Evil: Extinction,” after being bitten by a T-Virus-infected member of the undead. It’s kind of like nice guys finish last, but more like black people die first, one of those confusing, possibly socially exploitative Hollywood trends that yields 51 million hits on Google.

But Epps hasn’t let that get him down: He’s triumphantly funny in “The Hangover,” even if his screen-time barely reaches the five-minute mark. From degradingly calling gangster Mr. Chow a “little boy” to then grimacing in disgust when the effeminate kingpin urges him to “suck on these little Chinese nuts,” Epps — as Black Doug — has one of the film’s most important roles. By catching Stu’s attention with his musings on “roofies,” the nickname for Rohypnol, he provides a game-changing clue that helps the film wrap up on a happy note.

Oh, and those comments on roofies — “Just the other day, me and my boy was wondering why they even call them roofies. … Why not floories, right? Cuz when you take them, you’re more likely to end up on the floor than the roof” – may be horribly inappropriate, but they’re also guiltily funny. They’re not as divisive or controversial as the kind of stuff fellow comedians-turned-actors Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle have said, but in a way, Epps — who performs Saturday at DAR Constitution Hall — has a goofy, universal appeal that rivals Rock’s and Chappelle’s natural charisma.

Check out his stand-up, such as in his 2009 special, “Mike Epps: Under Rated & Never Faded,” and you’ll see it. Epps told in 2003 that he started performing in his early 20s after watching “Def Comedy Jam” (“I said, ‘Boy, I think I could do that s–. Them dudes ain’t funnier than me.”), and only a few years later, he would be on that very show, with numerous appearances over the course of 11 years and countless crowd-pleasing bits about everyday life in the black community. And quite often, he focused on its love-and-hate, give-and-take relationship with white people.

In a crappy monetary situation? Epps advises finding a pal, preferably named something like Billy Ray: “There ain’t nothing like being in a financial crunch and having a white friend in your life. … You can borrow money from a white boy, and don’t never give it back.”

Need life advice like the kind white folk (and Oprah) get from Dr. Phil? Meet Dr. Philgood, a foulmouthed, slow-talking advocate of extremely stringent child-rearing. (“You need your ass tore out the frame, man.”)

It’s Epps’ self-realization about his own role in Hollywood (and his ability to hype up and break free of what you’d expect) that allows the comedian to pop off both the screen and the stage. Just don’t call him Omar.

» DAR Constitution Hall, 1776 D St. NW; Sat. Feb. 27, 7:30 & 11 p.m.; $42, $49.50-$75; 202-638-2661. (Farragut West/Farragut North)

Written by Express contributor Roxana Hadadi
Photo couortesy of Shearer PR