Interview date: 08/07/2008
Run date: 08/21/2008
Once, he was Carlton Banks, the man who brought Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual” to an entirely new demographic. Now, he’s the host of the latest Game Show Network hit, “Catch 21.” Bullz-Eye had the opportunity to chat with Alfonso Ribeiro about his days on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Silver Spoons,” his transition from in front of the camera as an actor to behind the camera as a director, and why the inaccuracy of IMDB and Wikipedia really gets his hackles up.
Bullz-Eye: Hey, Alfonso, it’s good to talk to you. I was sorry that you were at the party GSN threw during the TCA tour to promote “ Catch 21.”
Alfonso Ribeiro: Yeah, I know, I wish I was there. I’ve been all over the place, just doing a lot of different things. It’s been tough!
BE: Well, I got to play the game with your lovely co-star.
AR: Oh, Mikki (Padilla)? Good!
BE: Plus, I got three 21s, too, so I was pretty pleased with myself.
AR: Nice! Good work!
BE: Why, thank you. So how did you come to play the role of a game show host? Did they spot you when you were on “Celebrity Duets,” or…
AR: No, they just…in the last few months, they came to me and asked, “Would you be interested in doing this?” And I figured, hey, let me take a look at this. I went in and played with them a little bit, they explained the game to me, and, y’know, working with someone like Merrill Heatter, who’s truly one of the icons in the game show world, to be on a show, my first show, to be one of his shows is pretty cool. So, for me, it was, like, “Hey, let’s go ahead and jump in and see what happens. It seems like it’d be a lot of fun.” And it has been. It feels like a great choice.
BE: Had you had any game show host aspirations? (Laughs)
AR: No, I hadn’t before that. I’d never…y’know, I don’t think, as an actor, growing up, I went, “I wonder if I could be a game show host?” But it’s very cool to be one now.
BE: Just for people who haven’t actually seen it yet, how is the game played.
AR: Basically, there are three players, they all get one card each, and they have to be the first to ring in to answer a multiple-choice question to get the next card. Once they get that next card, they can keep it to make their hand better or give it to one of the other players to mess their hands up. And the goal is for you to catch 21 exactly or be the last player standing with the best hand.
BE: Like you said, there are trivia questions involved. Where do those come from?
AR: From a bunch of producers who go out and find some pop-culture questions. They put them together, and we ask them the questions.
BE: Do you ever have to restrain yourself from saying, “Oh, come on”?
AR: Well, there are certainly times where I’m thinking, “Okay, wow, you didn’t get that?” But, honestly, a lot of the questions that they’ve asked…? Some of them, I’m, like, I don’t even know the answers! It’s very funny, because we always think of Alex Trebek. He doesn’t know all those answers. He looks so smart, but he’s not so smart. (Laughs)
BE: So you’ve had to develop a poker face for those moments when you’re thinking, “I cannot believe you just picked that answer,” then?
AR: Uh, yes. Yes, there are certainly times in the game, also, when people make decisions with the cards, and you’re like, “Uh, okay, all right, that’s an interesting move. That’s not one I would’ve done, but let’s see how it plays out…”
BE: You’ve been spending more time behind the camera lately than in front of it.
AR: Yes, I’ve been directing sitcoms for the last five or six years, and that’s been great. I’ve had a great time. With the decline in the number of sitcoms on air today, it’s kind of made that hard. It’s made me open my eyes to a lot of different things.
BE: How did you first get started in a directing capacity?
AR: Well, during “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” I wanted to become a director, and I had the opportunity to direct an episode there. And, then, I did another show called “In the House” for awhile. But then I went to film school and really learned to understand film, the world of directing as a whole, and all of the different aspects to what I needed to do. So, since coming back from film school, I’ve put it into play and started working hard to get these jobs.
BE: In hindsight, can you tell the difference between the style of directors who’ve been actors themselves and those who haven’t?
AR: I believe so. I believe that, working with those directors, the key to a director who’s been an actor is that they understand the process and what the actor has to go through to achieve success with their job. But one of the things that I’ve found about some of those is that they didn’t do the homework as far as understanding the cameras and the technical side. So I’ve worked really hard to understand the technical aspect of it, because I felt like it was important that, when you went to a set, you understood all of the aspects and were able to do all of it. So I had the ability to be an actor’s director, and I worked hard to become a technical director, also.
BE: I had an opportunity to interview Tom Jones last year, and he spoke very fondly of the fact that Carlton danced to his music on “The Fresh Prince,” because it brought him to a demographic that hadn’t necessarily paid any attention to him before.
AR: That’s very cool. Well, y’know, I always wondered how he felt about that, so that’s pretty cool.
BE: Oh, he was very appreciative of it. So how was it working on that show? Of course, you already had a sitcom background…
AR: Oh, I absolutely enjoyed it. Yeah, I’d been on “Silver Spoons” before that, but, obviously, “The Fresh Prince” was one of the greatest jobs I’ve ever had. We’re all still like a family. I see cast members all the time, and we still get together. I hang out with Will (Smith) a bunch, and we’ve worked together in different capacities. It’s been pretty cool.
BE: Have you contributed to any of the DVD releases of the show? Or are you even interested in doing that sort of stuff?
AR: No, I mean, they do that. There’s nothing really I can do on that, anyway.
BE: Oh, well, I meant commentaries or that sort of thing.
AR: No, I haven’t really done anything. (Laughs) I kind of look as the past as the past, and I always want to move forward. They don’t really pay for me to do the commentaries, so it kind of doesn’t make sense. It’s, like, just go ahead and enjoy the show, whether you watch the DVDs or go to Nick at Nite and watch it.
BE: Well, I won’t dwell on this one, then, but “Silver Spoons” is also now out on DVD and reaching a new generation. How was that series for you? Because you started that not long after you worked with Michael Jackson in that famous Pepsi commercial.
AR: Yeah, it was after doing that, and after doing “The Tap Dance Kid” on Broadway. Yeah, it was cool. It was very different. The atmosphere was very different as a kid, as opposed to as an adult on “The Fresh Prince,” so it certainly wasn’t the experience I had on that show. But, still, as a child, coming into it, it was very cool.
BE: As far as transitioning from a child actor into an adult actor, which is something you and Ricky Schroeder shared, did you find that difficult to do?
AR: No. Y’know what? As long as you’re playing roles that kind of match up to who you are in the world, in terms of your age range, that’s easy. To me, it’s simply a fact: read the role, figure out who the guy is, and become him. I don’t really look at it as that different.
BE: How was working on “In the House” with LL Cool J? Were you a fan of his work prior to that?
AR: I was certainly a fan of his music before that. Once again, it wasn’t like “The Fresh Prince.” We were very tight and very close, and the people on that show worked very hard and were true professionals. I wouldn’t say that about every other actor or show that I’ve worked on. To be diplomatic. (Laughs)
BE: When the show moved from NBC to UPN, was there any different felt for you as an actor?
AR: Not really. My job is to do the work, and how many people watch it, the reception that it gets, and all of that is just business. My job is to go in, do the role, and do the best job that I can do. It doesn’t matter whether you’re on NBC, CBS, UPN, The WB, or whatever. It doesn’t matter. Your job is to go in and do that job to the best of your ability every week.
BE: You did a voiceover bit for “Robot Chicken.”
AR: I did. I enjoyed that. Seth (Green) is a good buddy of mine. We worked together years and years and years before, and it was nice to go in and hang out with him in the studio for a day and do a little play there.
BE: When you were on “Celebrity Duets,” oddly, I think a lot of people were surprised that you were as good a singer as you were.
AR: Well, it’s because people don’t really pay attention to all that you do. Once you’ve done Broadway, you’d better be able to sing! Yeah, I’ve been singing my whole life, and I had records out when I was a teenager. They were surprised because they didn’t know, but I’ve been doing it my whole life.
BE: Was the appearance on “Celebrity Duets” what led you to end up appearing on “Dancing with the Stars”?
AR: I’ve never done on “Dancing with the Stars.”
BE: (Laughs sheepishly) You know, I’ve learned from experience that I can’t always trust Wikipedia, but my odds are usually better with IMDb.
AR: Well, IMDb…I personally think that IMDB and some of those Wikipedia things are absolutely ridiculous, because I have been trying to write in to them and tell them, “I didn’t do this,” and they never change it. Like, supposedly, my parents are from the Dominican Republic. My parents are from Trinidad and Tobago! (Writer’s note: As penance for my egregious error, I have duly removed Ribeiro’s name from Wikipedia’s List of People from the Dominican Republic.) So they’re not always correct. But, no, all that I did was, I went on and hung out with my buddy Joey Fatone, who was currently doing the show. So I went and was sitting in the audience. That’s all I did.
BE: Well, if it’s any consolation, they did have you appearing on the show through Round 9.
AR: (Sarcastically) Wow. Yeah, because I guess I was there through Round 9 to watch my buddy. But I didn’t collect a paycheck, so I don’t know how it’s considered work.
BE: You got me. And I can’t get them to change anything at IMDb, either, for what it’s worth. So what’s the favorite project you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
AR: Well, I’ll still say “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” I think that we’re getting the love now, but we weren’t getting the ratings that I thought we deserved at the time. But I think the reality in the world is that, sometimes, people just need to find it. And once they’ve found it, they’ve stuck with it. “The Fresh Prince” has a whole new generation of people. It was really great. It was great fun.
BE: How was Carlton as a character to play? Did he stay approximately the same for you from beginning to end?
AR: Well, he changed, of course. He got older and sometimes a little crazier, sometimes a little cooler. But he was a lot of fun to play, because he was truly a three-dimensional character.
BE: I was just wondering, because I’ve talked to some sitcom stars who’ve said that the writers kept changing aspects of their characters from season to season. I didn’t know if you felt that that happened at all with Carlton.
AR: Well, I mean, people change. So, to me, I want that character to change. I don’t want that character to stay exactly the same for that long. People grow and they change, and I’m sure in your life there have been times when someone said something to you that made you go, “Wow, you’re right, I have to take a new approach on that.” And that’s what life is about: growing. And I think characters should do the same.
BE: Last question: how did your appearance in the movie “Ticks” come about? If we’re to presume that IMDb is right about this one, of course.
AR: I was in that. And they offered it to me during the first year of “The Fresh Prince.” That’s when I worked with Seth, actually. It was…wow, it’s not one of those jobs where we go, “Yeah! I hope everybody saw that!” But it’s certainly something that I had a good time shooting, at least.
BE: I believe Clint Howard was in that film, too, wasn’t he?
AR: He was. He didn’t actually shoot with us, though. He came in afterwards, I believe. But, yes, he was in it.
BE: I was just remembering that, when I interviewed him awhile back, he told me about how he’d gone into a sitcom audition, and one of the execs said, “I just saw you in ‘Ticks.’” And the first question Clint had was, “Why did you watch that?”
AR: And that is a very good question. (Laughs)
BE: Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you, and good luck with the show!AR: Thank you very much!