We stood five feet apart, just staring at each other, right before the camera began to roll. Me in jeans, a shirt, glasses, and him in his get-up, a tight leather outfit that wished it was made out of cotton.I worked for "Chappelle’s Show" for its entire run (the better part of two and a half years from 2003-2006) in several jobs, from writing assistant to associate producer.
But today -- this particular day in 2004 -- it became my sole responsibility to remind Rick James the words to his own international hit, "Superfreak." But let’s back up.
Rick James arrived late to the taping, like an icon should, and was now refusing to come out unless we put all the words to "Superfreak" on cue cards.
At that time, I knew two things about Rick James:
1. He was found guilty of holding a woman hostage and burning her with a crack pipe. Twice.
2. He wrote "Superfreak." That’s right. "Superfreak." Which I am now printing out from the Internet, which seems weird, because we got the guy here who wrote it. But OK.
Here is the thing. I am now the cue card girl. I have no idea how to do cue cards. Plus, we don’t even have any cue cards. We have poster board. Which is twice as long. Time stops as I begin writing in giant block letters. The scrawl is a little slanted in some places, some words stretched out longer than others.Incidentally, most of the words to "Superfreak" …are "Superfreak."
It’s like "Happy Birthday." Most of the words are happy birthday, except sexier. So when I finally come out to the stage, face to face with Rick James, I feel a bit dumb. I look like I’m wearing sandwich board where you can only order a sandwich called “The Superfreak.”
Then we just stood there. It’s not often that your job is just to stand in front of a celebrity. I didn’t know what to say. So I asked “Are these alright Mr. James?” in my best placating 1950s paperboy voice.
“Yes, thank you,” he said, politely.And right as they piped in smoke around him -- all of us really -- we looked straight into each other’s eyes. Then something weird happened.
Rick James looked lost.
Like a guy who had a hard job and this was not his best day and he seemed out of it and he was about to get more lost if someone didn't step in.
Suddenly, I felt responsible for him. I was in charge now. I was gonna help this dude succeed. It was my job to make this work -- in some kind of weirdly maternal way.
So, what I’m saying to you is that the most parental I have ever felt is in assisting Rick James as he tried to remember the lyrics to his own international hit song, an ode to a sexually frisky lady who will never meet his mother.
The music started, and I was mouthing the words and pointing to the lyrics line by line. He followed my lips at first, still hazy, then the cue cards, and then he was off and running. By the line “Incense, Wine, and Candles” he really had it. He really did. And I feel really proud. Sure, he wasn't actually playing the guitar and the backup band wasn’t really his backup band and as he said the last line “Blow, Danny!” it wasn't Danny, it was just an actor with a saxophone.
But he did it.
As Rick James finished, I thought: Man that is one catchy tune. Except it wasn’t, or else I would’ve spent all day doing something else. Ultimately, the musical segment never made it to air. I think the producers felt the performance wasn’t flattering to the man.But I’m pretty sure they found the cue card work OUTSTANDING. A few days after the shoot, the show got a $2,000 hotel bill for Rick James’ one-night stay. When questioned, his assistant offered only one answer: “Well, that’s how Rick James lives.” That is awesome. My version would be someone asking me why I was trying to expense some turkey bacon I bought during a working lunch. “Well, that’s how Tamara Federici lives,” someone would say.