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updated: 11/4/2013 7:30 PM

After being a Highland Park black kid, 'comedy was survival'

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  • Comedian Marina Franklin spent her childhood moving around the Chicago area, including Highland Park, Chicago's South Side and finally Park Forest.

    Comedian Marina Franklin spent her childhood moving around the Chicago area, including Highland Park, Chicago's South Side and finally Park Forest.


Marina Franklin was the only black girl in her Highland Park elementary school.

"There also was a black boy. They expected us to date," joked Franklin, a rising star in standup comedy who recently opened for Chris Rock and co-stars on Showtime's "Women Who Kill" comedy special.

Her minority status changed when Franklin was 9 years old and her family moved from Highland Park to a rough neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. Franklin didn't want to disclose details on why they moved, but she said her dad's business had gone under. The transition was hard on her, and being funny helped her get by.

"I went from being the only black kid in an all-white neighborhood, to being the only white kid in an all-black neighborhood. I was, like, bilingual. I could do a white voice or do a black voice," she said. "I had to be a funny kid to survive the moving. That's why I do a lot of impersonations and acting onstage. Comedy was survival for me."

Franklin's family eventually settled in south suburban Park Forest, where Franklin thrived among the mixed-race student body at Rich East High School (a place she described as "the utopia of interracial dating").

Her talents for acting, comedy and accents were starting to shine, and she was the star of the speech team -- a place she said she learned a lot of skills that would eventually serve her well in stand-up.

"Believe it or not, I did 'Huckleberry Finn.' I think I won because they couldn't imagine that a black girl would do Huckleberry Finn. They were thrown by it," she said.

Franklin studied acting and earned a master's degree in fine arts from Syracuse University. But as an actress, she felt something was missing.

"I gravitated toward doing things where it was just me onstage. It veered off into comedy because I couldn't get any jobs in acting," she joked.

Franklin certainly got jobs as a comedian. In recent years, she's made the rounds at comedy festivals around the world and appeared on dozens of TV shows, including NBC's "Last Comic Standing," "Showtime at The Apollo," and "Craig Ferguson's Late Late Show," and specials on OWN and Comedy Central.

She's now touring the country doing standup and will perform Jan. 7-12 at Zanies Comedy Club in Chicago.

Franklin's act includes stories of her racial challenges as a kid growing up in the suburbs. "There's a warm feeling or a shock when you say you grew up in Highland Park. Some people will say, 'I'm so sorry that that happened to you,'" she said, laughing.

Franklin likes to do accents -- black, white and Irish are among her specialties. She also does a great Haitian accent, which she picked up from the family of a Haitian man she was dating.

Most of Franklin's comedy is about things she sees in her day-to-day life in New York. That covers everything from riding the subway to watching a mom discipline her kids, or even shopping at Target. Her observational comedy is so popular that she's now developing a web comedy show that would consist of a camera following her around town.

"Stand-up is a craft that you have to continually work at to be good at it," she said. "I'm not in comedy to become an actress. Acting is who I am as well. If I'm always working as a stand-up comedian, I'm happy."

-- Jamie Sotonoff

• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are now in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make a good column feature, email them at and

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