Don’t you hate when you just can’t remember whether you’ve been somewhere before? Marsha Warfield doesn’t quite recall whether she’s ever performed in Kansas City. She probably has. She’s hit up a lot of comedy clubs for gigs, even some that aren’t around anymore.
However, the actress and comedian best known as Roz, the no-nonsense bailiff on the 1980s TV show Night Court, does know this: She will be here this weekend, performing April 25-27 at the Comedy Club of Kansas City. I had the chance to chat with her, asking about her career in comedy and acting and her life now as an out gay woman.
Warfield got her start in her hometown of Chicago in 1974 doing stand-up comedy. She opened for musical talents and for other comedians. At the time, three-act comedy shows didn’t exist. She took what she got. Eventually, she made it out to Los Angeles. Between 1977 and 1978, Warfield was doing improv at comedy clubs and was even on The Richard Pryor Show, which only lasted for four episodes in 1977. However, it wasn’t until 1986 that she got her break on Night Court.
At the time she auditioned, the cast of Night Court was grieving for two of their ensemble members. Selma Diamond, who had played the bailiff, passed away, and later, her replacement, Florence Halop, died as well. The writers weren’t sure about adding another full-time bailiff. The call went out, though, and Warfield did the audition with a pack of cigarettes in her hand, then left.
“I honestly didn’t think I’d get it,” she said. “I was scheduled to perform in Seattle, so I got on the plane and got the call that ‘You got it. We’d like you to start next week.’”
And she did.
“It was nerve-wracking, coming into an ensemble cast, but everyone was very welcoming. Harry [Anderson, who played Judge Harry T. Stone and had first performed as a magician] and I were talking before we started filming, and he asked, ‘How you doing?’ And I told him, ‘I’m nervous.’ ‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘I’m not an actor either.’”
The creators and writers weren’t sure whether they wanted their new bailiff to be a regular on the show, and Warfield filmed three or four episodes before they decided to keep her.
To perfect her role, Warfield enrolled in an acting class, and by the second lesson, they wanted her to get an acting book. The second lesson was “Keep it simple.”
“I closed the book and never went back to class,” she says.
Warfield played Roz as an observer, a newcomer, much like she was, to the zany, no-holds-barred antics that the court got up to. “Roz is me, and not me,” she says. “She looks a lot like me.”
Her patented look that communicated: “Y’all are crazy and this isn’t going to work” played into Warfield’s interpretation of Roz, which was that she was just there to do a job, until she punched the clock and went home. She was always available, though, to tell the others: “I told you it wouldn’t work.”
Warfield kept up with her stand-up work during Night Court and later Empty Nest, a spin-off from Golden Girls. She took a break for a while, but now she’s back on the comedy circuit, with material from her life, particularly as a recently out gay woman. She’s a seasoned, freaky granny, with no filters. She performs with perspective about what’s important, about how much you could miss if you’re worrying about tomorrow. And as someone who lived with a concealed identity, Warfield knows all about that.
In previous interviews, Warfield has explained that when she came out to her mother, her mother said she respected Warfield for telling her and asked her not to go public with the news until after the mother’s death. Frustrated that her mother never told her that she had already known, Warfield couldn’t shake the negative stigma of being gay for a long time. She came out publicly in 2017.
“Being gay in America is dealing with not knowing how to fit into all these boxes, and a lot of them are negative,” Warfield said. However, when she came out to herself, she thought: “Oh, that’s why I’m different.”
Now in her 60s, Warfield has stopped arming herself to face the world and instead can just be herself.
Warfield says she envies younger generations for the freedoms they have in a culture that is more accepting.
“In some ways, it’s easier for them, and in some ways it’s harder,” she said.
Her generation called people like her “tomboys” and viewed being gay as a threat. But she’s hoping to change that conversation. She has never experienced exclusion based on her orientation, she says, but as an older black woman, Warfield is no stranger to forms of discrimination. She uses her platform as a performer to talk up her identities ٲ– gay, black, older – and she works to build up and empower anyone like her.
“What I have to say are not just jokes; they’re shadows of people who have something to say. I have an hour on stage – why wouldn’t I talk about what I care about? And make it fun and funny, too?”
Warfield calls her herself a keyboard warrior too, and is a proud online social justice warrior, sharing positive posts. Her favorite ones are about beautiful, vibrant, sexy old ladies.
“Yeah, baby, let the goddess rise.”
If you go
Warfield’s performances at the Comedy Club of Kansas City, 1130 W. 103rd St., Kansas City, Mo. Her shows will be at 7:30 p.m. April 25-27. On April 26 and 27 (Friday and Saturday), she will play an additional show each night, at 10 p.m. Tickets: www.thecomedyclubkc.com.