Black comedy has been getting a much-deserved spotlight in 2019, and the very smart and extremely funny team Astronomy Club is bringing their self-titled, all-Black sketch show to Netflix on December 6, capping an amazing year for funny people of a darker hue.
Astronomy Club is an all-Black ensemble that has been putting their spin on sketch comedy with hilarious results. The cast, which includes head writers Jonathan Braylock and Keisha Zollar, alongside members Caroline Martin, James III, Jerah Milligan, Monique Moses, Ray Cordova and Shawtane Bowen, has been performing since 2014.
Eventually, the comedy troupe became the first and only all-Black house team at the famed Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Times Square. They became known for their recurring sketch show A Journey Thru Black History using their own experiences to satirize racism in America. The group then brought their comedy talents to the screen with their self-titled Comedy Central series.
Now with a brand new show on Netflix, the Kenya Barris-produced sketch show tackles everything from race, gender, politics, rehabbing magical negroes and everything Black.
BET.com caught up with Jonathan Braylock, James III and Jerah Milligan (who also host the popular and insanely funny podcast Black Man Can’t Jump in Hollywood) to talk about the challenges of Black comics, bringing their crew to Netflix, and how Astronomy Club are the Avengers of Black comedy.
BET: 2019 is turning out to be a big year for Black comedy, and Astronomy Club is adding to an already stellar year. With a sort of Black comedic renaissance happening, how do you feel about the current state of Black comedy?
Jerah Milligan: I think it’s a beautiful time for Black comedy. During the golden era of Hollywood we had Sidney Poitier, but he wasn't allowed at parties or events. We were around the rebel era with Martin Scorsese and other people like that, who didn't have African-Americans in lead roles in their movies. So to me this new inclusion era, whatever we call this thing, is great because we do live in a point right now where not only do we get to see Black people from all facets of life, like Sherman Showcase, a variety show set like Soul Train, there’s also A Black Lady Sketch Show, with Robin Theade, who are just doing whatever they want that relates to Black women.
Now Astronomy Club, with eight people of color from different places, we can cover so much, from women's rights, African-American things that affect the Black people in the LGBTQ, and we can do it because it's fun, and we can show Black kids that they can do any one of these little pockets, you know? They can watch every last one of our shows, support all of us, and it's OK to do that. There's no competition. We're all family, and it's so cool to have that experience.
James III: I think it's a beautiful but I don't think it's a coincidence, necessarily, that it's all happening at once. I do think that we are in a different time where people are more aware and that there definitely needs to be more Black voices that are available and out there for people to witness. Sherman’s Showcase was in development for a couple years before it became a show. I remember seeing articles about A Black Lady Sketch Show at least a year or so before it came out. All of us popping at the same time, is a beautiful thing.
BET: How did Astronomy Club come together?
James III: We were all doing comedy in various different improv and other comedy theaters in New York. We came together with the idea like, you know, we want to be an all-Black team at UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade]. We all sort of knew each other in different ways.
When you're doing comedy in the improv sketch comedy space, you don't see a lot of Black faces. So I think part of the reason that we came together was because so many of us already knew each other, and when we saw another Black person we got excited like, “Oh, my God, who are you?” “What's your name?” “What are you doing here? So it was a matter of time before we started working together.
Jonathan Braylock: Basically, James III was like Nick Fury. He was like, “I see all these Black people killing it on the improv and sketch world in New York City. But like, if we all come together and put our talents together, we can create something bigger, better, more beautiful, and that's what happened.
Luckily we were able to stick together as a family. We've had our fights and our disagreements, but we have this beautiful chemistry that has allowed us to grow and get to this point where we get to have our own Netflix show, which is kind of insane, right? We were all doing shows in basements for free paying to practice and paying for rehearsal spaces, so we could do free shows for, you know, 100 people in the basement.
Jerah Milligan: What Braylock just touched on is we've had our ups and downs. The UCB New York City space is mad white. It’s like white dudes with flannel shirt, different colors, and a beard. Or it would be a white girl with a flannel shirt who talks like the white dudes. So for me, I personally hated the experience.
I remember, I didn't know James or Jon, which is funny because I talk to them the most now, but I would run into Shawtae and Ray and there would always be one Black person on a house team at once. When that one person left, it's like, “Oh snap, a spot opened up but a white dude got it.” So Astronomy Club was a safety net. Like, you can do warm up games, you could sing songs, and people would know the songs you would sing. There were so many times you would do these games and people will reference Smashing Pumpkins or Green Day, which is cool, don’t get me wrong, but that’s not what I grew up on. I grew up Montell Jordan. I want to sing TLC. So it was cool to be in a Black space and not have your Black experience be the joke in the scene.
James III: That is the biggest thing that's important about Astronomy Club to me, what other people will see when they look at us. We all got together because all we saw were white people being weird, saying all this stuff, you know, listening to the Green Day, etc. I remember I was saying "flossing" in a set and everyone looked at me like I was crazy. And of course we did a scene about a dentist, because that's what all the white people thought I meant when I was talking about flossing. I hope people look at Astronomy Club and want to be their own weird.
BET: What’s brilliant about Astronomy Club is that it puts on display the diversity of Black comedy. Coming out of the Def Jam era in the '90s, it seemed like all the Black comics had to be extremely loud and ultra aggressive. But that's not the whole story about Black comedy and what we consider to be funny.
Jerah Milligan: It’s a different thing. Me, John and James all like movies and superhero stuff, which nowadays is super popular, but growing up that wasn't a thing that most Black people were down with. First of all, we weren't in those movies. Almost every superhero movie has Black in the title, so the fact that we can go on stage and we can show that kind of experience is crazy. We have Monique, who's from Canada and she knows race from a drastically different perspective than me because I grew up in a more urban area. Keisha grew up as she likes to say, “Huxtable Black,” and we get to do that stuff, which is fascinating. I think people in Hollywood expect Black to be a certain kind of thing. They expect pain, drugs and trauma. You know, if you're gonna make it out you have to be an athlete, singer or rapper. We can be cooks, too. We can be a teacher. We can go into a high school and save a bunch of white kids by teaching them about math.
Jonathan Braylock: And our comedy can be different. One of the things I love about Sherman’s Showcase is that that show is freaking weird, but it’s so good. It's funny, but to your point, Black Comedy when we were growing up in the '90s -- and this is no diss to it because it was great -- but a Black comedian had to be the fast talker, had to be quick on their feet. You had the Eddie Murphys, the Chris Tuckers, and now, like, the Kevin Harts.
But also in the Black Diaspora, there are people who are just weird or like things that are, you know, off-color things that don't have to necessarily do with race. The beauty of our team is there are eight of us. We have a comedic sensibility as Astronomy Club, but our own individual tastes are different. We get to bring that to the table in this show, which I think is great.
BET: How did you connect with Kenya Barris, who got Astronomy Club on Netflix?
James III: I gotta give Braylock the credit on that. We already hooked up with Dan Powell, which was a move that was made on purpose. This dude had already done Amy Schumer, he has Emmys, he’s white, and that was a purposeful thing. No no matter what room we go into, we have a white dude who's comfortable, you know, for other white people. We know the world we live in. Me, James, Braylock’s wife, Tessa, and Keisha did a show in LA. When Braylock ran into Anni, who works with Kenya, there were a lot of things that Braylock knew ahead of what we knew. Braylock had a friend who was working with Kenya and knew he wanted a sketch show.
This is a Saturday, most of the members of Astronomy Club were coming in on Monday, and our Netflix pitch meeting was on a Wednesday. So Braylock had the foresight to be like, “I already know they want sketch, Kenya Barris has a $100 million dollar deal, but no show has been announced yet. If this is the thing that we do, we need to team up.” So he sent an email to myself and Keisha and said, “Do you think Dan is gonna want to team up?” We were like, “Yeah. That’s smart business.” That move was really Braylock being like, “Oh, we can finagle this and go in with an even more powerful hand.” A lot of credit has to go to him for that one.
BET: How was the creative process in coming up with the “Magical Negro Rehab” sketch? That’s going down as one of the best sketches ever.
Jereh Milligan: I’ll be honest, it was a lot of contention with that sketch because the “Magical Negro” is something that as Black people, we had to do that to get an Oscar in a movie or to get in a prestigious movie. So it had to be perfect. I think, and guys, let me know, we had to retool, always constantly being like, is this the right sketch?
James III: The original pitch, by the way, Monique Moses wrote the sketch, and it was a very funny pitch. It was such a unique topic, and we could approach it from so many angles that there was a lot of back and forth with it.
What was always so much fun for us was like, “What would the magical negroes watch?” “How would they react to other white people?” There was so much funny stuff, but for time’s sake didn’t make it in. It was super fun to try to embody these characters, these iconic characters. Whoopi Goldberg won an Oscar for that role [in Ghost]. Almost all of them were nominated for playing magical negroes. We wanted to flip it to tell the other side of the story.
Jonathan Braylock: Shout out to our costume team that really put it together. The costumes and makeup really allowed us to transform into those characters, and that was so much fun.
Jerah Milligan: Mo had this really cool idea, and I think what’s dope about Astronomy Club is that we're really good at policing each other. We have Caroline, Keisha and Mo making sure the skits are not sexist. Braylock is making sure that it has to be funny and smart. You have me and James saying it has to be fun. So by the time the sketch makes it to the actual screen, it's been through eight people already, before anybody has seen it. When we became a team, we wanted to know how Black we could be. No matter what, there's a responsibility at the end of the day. We will be, for the most part, a white audience’s window into Black culture. I think we always try to treat that with respect and care.
BET: For those who are new to sketch comedy and have never seen an ensemble cast of Black people in this medium, what do you want the audience to get out of Astronomy Club?
Jonathan Braylock: First and foremost, we want people to have a good time and be entertained. We set out to make a sketch show that was really funny and touch on a variety of different topics. I hope that people can see like, yeah, there is room here for many different Black comedy shows, sketch shows, sitcoms, movies, and we have the ability to do a variety of different things. We do have some sketches that have a little bit of meaning if you pay attention, you realize, oh, there's some commentary baked into there, which we always like to do. I hope people enjoy it but then also from those sketches that have that commentary, maybe think a little differently about things.