Talking Astronomy Club and “Black Men Can’t Jump [in Hollywood]” with Jonathan, Jerah and James III

Comedy Features Astronomy Club
Talking Astronomy Club and “Black Men Can’t Jump [in Hollywood]” with Jonathan, Jerah and James III

In December, Netflix dropped its latest original sketch comedy series, Astronomy Club. The six-episode series, executive produced by Kenya Barris, comes from the sketch comedy troupe of the same name, comprised of eight African-American members hailing from the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) in New York City. In addition to the series, three members of Astronomy Club—Jonathan Braylock, Jerah Milligan, and James III—have also gained notoriety in the comedy world for their Forever Dog Network podcast “Black Men Can’t Jump [in Hollywood],” where they rate and review mainstream films with leading black actors (as well as other leading actors of color) in the context of Hollywood’s race issues.

(The podcast also constantly discusses the ever-important issue of whether certain terrible Will Smith movies—such as Hancock and After Earth—are actually good. For James III, at least, they are.)

Paste Magazine recently spoke with Jonathan, Jerah and James about Astronomy Club on Netflix and “Black Men Can’t Jump…,” as well as their experiences coming up in UCB and making comedy with eight different voices in charge.

Paste: First things first: Who and what are your comedy and acting inspirations? As Marc Maron would say, “Who are your guys?”

Jonathan: That’s a good question. I think for me, my inspirations I feel change a lot, but some of the top ones—when I was getting into comedy—were people like Donald Glover. Because he was able to do so many things. He was performing at improv and sketch—online videos—that his team made, [they made] a movie, he was writing for 30 Rock, and then starring in Community. And, of course, created his own show with Atlanta and he’s done movies like Solo.

It was like, people who have had these careers where they showed off their versatility, they didn’t have to be segregated to one small avenue. I always was inspired by people like that.

Jerah: My inspiration’s kind of tricky, to be truthfully honest, because there weren’t… young black people for me growing up that I could be like, “Oh, this guy proves I can do it.” Will Smith, I loved, but Will Smith was a rapper who became an actor who became a movie star. I don’t rap, you know what I mean? He’s funny, but I didn’t know how to be that.

I always loved Eddie Murphy, but Eddie Murphy was older and I wasn’t allowed to really watch him because of all the cursing and stuff like that, so a lot of that stuff I couldn’t see. So for me, to be truthfully honest, to be real, I looked at what some of the white performers on SNL did, you know what I mean? I knew that Will Ferrell came from sketch, I knew Tina Fey came from sketch. And then kinda once I got to New York City… I was already out of college by the time I even heard of Donald Glover, to be honest. It was a legendary black dude who went to NYU, who worked at UCB, then got a writing job while he was still an RA—that sounded insane.

So to me, there wasn’t a really strong inspiration for me. It was just, “Oh, I just want to act. I just want to produce. I just want to direct.” It was really just that and realizing that there weren’t a lot of black people who had a chance to do the exact same thing I wanted to do. So, attempting to do that was more of an inspiration to me than a person, if that makes sense.

James: And for me, just really quickly, my biggest inspirations growing up were Kenan [Thompson] and Kel [Mitchell], coming up from All That and getting their own show and doing movies together. I super looked up to that. Donald Glover is really big for me. And I would say, even beyond that, how Jordan Peele and his moving through different zones—as a sketch comedian up and down, sort of taking over as this sci-fi horror director guy. It’s really exciting and it’s exactly the kind of path that I want to be on.

Paste: Jerah, you talk about not seeing a lot of young black actors you could really look at and see a one-to-one ratio that overlapped, and all three of you, you came up through UCB, where it’s even rarer to see black comedians come up. In this case, not only the three of you but all eight of you in Astronomy Club came up this way. Could you talk more about that experience of coming up in UCB, especially considering the rarity that that is for black comedians?

Jerah: I, quite frankly, hated it. I think I’ve been very open about that, because I think there are… Improv and sketch—it’s not a poor person’s comedy, you know what I mean? Sometimes I feel like [with] stand-up, you can kinda get up at a club, but improv… You gotta have teammates, you gotta do rehearsals. Sketch… You’ve gotta buy props and stuff like that. So it’s kind of expensive, to truthfully honest.

For me, in my experience, I was an intern at UCB, and I remember working the door. And I had very few people even say “hello” to me, like performer-wise, when they walked in. I remember it. I hated it. As a matter of fact, I was quitting UCB when Shawtane Bowen, who’s on the team, mentioned that James, who I had never met at the time, was starting a practice group. I had literally, maybe two weeks prior, told my person who I was interning for at UCB Chelsea that I was quitting. I think I didn’t even take my scholarship that I got. I’m just done. And then Shawtane came with the practice team, and that got me to stick around because I didn’t see black people. I’d never had a class with another black person.

I had saw Ray [Cordova] a couple of times, and I met Shawtane at a practice group once, and we were cool because he said the same hood stuff that I talked about. But I feel like—it is even hard for me now, honestly, to refer people to UCB. And I know it’s much, much better, and they have done things for Astronomy Club, but… For the most part, it is very excluding to feel like a unicorn in a place. You feel like you have no one to talk to, no one to relate to, no one that understands the jokes that you want to talk about, no one that has the same music style, someone who doesn’t understand, “Oh, man, my grandma said this at a cookout.” “My auntie said that at a cookout!” It’s just very hard when you feel so alone all the time.

Jonathan: Yeah, I guess to add on… That was well put, Jerah. I mean, I know I was, when I started taking classes from UCB, I really… It was honestly because of Donald Glover, I would say, and then also this other group that I knew about. I think, I was working with my friend Ramy Youssef at the time, and we kind of very quickly noticed, “Oh, there’s not that many people of color on the stage.” And it was definitely hard for us to get in. And I think at a certain point, I also was like, “I’m not going to really try to put all my eggs in all this basket.”

And it really was because James kind of reached out and tried to make this all-black team. That was the only reason I auditioned for a house improv team. I was not going to do that. This was before Astronomy Club started.

James: Yeah, I feel like I don’t have much to add beyond what they have said. That was pretty much the climate at the time that we got together as Astronomy Club. It was very… Jerah said he never saw another person of color in any of his classes. I was lucky to have, like, one in each of my classes. I was never the only one in my classes. There was always… you get one or two, and it really would feel like… What’s super hard about improv is, you are creating it together with other people. If you don’t have that shared experience, shared experiences like Jerah was talking about, it makes it really difficult to come up with ideas or feel like you are a part of the team.

That was sort of where Astronomy Club was born out of. This idea of, “Wow, these teams that are being put together by the theater are all predominantly white. And why can’t there be one where it’s just predominantly black? Or predominantly Asian?” You know. That was where that came from.

Paste: With the podcast, “Black Men Can’t Jump [in Hollywood],” you guys talk a lot about “the cause” and how it leads the way for more leading black actors and actors of color in leading roles. In my review of Astronomy Club, I essentially wrote that the series is actually helping “the cause”: Despite the struggles, you guys coming up in UCB have paved the way, making it so people can see that there are black people in sketch and improv. Going through all of this, have you seen other younger comedians come up to you and say, “Hey, seeing you guys do this, this allowed me to push through, even though it didn’t seem like it would be possible?”

Jonathan: Yeah, it’s a really humbling thing when that happens because I know how much it meant to me to see other black people perform comedy and do different things. So it’s crazy to think that our improv team, which we felt like we’d get out of it stuff we need but also fun, has inspired so many people. We’ve definitely got it. I remember when we first started performing at UCB, even after we got broken up and were doing a sketch show that we had written and just constantly performing even though we were no longer a house team, so many people…I know personally, people would come up to me and say, “Hey, I was thinking about coming here and I didn’t really see myself. Then I saw Astronomy Club and it was so inspirational.” We definitely get those messages. I’ve gotten them even more now with the Netflix show. It’s truly a really awesome, I guess, byproduct of what we’ve been doing.

James: I just want to say quickly, I think the beauty of it is, and what has been so rewarding to see, as we were coming up, we had one person, two people, on various different teams to look at, and it was sort of perpetuating this idea to be the one on that team. But I think, at least what I have seen or noticed in Astronomy Club, was at UCB, it’s like more, it seems, more people of color showing up—still not like 50/50 or whatever the actual demographic should be to make sense—but seeing more and more black people coming up and hopefully changing the idea that you can be that one person, but more like you can all do this, like everyone.

Jerah: I think they said everything great. The only thing that gets me sometimes is when people say they “watched” us: It makes me feel old as hell. I’m like, “Wait, hold on a second. I ain’t— I’m happy you’ve been inspired, but I’m not that old.” You know what I mean? We still trying, too, you know. I ain’t even met Eddie Murphy yet. That’s all I have to add. They were smarter about their responses.

Paste: How exactly did the Netflix show come to be? You obviously had the Comedy Central digital sketches online.

Jonathan: The actual Netflix of it all was very quick. The Comedy Central sketches that you mentioned was something that took honestly two years. We had pitched that at the end of 2016. We had made three videos in 2017 that Comedy Central wound up holding. We made three more in 2018, and they finally released all six of them at the end of 2018. And we got Dan Powell and Irony Point Production onboard and pitched it to Comedy Central. They wound up passing.

And when they passed is when we went out to other networks—Netflix was one of them. And a very serendipitous moment happened where I had met a friend of mine who now works for Kenya Barris. We had gone to college together and through that meeting, we kind of set up a meeting with Kenya Barris before he pitched to Netflix. He was super excited about making Astronomy Club with us, so he jumped on board, and Netflix picked it up.

I think from pickup to the series release was nine months. It was the quickest kind of turnaround, completely opposite to the Comedy Central experience of it. It was very exciting.

Paste: And what exactly is the writing and production process for a typical episode of Astronomy Club?

Jerah: It is almost like a traditional sketch show. We got a writers’ room and the eight of us, we all come in with our pitches. Usually come in with your idea, you pitch it to the room. And usually, I mean, I think sometimes the person who pitches it, the idea they’re either most passionate about or the idea that gets the most laughs in the room is probably the one that will get worked on the most.

I think the beauty of the Astronomy Club writers’ room is that we’ve all known each other for years now, so we all kinda know what comedy style that we lean to, and we all kind of can get the best of that. That’s the real beauty in that room. We have women. We have men. We have people in the LGBTQ community. So we are able to see it as, ”Does this joke kinda pass this test? This joke, is it going to be offensive to this person? Are we saying the B-word too much? Are we saying the N-word too much?” I think we’re really good at policing—

James: “Are we saying the N-word enough?”

Jerah: I think we’re good at that, and I think that is what’s helped us in the long run, that we have eight voices that can kinda run the gamut of what we want to talk about content-wise. That’s how I would say it goes, but I feel like James and Bray can maybe say it in a cool way.

James: I feel like Jerah really explained how the room works. You know, we’ve had some ups and downs. But I would say it’s always been a pretty supportive room as well. Sometimes if you felt strongly about an idea, but it didn’t quite play in terms of pitch, you could go off and write that. I feel like I’m giving the psychology of how I was feeling throughout the show. But I did feel very supported in that way.

So we were able to generate a lot of content. We have 30 sketches in the show, and five [for each] of those different reality shows. But we wrote 100 sketches or something. Give or take five. And then to choose 30… Yeah, it was usually great.

Paste: Are there specific characters or bits that you all prefer to play? In the “Space Jam” episode of “Black Men Can’t Jump…,” you guys noted how all of James’s impressions become Katt Williams—and then there was, of course, the Katt Williams sketch.

James: It’s very true. It’s very real. I don’t plan on that happening. No matter what impression, it just slowly becomes Katt-adjacent, if not Katt Williams. There are a handful of stock characters I like to play, too. Like, I didn’t get to play a lot of old men on the show, but in improv, I love playing old men. Honestly, any time I get a chance to do an impression—Katt Williams or the person I’m trying to do an impression of—I love doing those parts.

Jerah: I have nothing to add to that. That question just made me laugh.

Paste: What have been some of your favorite sketches of the season?

Jerah: Actually, you know what? I don’t think I have a favorite sketch in this—I really enjoy the interstitials, because to me, I think we got a chance to do something that a lot of sketch performers don’t. You got to see us, or at least a version of us. We all got to play in the scenes together. I feel like, for a bigger group, we don’t have too many sketches out of 30, to be honest, that have all eight of us in it. I think one of the ones, like “Lamp Room” I think is a really fun sketch because we’re all there fighting over something. You know, Braylock thinks he’s the leader, but he’s not. James is just happy to be there. I’m clearly the leader, which people really understand. I think that plays out really well.

James: That’s not clear at all.

Jerah: I’m just giving her an answer about what I like.

James: Jerah, that’s not remotely a part of the thing.

Jerah: Jon wrote it, so you should talk to him, because I didn’t write the interstitial. Jon wrote that one.

“For the Culture,” I think, is really important because, as black performers, because we’re doing sketch, that is something that can come off very corny. It can be a thing where, you know, “Are we cool enough? Are we black enough, to do this kind of thing? What is this?” And I think we were able to touch on that. And it’s something that I think all people of color feel. If you aren’t super hood and super tough… What happens if you are from the suburbs, or not from the suburbs but not from “the hood” hood, you’re in that middle ground that no one ever talks about. Those are the things that I like.

James: I will say, just to piggyback off what we were talking about Katt Williams before. I first did that character in 2012, 2013 or something, at UCB. It’s really crazy that it’s on a TV show. That just, for me, just from a personal “what the sketch means to me” way, I’m so excited that sketch got made. But I think my favorite sketch, or one of my favorite sketches, would be the Mary Poppins sketch. It’s in the last episode. And I totally laugh every time Shawtane says, “She got the new Jordans… Shame on you.” I cry laugh every time.

And then the umbrella almost saying the N-word. I like that sketch. It’s funny.

Jonathan: I have so many. I like so many of them. I love “Shade Off,” I love “Robin Hood.” Jerah’s doing the “I killed Chucky” press conference is so funny, the Katt Williams sketch is so great. There’s so many good ones. I think that’s also what makes our show great is that we have such a variety of humor because we’re eight people. So there’s definitely something for everybody, and I kind of love that in a sketch show. So I’m so happy we got to do that.

Paste: And with there being eight people in the sketch troupe, how is that experience? How do you keep it democratic and civil without going insane during creative or personal clashing?

Jerah: We get the boxing gloves and just go for it, all day.

James: The short answer to how do we keep civil is: We don’t.

Jerah: I do think that is the beauty of it, though. I don’t say it lightly, but we’ve known each other for five or six years now. And I do think there is a family aspect of it where it’s like, I know if I say something to Braylock—before I say it—it may piss him off. I know before I say it, you know what I’m saying? And vice versa with James or whether it’s Caroline or something. And I think, because we kinda all know that and we all know that we are friends and we’ve known each other for years, and that for the greater good we need to figure this out for this TV show, I think someone always has a time out moment. Whether it’s, “Yo, let me walk out real quick,” or whether it’s Shawtane being like, “Jerah, let’s go for a walk around the block and then come back.”

And I think that kind of stuff helps because someone’s always taking care of someone else. And I think as long as we always continue to look out for each other in some kind of way, we’ll be fine, you know what I mean?

Paste: Jerah, I’m fascinated about the “Ice Cube Day” episode, since you’ve talked on the podcast about how you feel about rappers acting. Especially in the Barber Shop episode—you had a lot to say about Ice Cube’s acting.

Jerah: Oh, you remember that one. Okay.

Paste: Of course. How did that episode of Astronomy Club come to be? Because it’s brilliant.

Jerah: That interstitial was written by me and Shawtane Bowen. Shawtane—just wanna say—he loves Ice Cube and he came in one day, literally with “Ice Cube Day.” Straight up, he was like, “I want to have an Ice Cube Day.” And then we kinda sat down, like, “How does this work?” We just thought it would be funny at one point to just go through all the famous Ice Cube movies, because at the end of the day, no matter how I feel personally about rappers and acting, Ice Cube has been around for a long [time] acting. In all honesty, I feel like some people don’t even know he was a rapper at one point because he’s been acting for so long. He’s been acting since the early ‘90s. So, there was so many movies to pull from, and it was easy.

And the thing about that sketch is that because Shawtane is such a big Ice Cube fan, they kept trying to get us to write alternates where Ice Cube would not show up. And I’m like, “No, no, no. The moment we turn in the script without Ice Cube in the script is the moment we will not get Ice Cube.” Literally, we always made a draft… We did one draft, I think, where we got Braylock arrested in it. And then we never turned it in ever again because we were like, “No, we gotta force the hand to get Ice Cube to show up that day.”

And he did. He was super nice, took photos with everybody, signed stuff for the props team and the stylists. I think it worked out really nice.

Paste: That’s great to hear. So what would you say are your favorite episodes of the podcast, that don’t incriminate you against Ice Cube?

Jonathan: I think we have a lot of great episodes of the podcast. My favorites are always the ones where I convince Jerah that his initial opinion was wrong. He’s either sleeping on a movie, or he shouldn’t be liking a film that he likes and then I take his joy away. Speaking of pure joy, he was so happy to see Boo! A Madea Halloween. I think Boo! A Madea Halloween is one of the craziest episodes, because Jerah always talks about not liking Tyler Perry movies, and then he came in for Boo! A Madea Halloween, and he loved it, and I couldn’t hack it.

Jerah: Okay, my defense of [Boo! A Madea Halloween] is that when you see it in Harlem, it’s like everybody was in on it, you know what I’m saying? Everyone knew exactly what they were watching. Everybody was screaming at the theater. People were dancing. It was a short party. How can you not party in a movie theater? This was the first one I’d ever seen. Did I remember the movie? No. But it doesn’t matter. Because it was Tyler Perry in a wig being chased by ghosts. That’s all you got to know.

James: Honestly, Tyler Perry knows his audience. And he writes very specifically and he puts out very specific content. And it really hits the right buttons for if you’re in the right mood or if you’re in the right setting or if you are just that audience. It is perfect for that audience, and he’s made his gajillions off it.

Jerah: The confidence Tyler Perry has—and we talk about this on the podcast—the confidence to have yourself play four different characters in a scene that goes for 40 minutes of just you talking to yourself. Other characters are in the scene, but they’re not talking. There’s four versions of you talking to each other for 40 minutes. I love it. I’m here for it, you know what I mean?

Paste: It makes sense. Have you heard anything about Astronomy Club Season 2 or is that under wraps?

Jonathan: Yeah, It’s under wraps from us.

We have no idea. We’ll find out, I’m sure. I’m sure we’ll find out in the next month or so. I think technically there’s a contractual obligation for Netflix to let us know within three months, so… Yeah, we’re hoping and praying like everybody else.

Jerah: And I think for us, I think it’s we’re just trying to do our part to make sure people can find the show, because so many shows are written in just the peak television that we’re in right now. I think for us, we are a smaller sketch show. Ice Cube was lucky enough to come on our show, but as far as Astronomy Club, we’re not necessarily famous, and we don’t have a ton of famous people on our show. So I think for us, it’s just trying to get more reviews that say the show’s good and that you should watch it, and hopefully the readers of those outlets will actually have to… They’ll probably have to search for the show in the Netflix account, but even doing that helps it pop up on more people’s account. So we’re just trying to make sure we do our part to help them do their part.

Also, I don’t even care if you watch sketch—recommend it anyway! Be like, “Oh, man. You watch shows with black people in it? There’s a show…” Put that in there. I don’t need you to watch sketch to be recommended. Just send it out anyway.

James: Yeah, and we’re like if we’re even just connected, if that makes sense. I just watched all of Lost in Space. After that, just recommend, “If you like Lost in Space, watch Astronomy Club.” It has nothing to do with it, but it sounds like it.

Paste: One final question: Is Hancock a good movie?

Jonathan: Wow.

Jerah: Why would you do that?

Jonathan: Wow.

Jerah: Why would you do that?

Paste: Don’t worry, you’ll get another 20 minutes to answer this.

James: Hancock is a perfect film. It takes you on such a large journey, from…

Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, IndieWire, and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs;.

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