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Astronomy Club, a history-making sketch team, debuts new Netflix series

We spoke to three members of the first all-black sketch team of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre

The members of Astronomy Club want Magical Negroes to know something: It’s time to reclaim your dignity!

That’s the message of one of the strongest sketches from the first and only all-black performance team of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. UCB is one of the major feeders for Saturday Night Live. Its founding members include Amy Poehler, Adam McKay, and Matt Walsh. Astronomy Club was formed in 2014, and the group performs live in New York.

Now, the Astronomy Club, the team of Shawtane Bowen, Jonathan Braylock, Ray Cordova, Caroline Martin, Jerah Milligan, Monique Moses, Keisha Zollar, and James III has a six-episode sketch series, executive produced by Kenya Barris, premiering Friday on Netflix.

Here’s a peek at what’s coming:

In the series, the group plays play eight strangers thrown together in a house, Real World-style, all from different backgrounds and experiences. I spoke with Braylock, Milligan, and James III about the new show and their podcast, Black Men Can’t Jump.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

How have your relationships as performers evolved since you first started working together?

Jerah Milligan: Each time we perform, we get a deeper understanding of who we all are as comedians. There is an improv element to us with the podcast, we’re having a conversation and we go on rants, but we can read each other. We know what types of things are going to push each other’s buttons and I think that is what makes it fun, and exciting.

Jonathan Braylock: When Astronomy Club first started, I think one of the joys of being in that group and doing improv was that most of us had done improv primarily with white people. That’s just the nature of the improv community, especially in terms of theaters like the Upright Citizens Brigade.

It wasn’t the first time any of us had improvised with other black people, but it was the first time we had gotten to be on a house team with just black people and we were able to make jokes and references that we knew we would get but maybe before when we had made that reference, when we were on a team with non-people of color, that those people did not get. It was so fun, but as we evolved, we knew each other’s personalities more. Even though we all share this black background, we’re not a monolith. We have different shades and there are different things that James will like. He likes terrible movies and I like great movies.

James III: That’s rude. We didn’t need to say that. The movies I like are great too.

Jonathan: Jerah likes to say that he gets passionate. Some people might call it anger, but that’s a stereotype.

Jerah: I’m a person of the people.

Jonathan: James has a lot of joy and he gets really excited about things. When he gets excited, he does a lot of movement. You can’t see it on the podcast but he’s moving his hands a lot and we’re like, ‘OK, there’s James over there.’

Jerah: I feel like these friendships haven’t been manufactured. No one’s forcing us to stay together, no one’s like, ‘You got to talk to John and Bray every day.’ I talk to them in the morning before I talk to my own mother and I’m cool with that. That’s not a problem, that’s fun. We’re stuck together in a wonderful way and that allows us to do things and say things and bounce around that you may not have been able to in a regular writers room. I love SNL, but those people were put together. They don’t know what Braylock was like when he was growing up. I’ve heard those stories. They don’t know what James will watch when he gets home after work. I’ve seen that and I think that is the beauty of us. It’s like a fam-fam, for real.

Black Men Can't Jump

From left to right: Comedians Jerah Milligan, James III, and Jonathan Braylock star in Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show and host the podcast Black Men Can’t Jump.

Viktor Erik Emanuel

There’s a comfort among you guys when it comes to the ways that you make fun of yourselves. I’m thinking of the sketch where you guys ostracize Braylock for being light-skinned.

Jerah: He fine. He’ll be all right.

Jonathan: I love that we get to play with perceptions of ourselves and maybe even our own insecurities or fears of other people’s perceptions of us in our comedy because, one, none of us take ourselves too seriously. Even though I am the leader.

Jerah: Here we go. This is happening on an interview.

Jonathan: No, I mean you have to be able to joke about that stuff because as human beings — none of us are perfect. We all make mistakes, we all have things about ourselves that we like or would like to improve and if you can’t have that self-awareness of yourself, I don’t know how effective you can really be calling out society or other people or culture.

James: Whatever it is that’s going on with us and the faults that we may have, we’re in this business that is such a public and such a present thing that if we don’t talk about those things, somebody else will.

Jonathan: True.

James: You have to beat them to the punch and if we don’t put it out there that way, we could crack underneath the weight of our own self.

Jerah: I am perfectly perfect as a human but what I do is I relate to the people. I like to pretend like I know what folks are. When people see me they think I’m relatable to them because I’m one of them. It’s really just a deep mind game that you just have to figure out what should I make fun of to be relatable to other people.

James: But all of it is a lie, you’re saying, Jerah?

Jerah: Listen, I didn’t say it was a lie. What I said, it was a part of the system to get people to understand I’m part of the people. You know what I mean? It’s an inception but for real life. You’re welcome.

James: Wow.

Comedians Jerah Milligan, Jonathan Braylock, and James III, star in ‘Astronomy Club’ and host the podcast ‘Black Men Can’t Jump.’

Viktor Erik Emanuel

I feel like sketch comedy and improv attracts a very specific type of weirdo.

Jonathan: Sketch is a fun way to do a lot of different things. You can explore a lot of different characters, you can explore a lot of different types of comedy and talk about a lot of different subject matter because that’s the nature of sketch. We have sketches in which we get to play famous characters in movies like the Magical Negro Rehab and then there are times where we get to play ourselves. There’s one where I get to be a vampire, so all of that is superfun and we get to make commentary on different things.

You guys have managed not to get sucked into the endless vortex of politics. Was that a deliberate decision and if so, why?

Jerah: Some of our teammates are from Canada, some are from the suburbs, some are from the ‘hood and it’s hard to have a unique voice on politics. Almost every type of comedy form is talking about politics and unless you’re going to come into that space and say something drastically different, then why do it? Why would I want to talk about that dude who’s racist? I don’t want to give that guy more attention. There’s so many things we can do to make ourselves look better. Again, we can make fun of Braylock for being light-skinned. That is a black community thing. We can talk about cooking chitlins and things like that because that’s for us. I don’t want to talk about something that is only affecting us in a negative light. It’s like, for what? It doesn’t serve any purpose.

James: That just was never the lane that we were in as a group.

Jonathan: Sometimes it feels like when people of color do comedy, they have to talk about politics. You have to talk about race. We say this on our podcast all the time. Why can’t we also just do funny for funny’s sake? We are goofy, too. We can do silly faces, we can have jokes that don’t have a political agenda behind them.

From left: Jonathan Braylock, James III, Shawtane Bowen, Jerah Milligan, Caroline Martin, Keisha Zollar, Monique Moses and Ray Cordova in a scene from ‘Astronomy Club.’

courtesy of Netflix

What have you learned from Caroline, Keisha and Monique?

James: Caroline is a person who will admit her upbringing was more white than black. It’s so fascinating because she will be learning slang phrases on set or when we give her a script. What is so interesting is her kindness when it comes to checking me on things that I’ve said. I try my best to not be offensive or sexist, but there are certain things that men have learned that we don’t even know contributes to sexism. Caroline is really good about being like, ‘Hey, you got to cut that out.’

And Keisha’s really good about it too. She will tell you, ‘I’m not doing that. That’s racist. That makes no sense.’

Mo is interesting because she comes from Canada, so her racial experience is different than what my upbringing is here in America, I am ‘the world is black and white,’ where she’s like, ‘No, I understand that but there is this gray area here that we have to be understanding about.’ She’s good about trying to see things from all aspects.

Is there an example?

James: I remember when we were writing the Netflix show, we would have people read certain parts and then Caroline was like, ‘Hey, I’m noticing that you guys keep making me the girlfriend or love interest. It may be more important to see a woman with darker skin in some of these parts.’

That was something that she said, not something that Mo had to come out with or Keisha. She’s like, ‘No, man. We should make sure that people are seeing black women in all different types of parts on this show,’ and that’s kind of what we made sure to do going forward from that point.

Jerah: There was a lot of care when working with them and making sure that the female voices of the team aren’t squandered or pushed aside, because I do think that them being black women in comedy, it was very important that they were like, ‘We are here. We are not going anywhere.’

Keisha taught me to speak my mind on stage. She will say whatever the f— comes to her mind. I’ve always looked up to that and I’ve always admired that. Monique is such a celebratory performer and I learned to celebrate not only myself as an individual but me as a black man, to celebrate that while I’m on stage or working with her. Caroline is one of the greatest character performers I’ve ever seen. What I look up to about her is how to really be big, really go for that character. Those three are fantastic.

Is anything off-limits?

Jerah: The first thing that comes to my mind is I think a lot about the unarmed black people being shot thing and I specifically remember a conversation with Jerah about this sketch that I was working on that’s about a new toy that’s being marketed to black kids that’s a new superhero and it’s a white guy who is a superhero. He can’t get shot, he can reach for his wallet and he’ll be fine. I remember talking to Jerah about this and he would say, ‘I don’t think talking about unarmed black people being shot is funny even if the butt of the joke is something else.’

It’s not off-limits to me, but it’s precious and needs to be taken care of and I remember that discussion with Jerah as being very important because it made me think about ‘am I sending the wrong message?’

Jonathan: As a comedian, I think any subject should be able to be tackled and satirized and viewed through a comedy lens; am I the right person to tackle that subject? For a lot of matters, I probably am not. I just don’t have the experience, the knowledge, perspective, the POV to tackle certain issues. I wouldn’t say it’s off-limits to me because perhaps I could collaborate with somebody who can fill in those gaps, I wouldn’t tackle certain subject matters like, say, relating to LGBTQ or women’s issues or other people of color like the Asian community or the Middle Eastern community because I’m not a part of that community.

Jerah: I can’t make fun of trans people. That makes no goddamn sense. No matter what angle I come to, I’m not a part of that community. I should not be making fun of a community that I’m not in. It’s just disrespectful to me and every time someone’s like, ‘I can say what I want.’ No, you’re an idiot. You are personally refusing to change because you don’t want to and that is a problem that we have.

James: I think that there’s a dangerous saying that people throw around, it’s ‘funny is funny.’ It’s dangerous because funny is also subjective and also what is funny to you is not necessarily going to be funny to me. People would say that it’s OK, but because we have such a large platform to put our voices out there and we should be careful, we should be cognizant of what we’re saying, how is it going to land.

It really just sounds like good manners.

Jerah: Treat humans how you want to be treated. It’s so simple.

Jonathan: If you have the privilege of speaking to large audiences at once, you should be responsible with that privilege. Sometimes people forget, not everybody gets to have a show, not everybody gets to have a comedy special. There’s an artistic responsibility to do the best art and comedy you can, but there’s also a social responsibility knowing what’s going on in the world to not to be disparaging of other people, especially when you’re a part of a community that is disparaged.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.