In his 2010 documentary The Awkward Comedy Show, comedian Victor Varnado wanted to “showcase a category of black comedian rarely witnessed: the nerd variety.” Among those featured were himself, Marina Franklin, Baron Vaughn, Eric Andre, and the comedian who has arguably achieved the most mainstream success so far, Hannibal Buress. “When I saw Hannibal for the first time, it really surprised me,” Varnado says to the other comics. “I had never seen anyone so sedate with skin that dark.”
What was new then is familiar now. Buress’s laconic style has inspired others, like Keith and Kenny Lucas, better known as the Lucas Brothers — identical twins who juggle a number of comedy series. They remember first seeing Buress host his now-legendary Sunday-night show at the Knitting Factory in Williamsburg. “That was really a pivotal moment, because I had never seen comedy like that,” said Kenny. “It was just really underground. It felt like a punk scene, almost. It didn't feel so glossy.” Kevin Barnett, a comedian who appears with the Lucases on Friends of the People, says he felt there weren’t a lot of other black comedians who shared his sensibility until he moved to New York from Florida in 2009 and met the likes of Buress, the Lucases, Jermaine Fowler, and Eric Andre. “I didn't think there were that many that were like us,” he said. “It turns out there's plenty of us, you just didn't see that in the mainstream.”
Black male nerd comedians are now a fixture in the traditionally white alternative comedy scene, and they reflect the tenor of that space: conversational and at times digressive, touching upon a wide array of cultural references plucked from childhood memories to nerd culture. This type of humor has entered the mainstream consciousness: Along with Buress and the Lucas Brothers, there are Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele with Key & Peele; Wyatt Cenac, who was one of three writer-correspondents on The Daily Show; Michael Che, who hosts "Weekend Update" on SNL; Eric Andre with The Eric Andre Show, and W. Kamau Bell, who will host a docu-series for CNN called United Shades of America. For their part, the Lucas Brothers are writing the third season of their surrealistically deadpan animated series, Lucas Bros. Moving Co., for FXX, and shooting the second season of Friends of the People, a truTV sketch comedy show that includes a cast of predominantly black male comedians including Jermaine Fowler and Lil Rel Howery. Their jokes are oddball and sometimes experimental, occasionally detouring into the self-referential and the surreal, and they have popularized a more playful, introverted version of black masculinity in comedy.
Most of these comics cut their teeth outside of black comedy clubs, which historically have favored a certain kind of verve. Canonical black stand-ups like Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, and now Kevin Hart emerged into the mainstream after working these rooms. (Dave Chappelle is something of a stylistic hybrid — after not finding much luck in black rooms, he spent much of his early years in white rooms, but eventually he got to the point where he could play everywhere from Def Comedy Jam to alternative hotspot Luna Lounge.) They’ve come to epitomize the aesthetic of black comedy for the rest of America: brash, aggressive, high-energy, and with the kind of expansive personality that can fill a stadium — or at least the Apollo.
Their material was often amusingly vulgar, and actively dealt with racial inequities. “Back in the day I think there was a lot of ‘white people do this and black people do that’ jokes, which has been done to death a million times over,” said Phoebe Robinson, who is currently a writer for White Guy Talk Show (the joke is that the hosts Grace Parra and Saurin Choksi are not white men), and has a blog and podcast called "Blaria" (that’s black Daria). “There's more that we can talk about.”
The Lucases echoed that sentiment. “That was the go-to premise: Black people are like this, white people are like that. We're trying to shift away from that,” said Keith. Kenny added, “We don't want to highlight the differences or even emphasize certain qualities of black people that white people may not have. It’s very confining. It's been exhausted.”
This doesn’t mean there aren’t race jokes or social commentary — jokes about racist white men watching porn or how black people have ownership over the word nigger — but simply that race manifests itself in a more oblique fashion. Buress picks apart hip-hop lyrics like Nelly’s “E.I.” (“I made enough money to mess up the language.”); Wyatt Cenac talks about his neighbor blasting NPR’s "All Things Considered"; and Eric Andre runs through various impressions, including a spoken-word Def Poetry Jam performer named “Freedom Zimbabwe."
“They want to be able to talk about everything — even black culture — but in a way that doesn't confine them to just being considered black comics,” Keith Lucas said. Their sketches riff off cultural touchstones from Seinfeld to Urkel to Mortal Kombat. “Growing up, I've always made a point to not be placed in a box,” said Fowler, who works with the Lucases on Friends of the People. He has worked a variety of rooms: “all-white rooms, all-hood rooms, any type of room,” and has found the ability to do so liberating. “I was the black kid in school who'd skate and wrestle, who was really into outer space and botany and kung fu and hip-hop. I was into everything.”
One of the Lucases’ favorite projects is their most recent: an episode of The Lucas Bros. Moving Co. called “Soul Food,” where the brothers compete in a soul food cook-off, but find themselves at a disadvantage because they had sold their souls to the devil so that they could beat Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat. “That episode touches on what we're trying to do with our comedy, which is dabble in the absurd, the surreal, but also pay respect to black culture,” said Keith. The episode was not about race, but it was not not about race, either.
“The desire is to be specific, but universal,” Kenny says. “We want to be able to just be free of the race burden,” adds Keith. “It feels like it’s always hanging over me, and you just want it to go away.”
It's not that quirky, laid-back styles didn't exist in black comedy before. “There's always been a diversity in comedians who are black,” Wyatt Cenac said over the phone. “We remember the Cosbys and the Pryors more, but I remember seeing guys like Vince Morris and Louis Ramey do stuff that wasn't what you saw on ComicView.” Indeed, for every Eddie Murphy, there was a John Ridley. Where there was Dick Gregory, there was also Slappy White, Nipsey Russell, and George Kirby. In fact, it was that trio who first jettisoned the minstrel routine of Stepin Fetchit and allowed Gregory to become the first “integrated” comic. Gregory’s rise in turn led to a broad range of black comics piercing the mainstream in the ’60s and ’70s: the blue humorist Redd Foxx found himself on Sanford and Son, there was the social satire of Godfrey Cambridge, the raconteur stylings of Bill Cosby, the sly folksiness of Moms Mabley, and eventually, one of the greatest of them all, Richard Pryor, who would give voice to an entire universe of characters fashioned from his childhood in Peoria. But it's the loud and bawdy side of Pryor that's thought of today more than the strange, ruminative, and incisive side. “More often than not people remember Richard Pryor as this brash loud guy, but there was a lot of pain and sadness,” said Cenac. “He is probably one of the most vulnerable performers in stand-up and said things that were heartbreaking and terrifying.” He was loud and bawdy, yes, but he was also strange, ruminative, and incisive.
Pryor’s 1977 "Gun Shop" sketch, in which various guns begin speaking to him.
This latest wave of comedians is more clearly defined by these qualities, and it has had the related effect of opening up an alternative space of masculinity in stand-up. Whereas Eddie Murphy often fell back on misogyny and homophobia in his humor (“I got rules: Faggots aren’t allowed to look at my ass while I’m onstage,” he opened in Delirious), such jokes are now political anathema: Tracy Morgan was publicly flogged for saying he would stab his son if he were gay, and even more recently, Jamie Foxx has come under fire for making transphobic jokes about Bruce Jenner.
The new sensibility is epitomized by the wide-eyed sensitivity of Portland’s Ron Funches, of NBC's Undateable. “I don’t understand it when people act tough. If you act tough, it just means that you’ve been through a lot of horrible things, and now you’ve survived them and now you’re ready to attack anyone at any time, like a pitbull,” he says in a stand-up appearance on Conan. “I want a demeanor that says I’ve never been through anything at all. And I’m just a pug riding a decorative pillow.”
“I feel like there's a lot of expectations on masculinity, especially black masculinity, to be tough … that doesn't make sense to me,” Funches said over the phone. “The toughest people I know are women, and women love to talk about their feelings and are sensitive and intuitive. The best thing I can do is tell people, 'Hey, chill out. Relax. It's okay to cry.'”
Funches feels he has benefited from alternative spaces for this very reason — they allowed him to be nerdy, sensitive, and awkward in a way that traditional clubs wouldn’t. He lost his first agent because he didn’t fit neatly into either paradigm of what constituted a “white” comedian or a “black” one. “I did a showcase for colleges, and afterwards, his response to me was: 'Too black for the white kids and too white for the black kids.' To him, that meant I wasn't for anybody, but to me, that meant, ‘Yeah, I'm for everybody.’”
Cenac cautions against thinking that a handful of successes signal real change. “The real judge of whether it's a renaissance is, ‘Are those comedians getting quality opportunities beyond getting to do a late-night stand-up spot?’” Whether these comedians will be accepted more largely in the mainstream hinges on “people who have clout,” Cenac says.
These comics have instead turned to different outlets, often using the internet as their distribution network. “The internet was our ABC, NBC, and our Adult Swim at some point,” Fowler said. After cultivating fan bases there, these comedians are slowly making inroads with cable networks like Comedy Central, truTV, and FXX, who have handed over much of the creative control.
There is still a major gender disparity. While plenty of black female comedians fit the mold, few have found the mainstream success of their counterparts, the recent exceptions being Jessica Williams on The Daily Show and Sasheer Zamata, who became the first black female player on SNL since Maya Rudolph. “There are all these nonblack people deciding what is black,” said Phoebe Robinson, from White Guy Talk Show. “We're so far from the standard, and I'm so far from the stereotype of what they think is a black woman or what they think is funny about black women that it just makes it harder for that gap to close.”
And if you ask a few “black nerd” comedians, it may be time to retire the label entirely. “I've always found it exclusionary on two levels, as though being interested in comic books is somehow not black, but also being a black person that reads comic books is somehow what is not defined as a nerd,” Cenac said. “It's a very strange thing. Oh, you don't get to be a part of either of the groups.”
In fact, what may best define working as a black comic in the alternative scene is simply a resistance to those labels themselves — that they can’t possibly contain the multiplicity of styles, experiences, and embodiments they hope to describe.
“We’ve been thinking about this topic a ton,” said Keith Lucas, as we wound down a two-hour conversation on the matter, at the apartment he shares with his brother in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. “What is a black comic? What is the alternative black comic? What's the typical black comic?” he mused. “There are people out there with black skin doing comedy, but does that make you a black comic? Is it what you talk about? Is it how you talk about it?”
“My thing is like, those questions are so hard, that it's like, Fuck it,” said Kenny. “Let's not put people in a box,” Keith added. “And let's just say we're doing comedy.”