On the Verge: Jaboukie Young-White

Welcome to our series On the Vergewhere our contributors highlight comedians they feel are ready for their next big break. Whether they’re already working in television or still waiting to land their breakout gig, these are just some of the comedians we’d like to see more of over the coming years – ideally with a show, film, or other comedy project of their very own.

When comedian Jaboukie Young-White and I first hop on the phone, there’s a terrible connection. I offer to call him back when he might have better reception but he politely insists that we continue our conversation: “I’m in Target getting my suburban housewife on, shopping for summer essentials. I need all the other housewives in here to know I am discussing something important.”

This seemingly disposable off-the-cuff riff not only offers a brief peek into the comedically perceptive mind of Young-White — an active standup and Twitter joke-writing phenom — but also a perfect crystallization of his sense of humor and the #brand of self-deprecating social criticism that has made him one of Twitter’s most retweeted joke tellers (and one of the most plagiarized). He’s also one of the more exciting young voices in standup to watch for. Young-White is where IRL and URL comedy collides.

The 23-year-old Chicago native and current Brooklyn resident has gained an immense following across social platforms this past year thanks to his economical wordplay and deconstruction of topics ranging from racism to corporations co-opting people of color’s intellectual labor to Beyonce. But his stroke of genius is the method in which he delivers his overtly political or heady commentary in ways that are disarmingly palatable: Young-White is a master meme-ifier, never shying away from manipulating Twitter-specific joke structures and pre-existing memes to suit his own rhythm and tone.

“Twitter is comedy writing,” he tells me. “It’s one-liners that give way to fully fleshed-out thoughts. It’s an evolution of that format.” And Young-White is proof-positive that “Twitter Comedy” shouldn’t be a pejorative, which it unfairly has been reduced to thanks to the Fat Jews and Fuck Jerrys of the medium who have catapulted to monetized viral fame off pure joke thievery and derivative concepts. But for active standups and traditional comedy writers such as Young-White, there is a symbiotic relationship between performing online and on stage as the two inform one another and provide a unique space to workshop material.

“I definitely post a lot of memes and content that’s isolated to Twitter that I wouldn’t be able to do on stage because a live crowd doesn’t have that same frame of reference. But there are jokes in my set that started out on Twitter just as one-liners that I’ve fleshed out into bits on stage,” he says. “I’ll tweet something and gauge a response then build off that joke’s DNA. But I was doing standup way before I gained any sort of following online, so it’s nice to see the cross-pollination.”

Young-White cut his teeth in the Chicago standup scene as a fresh-faced 20-year-old, testing the waters in rooms ranging from the traditional to the experimental. While he was getting meaningful stage time and a slow but steady IV-drop of exposure in the Windy City, he couldn’t help but feel like a vibrant square peg in a homogenized comedy circle. He has since migrated to Brooklyn, New York where he has strengthened his comedic sea legs after finding his groove in a more diverse scene. “Chicago is a liberal city but it’s still in the middle of America, so it gave me a good solid understanding of how to adapt to certain rooms and different Midwestern sensibilities. But it’s just not as diverse of a scene as New York,” he says. “It’s changing, but it’s still straight white dude-centric. And that’s dope, too! I love hearing about your girlfriend and how her period is so weird! But my comedy just doesn’t connect to that. Living and performing in New York has allowed me to try my weirder and more experimental things.”

Young-White’s live shows display a unique hybrid of styles rooted in the legacies of multiple schools of comedy. His incisive observational humor hits harder outside of the confines of 140-character limits with a stage presence that somehow manages to be both commanding and bashful (think Mitch Hedberg, but without all the stoner aloofness). When he slides into cultural critic mode – which is his most comfortable cruising altitude – Young-White has the confident raconteur abilities of a young Chappelle, his laid-back demeanor merely masking the righteous rage towards the social and political failings of our society. He will also dip his toes into the theatrical traditions of alt-comedy rooms, busting out PowerPoint presentations and even various characters that keep the audience off-balance but always on board. This multifaceted comedic composition makes sense for a guy who lists Chappelle, Jamaican king of comedy Oliver Samuels, and Wonder Showzen (“That shit radicalized me.”) as his comedy influences.

Jaboukie has been parlaying his social media popularity into more consistent stage time in bigger rooms with bigger audiences in venues throughout the city, such as Littlefield and Union Hall. And in an age where the older generation of comics avoid college campuses (they blame the canard of PC culture; I blame their inability to be funny anymore), Young-White is adding more campus stops to his schedule, having just performed his first show at SUNY Purchase. He speaks directly to the disaffected millennial, mocking the institutions and authority figures whose mess our generation has been tasked with cleaning up. If anyone deserves to laugh and not be harangued by jaded washed-up comics who traffic in played-out shock value, it’s college students: “When kids come to one of my shows, they can expect to laugh and maybe think about a few things without egregious attacks on their marginalized identity!”

So what’s next for Jaboukie Young-White? Besides testing the limits of Twitter’s algorithms with daily viral joke-tweets and displaying his Oscar Wilde-ian wit through IG captions, he will continue to perform standup as he aims to take his act beyond the New York and Chicago scenes. He’s also finished a pilot that he’s been shopping around, but he’s taking his time adding more guns to his holster that will bolster his skill as a performer. “I’m disgustingly young so I still want to experience more things. I’ve been doing some acting, writing classes, and taking a holistic approach so I can actually be good at this craft. But ideally I’d eventually want to get my own show and make my Atlanta or my Master of None – whatever that would look like – in whatever media landscape that would best suit it.”

He offered a boilerplate description of his comedy pilot, which would follow a group of young, queer people of color in a community living situation in Chicago. While he isn’t trying to reinvent the sitcom wheel, Young-White believes the show will be a unique vehicle to showcase his voice and prove that his punchy joke writing and cultural observations could easily translate to the television format. And since the successful-late-night-set-to-sitcom pipeline has all but dissolved, standups have used digital platforms like Funny or Die and YouTube-based web series to catch the attention of studio executives searching for comedians to build an original property around. By my count, Young-White has produced about 3 seasons worth of material on spec in his Twitter feed already, as well as a refreshing, essential point of view. For a medium in desperate need of diverse voices and robust representation both in front and behind the camera – especially in comedy – Young-White, who already has fingers on the pulse of the comedic zeitgeist, and his pilot would be blast of fresh air to the TV ecosystem.

Until then, Jaboukie Young-White will keep performing IRL and URL. Favor — and momentum — is on his side.  “Social media has wedged marginalized voices into the comedy world in a way that you can’t ignore anymore,” he says. “So many people are statistically fucking with this.”

Photo by Mindy Tucker.

Erik Abriss is a writer living in Los Angeles.

On the Verge: Jaboukie Young-White