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Kenya Barris Is Ready for a Sketch-Comedy Renaissance

Kenya Barris Photo: MediaPunch/Shutterstock

Between his multiple sitcoms and film projects, including the upcoming sequel Coming 2 America, Kenya Barris is a very busy man, but he’ll always find some extra time when it comes to his lifelong love of sketch comedy. Barris is the executive producer behind a new sketch series debuting on Netflix next month titled Astronomy Club, which stars the sketch and improv group of the same name: Keisha Zollar, James III, Monique Moses, Jerah Milligan, Caroline Martin, Ray Cordova, Jon Braylock, and Shawtane Bowen. Barris has been a fan of the ensemble for some time, and having a big deal with Netflix means he can help the group reach a wider audience — so that’s exactly what he decided to do.

Ahead of Astronomy Club’s debut on December 6, Barris chatted with Vulture about why he thinks the group will help lead a sketch-comedy renaissance, how much he loves Tim Robinson’s I Think You Should Leave, and what it’s like working with Eddie Murphy on Coming 2 America.

It’s been really cool to see Astronomy Club’s progression just over the past year — the Comedy Central web series, and now a Netflix show.
Isn’t it cool?

It’s great! How did they come across your radar?
Well, they had been on my radar for a while because I love improv. But one of my executives, [Astronomy Club executive producer] Anni Weisband, knew a couple members of the group and brought them to my attention. I started watching [their work], and I just like fell madly, deeply more in love with them than I already was. And when you meet them in person, they’re just so cool and super funny and real, and really just unique and proprietary. They feel like them. You know how people try to be different? They’re not trying to be different; they’re trying to be themselves, and in being themselves they’ve created something really unique and really fresh. But the greatest thing about them is all the tones and beats that they hit, I feel like it’s something I’m really comfortable and familiar with, too, but it’s new in a way I haven’t seen.

What was your involvement with them in terms of figuring out the Netflix show?
Well, we kind of talked about how we wanted this to stand out among the crowd, which is always the issue, and that sucks because they are doing things in such a great way. But the streaming wars, they’ve started, you know? So it was, (1) How do we make sure that they have their original voice and they still feel like they break from the pack? But, (2) How do we make this feel like a high-gloss, high-patina piece of the comedy pantheon? And I feel like they did that.

Even in the one sketch that you saw — which is one of my favorites — it felt so like, I’ve never seen this before. We all kind of know that this is a used colloquialism, and they took an allegory for this “Magical Negro” or magical best friend, and they turned it into a comedy sketch. And they did it in a way that we all can understand, which is rehab, and how hard it is to not backslide into things, that behavior that you’re used to. I just felt like that was so fresh and original.

Can you offer any other hints about what other kinds of topics the show covers?
That’s the thing that I really love. It’s very unapologetically black; it’s very unapologetically a part of this sort of layering of Americana black culture has become, but there’s also things like … There’s a gingerbread family, and the gingerbread family is just living their life until all of a sudden, a hand crashes through the roof and begins to eat their grandmother. [Laughs.] So I feel like they’re all of it, all over the map, but at the same time, they’re united by the same sensibility. It’s a little bit all over, but it comes from the same absurdist, really high academia level of comedy IQ.

I love sketch comedy, and until very recently, I was kind of bummed that there wasn’t a lot on Netflix. Tim Robinson’s show was a big hit though — did you get into that one?
Ooooohhhhh! Love it! Love it.

Got any favorite sketches from it?
Yes. [Laughs.] Yes! I have a lot, but the one that sticks out for me is the guy who meets that guy he has a celebrity crush on, and he starts choking, and he’s so involved in trying to be cool around the celebrity that he’s willing to almost die because he doesn’t want to admit that he’s choking.

Oh yeah, that’s a good one.
It so reminds me of some shit I would do! [Laughs.] I kind of figured out the thematic notch to Tim Robinson’s sketch show: It’s all on our insecurities or ego. Almost every sketch, you know? Like one of the starter sketches, when the guy has the great interview, and then he goes to open the door and it says push, but he pulls. The interviewer was ready to hire him! “I think you’re supposed to push.” “NO, NO, I’ve been here before! You’re supposed to pull!” And he just pulls the door off. And it’s so that thing of [being] righteous. Just be like “I was wrong. I pulled when I should’ve pushed!” But those moments, to me, that’s why Astronomy Club lives in such a great place, in terms of sketch comedy on Netflix, because it’s high-level absurdist, high-IQ type of comedy.

That hits a good point about covering certain themes or topics but mostly just being really, really silly. I think it’s easy to underestimate the value of the truly silly stuff.
And how hard that is! That’s really hard to do. That reminds me of the old days of SNL — the golden Steve Martin, “Land Shark” days. “Land Shark” was beyond absurdist, and “Wild and Crazy Guys,” but it was the way that it was done and how it sort of hits you in that primal funny bone of who we are as people. But at the same time it was elevated, and it was funny, and it was fun.

You’re more known for working on sitcoms and films, so I’m curious: Why did you want to get involved in a sketch-comedy show?
One of my first writing jobs was on The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show. SNL basically raised me as a kid because I was the kid whose mom was working and I’d stay up all night watching SNL that I shouldn’t be watching. Mr. Show was something that I feel like I can almost recite everything [from]. It’s always been a real big part of my DNA. I [produced] Deon Cole’s stand-up special, and I’m planning on doing a couple other stand-up specials. Certain comics — Richard Pryor, Bob Newhart — really were a part of what made me, and sketch comedy is something that I feel really needs a renaissance. I think a group like this can do actually that.

I don’t want to take up too much of your time, but if you don’t mind me asking, how’s Coming 2 America is coming along?
Fucking awesome. [Laughs.] If you were here, I’d show you pictures of Eddie and Arsenio dressed as the barbers at the barber shop. That almost made me cry when I went to set. It’s incredible.

You know, on the same lot, they’re shooting Bad Boys for Life, and to see Will [Smith] and Martin Lawrence, Eddie and Wesley, and Arsenio and all these guys, it’s just crazy. But it really is a dream come true. I’ve always said that Will’s the hardest-working, luckiest, most blessed man in Hollywood. But Will knows that he was fortunate — he works hard! And Eddie does, too, but Eddie could’ve been born in a box in Calcutta, and he was going to be famous. He’s really reserved and kind of demure, but when he turns it on, you’ll be talking to him and — I don’t even think he calls himself an impressionist — in the middle of a conversation, he will do such a spot-on impersonation of someone that he just saw on a television five minutes ago. And it’s not just doing that person, it’s doing that person doing something ridiculous, and it is like nothing you’ve ever seen, and you’re quickly like, Oh, this person was meant to be famous.

So sounds like it’s going pretty well then!
I hope and I pray that it does really, really well. It’s always a risk with something that was so revered, but it is something that I’m really hopeful for.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Kenya Barris Is Ready for a Sketch-Comedy Renaissance