It’s been five years since Astronomy Club became one of the few self-formed teams to take the UCB stage. The group went on to create their own Comedy Central digital series last year, and this month they’ve finally brought their relentlessly silly but ultimately profound brand of comedy to Netflix. With executive producer Kenya Barris behind them, the group has found ways to commit even harder to the more serious themes driving their premises. “One thing that we learned from Kenya, or that he made sure we stuck to, was that we weren’t funny for the sake of being funny,” says member Ray Cordova. “We wanted to say something with our comedy.”
We recently caught up with the team to learn more about their earlier influences, and it quickly became clear that the controlled chaos that’s been driving the group’s high-concept sketches all these years is fueled by an extremely robust knowledge of sketch-comedy history, culminating in the series of both deep cuts and widely beloved throwbacks you see below. I mean, there’s a Maya Angelou performance in here, for God’s sake!
Shawtane Bowen: In Living Color, “Homey D. Clown”
I was probably in fifth or sixth grade when I started watching In Living Color, and I think [this] is the first sketch they ever did with [Homey D. Clown]. Rewatching it brought back a lot of memories. Watching it again, it’s like, This is a perfect sketch, it hits all the points! And it’s really funny. I just remember seeing it, and you come to school the next day and you start doing all the lines from the sketch. You know, “Homey don’t play that” — I think it even became like a national catchphrase.
Sketch is hard as it is — to create not only a sketch that’s hilarious, but to create a character that burrows itself into the national consciousness. The strength of the character is in the fact that, like, I think over the course of In Living Color they did a variation of that sketch or they took that character to different places like five or six more times. So it’s a perfect character.
And also, later as I’ve delved more into comedy, I’ve discovered that it was written by one of my comedy heroes, Paul Mooney, who was a writer and friend of Richard Pryor. So it’s definitely had an effect on me and how I approach comedy.
Jonathan Braylock: Derrick Comedy, “Bro Rape: A Newsline Investigative Report”
I picked Derrick Comedy’s “Bro Rape,” which was maybe one of the first super viral sketches on YouTube. I think it came out literally when YouTube became a thing. Even though I had seen Saturday Night Live and I had seen some In Living Color and I had seen some MADtv and Chappelle’s Show was also very popular, when I was in high school, I never thought of sketch comedy as a thing someone would ever pursue. It was groups like Derrick Comedy and BriTANicK and Good Neighbor that really inspired me and my friends to do sketch.
“Bro Rape” was this sketch that was super … not controversial, but I would say it was pushing the edge; it was edgy in a way that was really funny and also had a point. I still think it’s funny. I don’t know how that sketch would do in our time now, but there was something about the fact that they were willing to comment on rape culture but put it in this context of “bros.” And all the bro specifics with like the GameCube, and the brewskis, and Dane Cook CDs — all that stuff is hilarious, but it also was very much kind of mapping onto things that people would say. Like “Oh well, it’s not my fault that that bro was dressing the way that he does with his popped collar and his Abercrombie & Fitch,” and, “What am I supposed to do, I can’t help myself!” So they were mapping real things people say contributing to rape culture, which is horrible, and they were kind of getting this message across in this very funny, very edgy [way].
Ray Cordova: The Richard Pryor Show, “Maya Angelou”
Everyone knows the tale of the drunk or the downtrodden in that sense. But to the other side of it, I think, before then and since then we’ve kind of seen people make fun of people with addiction, etc., but we never see how it really affects them. But with this one, with this particular sketch, it was the first time that I saw that flip. As a comedian, personally, and a creator, I like to let people think they’re just seeing things a certain way, and then flip it on them. I’m a true believer in “we laugh or we cry,” and I thought a sketch like this was so mind-blowing in just showing two sides to a coin.
We didn’t talk about it — what everyone’s other sketches were gonna be — but I just figured people are gonna show some really hilarious classic sketches. And for me I was like, I found this gem years ago, and I know not everybody knows it that well, but it definitely spoke to me when I first saw it. One thing that we learned from Kenya, and that he made sure we stuck to, was that we weren’t funny for the sake of being funny. We wanted to say something with our comedy.
James III: Saturday Night Live, “What Up With That?” With Robert De Niro and Robin Williams
I grew up watching All That, and I spent the morning scouring All That sketches to try and figure out what was the “one” that inspired me the most, and I could not find one because they were all so amazing. So I’m gonna fast-forward to 2009: “What Up With That?” on SNL. I think that this sketch is a perfect example of everything I loved about All That, but it’s all in one sketch. So, first of all, it stars Kenan Thompson, and he’s playing a big character whose whole thing is he can’t help himself — he has a talk show but he can’t help himself but take over the talk show by singing and being nonsensical. And all of the elements of the show don’t make any sense — like when he starts singing, all of the different characters hop in, and you can’t piece together who they are or why they are a part of this show, or what this show even is.
I think my favorite “What Up With That?” is Robert De Niro in this episode, and the whole game is that when the guest starts to speak, that makes Diondre Cole think of something that makes him then sing the song. And Robert De Niro decides I’m not gonna say anything, and in the silence suddenly Diondre Cole gets the Holy Ghost and just starts singing out of nothing, inspired by the complete silence. I just need to read something that one of the writers said about the sketch that encapsulates why I love the sketch so much: “Internally, among the writers of the sketch there was worry that the bit would not work with Bryan Tucker noting that if was feared that the sketch ‘might be too random and silly.’” But “too random and too silly” — if that isn’t my brand, I don’t know what is.
Caroline Martin: Saturday Night Live, “National Anthem”
The sketch I gotta go with is Maya Rudolph’s “National Anthem” sketch from SNL, where she’s just singing the National Anthem in the most redunkulous cadence. And it’s not a very, you know, sophisticated premise, but I just always loved that sketch. The physical comedy of it, her singing, and I mean, she’s my very, very favorite, you know. As a woman of color and as a mixed woman of color, [I’m a] huge Maya Rudolph fan. It was nice to see someone like me on TV, and that was just was so silly. And for our show coming out, I wrote a couple kind of absurd sketches that don’t immediately deal with race in any way. So for me it was just fun to watch a woman of color do something silly that doesn’t immediately confront how she’s feeling as a woman in society and also her racial identity. Which is important, and we do some of that, but sometimes it’s just fun to do something that’s really goofy and silly, so I just love that sketch so much.
Jerah Milligan: Chappelle’s Show, “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories: Rick James & Prince”
I never expected to ever do sketch, let alone be on a sketch show. So I kind of gravitate toward things that have kind of a grounded feel that almost is like, you know, if you walked up onto a playground or you went into a barbershop or you went to your family’s cookout, that one person is going tell you a really funny story that just goes so extreme you’re like, All right, this clearly isn’t real anymore. And so I think with sketch, I really relate to Chappelle’s Show in a way, because I felt like Chappelle did that — Chappelle would talk about stuff that I just felt like was black as hell.
When he did “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories” and he got to Prince, one, I’m a Prince fanatic, you know what I’m saying? So the fact that you had Charlie Murphy tell this story about Prince and stuff I didn’t know — I didn’t know he played basketball, I didn’t know his voice was that deep, you know what I mean? — and apparently this story was actually pretty close to being real, I’m like, This is so cool, because you took a story that happened, and you made it so that not only did we learn about this mythical musician, but we also had a really good time.
Chappelle has this sketch, “The Racial Draft,” where like … I remember my family, I remember when all that Tiger Woods stuff came out — “We got to trade Tiger” — and he did a sketch literally about those kinds of conversations. I love that there was this black dude just speaking for black people. His show was the first time I heard the N-word not bleeped and used in casual conversation like how me and my friends would use it. Not to punch a joke necessarily, not to be super offensive — it was just like, “Yo, this is how me and my people talk dude, I’mma talk.” I thought that was so cool.
Monique Moses: The Kids in the Hall, “My Pen”
I really thought about the sketch that has stuck with me for over 20 years, and as you know I’m Canadian, and you know obviously I grew up watching SNL and MADtv, but my friends and I religiously watched Kids in the Hall and SCTV and Monty Python. So, this one Kids in the Hall sketch, it’s called “My Pen,” and it’s the most ridiculous thing you’ll ever see. As a child I thought it was so, so funny, and it’s still deeply embedded in me — like if I ever hear anyone say “My pen! My pen!” I’ll know they’re talking about Bruce McCullough’s character in that sketch. So essentially what it is is it’s a bank teller who’s very strange, has strange idiosyncrasies, and he realizes that his pen is gone. And he’s freaking out about it, and he realizes that one of the people that’s come to the bank has taken his pen. And so in his mind he’s thinking about all the crazy things this guy is doing with his pen, and then he goes outside, finds it, he’s still there, and then after chases him, goes to insane heights to get his pen back. And really that is the whole thing of the sketch; it’s so simple and not sketchy, and I think that’s why I love it so much.
When you watch it, it’s very cinematically done; it’s a four-minute sketch, it’s in black and white, styling-wise they all look like they’re kinda from the ’50s. I write a lot of sketches like that. I like to write video sketches, and sketches that are genred or parodies of something. So like the “Magical Negro Rehab” sketch, I wrote that. I like to take things that already exist and plug in my own specifics and make it feel close to home, and so I feel like I may have gotten that from this.
What is also so great about that sketch too is that they don’t just rely on the joke of a guy going crazy trying to get his pen back — they also rely on visual gags. Very, very silly stuff like when Bruce McCullough starts chasing after Kevin McDonald to get the pen back, we cut to him in a shot from underneath and his arms are going crazy like a cartoon character. It’s clear he’s on a dolly and not really running after him. And then we cut to his body as a dummy flying through the air and then he’s on the car. They do stuff like that all the time, and that adds to the humor.
Keisha Zollar: Saturday Night Live, “The Gumby Story”
Eddie Murphy and all the Gumby sketches were very impactful when I was a little, little kid. Those probably influenced me the most, because when I was really little I’d “break out” of my room, and I’d turn on the TV to SNL, and I’d watch within three inches of the TV with the sound at the lowest human setting. This is actually the thing that made me want to be a comedian, and I just remember thinking that is the most amazing, special job in the world. And I was 2 or 3, so it was completely inappropriate. I don’t know why I thought this was for me, but I did it for years and years, and eventually around eight or nine, my parents just let me stay up because they caught me so much.
I remember thinking how amazing it was to have so much joy, and perform and putting funny ideas out there. I think it was especially impactful to see a black person do that, as a little girl standing in her parents’ living room. That is truly the first moment I remember thinking, I wish I could do that. And I was the shyest, most socially awkward kid. I actually thought I wanted to be a doctor until I was about 20, when I finally joined a college improv group type thing and started on the long, dark path into comedy. That is truly one of my earliest memories, because I had My Little Pony nightgowns; it’s all very vivid. I was an Eddie Murphy fan and then an SNL fan just because I loved the idea of comedy. I very quickly was also like “Kids in the Hall! In Living Color!” — like all of those things, I think I was hungry for every single sketch show I could get when I was a kid.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.