If the members of the assembled group don’t look instantly familiar, give it a moment. Over there is Whoopi Goldberg’s spiritual sherpa, who reunited Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore across the mortal divide in Ghost. Oh, and she’s joined by Will Smith’s legendary Bagger Vance, the mysterious golf-whisperer who caddies Matt Damon to both athletic and romantic breakthroughs. And across from them is Morgan Freeman’s paradigm-shifting chauffeur from Driving Miss Daisy, the one who helps an old lady discover that prejudice exists.
These are but three of the life-lesson dispensers attending Magical Negro Rehab in the first episode of Netflix’s new sketch show Astronomy Club.
It’s the sketch the studio deployed last month to tease the series’ imminent arrival. (All episodes are available to stream as of today.) The clip not only announces that this is a sketch show created by and starring eight comedians of color, it also previews what to expect overall: boa constrictor-tight writing, up-to-the-nanosecond vernacular, jokes on top of jokes, committed performances, and, crucially, a 360-degree perspective on representation in movies. It’s what you might expect from a sketch crew with three members who have hosted a podcast about representation in movies for the last four years.
Jonathan Braylock, Jerah Milligan, and James III are the voices behind Black Men Can’t Jump in Hollywood, breaking down a different film starring a black lead in each episode. The three initially joined forces in 2013, as part of the first all-black house team at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theater (along with fellow Astronomy Clubbers: Shawtane Bowen, Ray Cardova, Caroline Martin, Monique Moses, and Keisha Zollar). Although they were all improvisers, Milligan and James III had been wanting to branch out into sketch. The two booked a February date for a Black History Month-themed sketch show, before they even told the rest of the group about the idea, much less actually wrote enough sketches to fill the time. The eventual show, with premises based on George Washington Carver and horny slave ship, uh, passengers, proved a refreshing change of pace from the typical UCB fare. It ended up running at the theater for an entire year.
“There was this freedom and joy that we shared together,” Braylock says during a phone conversation with Fast Company, “which I think came from the fact that we were an all-black team, and it was so awesome to be able to improvise and write with other black people in this alternative comedy space that was dominated by so many white performers.”
Astronomy Club’s black history-themed sketch show became so popular, the New York Comedy Festival and Comedy Central anointed the group as Comics to Watch in 2016. Soon after, the club parleyed their award into a deal to create digital shorts for Comedy Central, adapting some memorable bits from their stage show into shareable videos.
By that time, though, Braylock, Milligan, and James III had already ventured out in another medium.
It all started with Martin Lawrence
James III had recently revisited Martin Lawrence’s mostly forgotten hit Blue Streak, and with 2015 hindsight, concluded that it should’ve sent the volatile comedian’s career skyrocketing.
He posted this hot take on Facebook, and it sparked a firestorm of friends informing him, over and over, that Lawrence’s career pretty much did skyrocket after Blue Streak. (Years later, James III concedes that his take was indeed trash.)
The Martin Lawrence conversation, however, also sparked the idea for Black Men Can’t Jump in Hollywood, a podcast on the Forever Dog network where they talk about the greater cinematic diversity problems at length.
“At the time, we felt like we could count on our hands the amount of black actors that were able to lead movies,” James III says. “Like, not counting the ones in independent films, but the ones who were able to lead major motion pictures.”
“Let’s be honest,” adds Milligan. “We’re still counting them, but we have more than two fingers now. I’m just simply saying: Things have gotten better, yes. But people are making it like it’s this whole new level of diversity. We kinda doing okay, but if Hollywood was averaging grades then we had like, what, a C+? That’s cool, I guess.”
For the past four years, the three hosts have picked apart this debate from every angle on their podcast. It wasn’t until they, and the rest of Astronomy Club, hooked up with Black-ish creator Kenya Barris to sell a sketch show to Netflix, that they could take their comedic critique of Hollywood to a higher level.
From podcast to screen
Although all of Astronomy Club punches up every scene together, no matter who pitches it—”Magical Negro Rehab,” for instance comes courtesy of Monique Moses), some sketches bear the podcast hosts’ distinct cinema-skewering fingerprints. They sound like they were inspired by recurring conversational threads from Black Men Can’t Jump in Hollywood.
Because they were.
Take the audition sketch in episode 5. Braylock, Milligan, and James III play eager actors auditioning for a role in a project they believe has an all-black writing team attached. Before actually heading in, where a nuanced, complex role must await, the trio takes a moment to appreciate the newly enlightened Hollywood you may have heard about.
But the roles that they’re up for are not quite as progressive as expected.
With the audition room sketch, the Can’t Jump guys were finally able to say something they’d long wanted to say outside of the podcast—all while nodding to Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle, in which Townsend’s struggling actor character swallows his pride to audition for a role in a film called Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge.
While the sketch makes a shrewd observation in a funny way, is it perhaps an exaggeration? Are casting notices still that steeped in stereotypes?
“All three of us have legit played criminals on television in the last few years,” Milligan says. “Jon was a gang member on Kimmy Schmidt, James was literally in prison on The Last O.G. And I’ve been arrested on two cop shows.”
“I was also arrested on NCIS,” Braylock notes.
So, perhaps not an ideal amount of exaggeration.
The duality of Tyler Perry
Another recurring element from the podcast that ends up on Astronomy Club is the hosts’ efforts to wrap their heads around Tyler Perry. In a trailer for the fake-but-still-plausible film Madea Steals a Time Machine, the group thoughtfully and honestly probes the wildly prolific filmmaker’s career. It’s something they’ve been doing for years, debating whether grandma drag-donning Perry’s films are nobly nourishing an underserved community, or appealing broadly to a lowest-common denominator audience.
Astronomy Club‘s take on Perry assesses him from both sides.
“If you listen to the podcast, I come at Tyler Perry very, very hard,” Milligan says. “I remember when Jon and James made me review Boo!: A Madea Halloween, I saw it in Harlem and it was an experience. People were screaming, they were throwing popcorn. It was like a party, and no one cared how poorly shot the movie was. That wasn’t the point. The point was it was mad people of color in that movie. So the Madea sketch felt like a conversation we would have on a podcast or in a barbershop, of someone trying to diss Tyler Perry but then realizing this black man has accomplished something that a lot of black men hadn’t and should be celebrated for instead of, like, broken down.”
The reason the critique in this sketch comes across so balanced is executive producer Barris.
Toward the end of production, the executive producer and full-on mogul, who has a reported $100 million deal with Netflix, called up the creators and had a long conversation with them.
“Basically, he told us that anytime one of our sketches tackles race, we have to make sure it says something,” Milligan says. “We need to make sure we’re not making black people the butt of this joke. That’s not the kind of legacy you want to put out. That’s something I think sometimes gets lost when you’re in one of these big systems, because you’re trying to please everybody to a certain extent. I personally have a fear of doing things that will tarnish. I want black people to support us and feel proud of the work that we’re doing, and I think sometimes comedy leans on black stereotypes or certain things that make white audiences laugh, where the joke is about the person’s blackness. So, when Kenya said that, it made everyone stop and we reevaluated some of our sketches.”
Not only did they reevaluate, they rewrote. The Tyler Perry sketch still does joke about the fact that “we can’t get a Madam CJ Walker movie made but we have 22 Madea movies in the pipeline,” but it now also works in a way to mention that Tyler Perry is ultimately empowering black people. (It should be noted that a limited series about Walker, the pioneering entrepreneur, is coming to Netflix next year with Octavia Spencer and Tiffany Haddish set to star.)
The sketches that weren’t (yet)
For all the sketches informed or inspired by the podcast that made it onto the show, there were several that didn’t. James III never quite cracked his idea about a church exclusively for White Saviors, or the one about the urge to write about the oppression black people face—and reconciling the irony that if he did so successfully, he’d be profiting from oppression.
Milligan similarly could never quite get a handle on a sketch he wanted to write about a black director. The premise stems from the idea that, since there are so relatively few major movies created by and starring people of color, there’s palpable pressure to be supportive of all of them. Milligan imagined a black director who is fed up with not being able to critique black cinema without being—for lack of a better word—canceled, so he sets out to make the most offensive movie of all time. In a Producers-indebted twist, it becomes one of the most celebrated pieces of art ever.
Although Astronomy Club never ended up making that sketch, the conversation around it is sure to rage on with Black Men Can’t Jump in Hollywood, where the hosts always make it a point to speak freely about directors, actors, and movies they feel culturally mandated to endorse.
“We’ve joked on the podcast many times about like, ‘Do we have to hide all of this? Scrub it from the internet?'” Braylock says. “As critics, we’re not trying to come after anybody, though, and the reality is, now people are going to critique our sketch show and they’re going to have very valid critiques and say, ‘This wasn’t as funny as it could have been,’ and that’s fine.”
“They’ll be wrong when they say that,” Milligan clarifies, “but it’s okay for them to have that opinion.”