By their nature, sketch comedy shows are a mixed bag of comedic styles and personalities, all blended together in an often uneven swirl. Saturday Night Live has gone 45 years as an established television institution with a show that, every week, is often at least 1/3 bad. That's life amid the ups and downs of telling short-burst comedy sketches. The best shows turn this mixed-bag nature into a strength, and right now, the new show that is doing that most hilariously is Netflix's Astronomy Club, the streamer's first series produced by Kenya Barris.
Having started as an all-black sketch comedy group at New York City's UCB theater, Astronomy Club has graduated to Netflix with a quasi-familial vibe that serves the show incredibly well. This is immediately apparent in the show's Real World-esque frame story that sees the eight-person cast living in a house together. Cast members Jonathan Braylock, Shawntane Bowen, Caroline Martin, Jerah Milligan, Monique Moses, Keisha Zollar, and James III get to bounce their personalities off of each other as a new storyline threads through this frame each week. Sometimes it's celebrating Ice Cube Day. Sometimes it's that James III has gone missing. As a viewer, I found myself completely onboard before a single proper sketch was aired.
Having said that, the sketches are good. With a robust roster of scenarios that poke fun at everything from The Twilight Zone, to Madea, to Katt Williams, to old fashioned comedies of manners, it becomes apparent very quickly that it will be very hard to pin down what one kind of comedy Astronomy Club is trying to be. This is a good thing.
"The kinda great thing about our group is that there are eight of us," cast member and co-creator Jonathan Braylock said when he spoke to Primetimer. "And while we have this clear dynamic and chemistry and POV together, we also have eight different comedic sensibilities and tastes, so it really is a mixed bag of different kinds of sketches that I personally really appreciate as a sketch fan."
The mix of social satire, thoughtful jabs at the entertainment industry, and pure silliness is incredibly appealing, especially as carried out by such an effortlessly funny cast. Whether it's James III's infectious energy (his Katt Williams-teaches-Shakespeare sketch and twerking-based "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" parody are two of the season's highlights), or Milligan's guilt-tripping club DJ, or Martin and Moses engaging in a drawing-room shade battle, each cast member gets their moment to shine, without the show ever creaking from the strain of making sure everyone gets a piece of the pie.
Braylock's season highlight is the terrifically unsettling Resting Creep Face character, although the sketch he wrote where Miligan plays a matter-of-fact survivor of the legendarily murderous Chucky doll is similarly fantastic. "It's poking fun at the absurdity of the Chucky doll as a trope, but it's also like 'What would happen if this was also a black lead in the Chucky movies?' A lot of times when black people watch these movies, they'll be like "Get out of there, what are you doing?! Hit that thing!" What if this was a black lead, he would just knock this doll out. Just not deal with this foolishness."
"What would happen if a black person got to play this lead role?" is not some incidental starting-off point for a sketch. Anyone who's listened to Braylock, Milligan, and James III on their long-running podcast "Black Men Can't Jump in Hollywood" knows how finely attuned they are to the racial politics at play in Hollywood, especially with regard to which actors are allowed to play which parts in movies. That sharp-edged intelligence and awareness is present throughout Astronomy Club.
"We as a team have always leaned towards satirical comedy," Braylock says, "And obviously Jerah, James, and I have done this 'Black Men Can't Jump in Hollywood' podcast for four years, and therefore we have many, many opinions on the state of black artistry in Hollywood and cinema and TV. But first and foremost, we just wanted to make a really funny show that wasn't targeted towards a white audience. Which I think is kind of what we had to do at UCB. We wanted to be unapologetically black, but also smart with our comedy and use comedic principles. So we have a lot of sketches that are infusing different commentary in there, whether that be the 'magical negro' sketch or the Madea sketch."
Astronomy Club — which has nothing to do with actual astronomy, it's just a black-nerd-appropriate sketch group name ("Neil DeGrasse Tyson was poppin' at the time," says Braylock) — dropped its first season of six half-hour episodes last week, and the worst thing about it is that it's only six episodes. For Netflix to leave it at that would be an incredible tease. Do not let Katt Williams' Nobel Pimp Prize go to waste! #GreenBookwasntgood.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.