[Warning: The following contains spoilers for some Astronomy Club sketches.]
What's got 16 legs, makes people cry laughing, and breaks down doors? Why, that would be Astronomy Club, the sketch comedy troupe debuting its eponymous show Dec. 6 on Netflix.
OK, fine — that was more of a riddle than a joke. And it's probably not going to land this writer an invitation to join the professional pranksters in Astronomy Club, a band of black comics who coalesced in 2014 and built buzz through New York performances and sidesplitting online videos. Doubt my comedic abilities if you must, but you can at least trust my opinion that Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show is very, very funny, and a welcome addition to a sudden boom in black sketch comedy on TV.
Layered, high-quality, and as smart as it is absolutely ridiculous, Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show takes on the world at large but can drill down deep into contemporary black culture to excavate fresh insights that lead to rolling-on-the-floor laughs. Hopping from punchy, poignant sketches like the fake game show "What You Shoulda Done" (where men would win $100 million just by not telling a black woman what she should have done) to gleefully ignorant fare like "Madea Stole a Time Machine," the sketch series never seems to run out of smart material or out of talented players to bring its absurd ideas to life. Indeed, its most irksome flaw is that it's only six episodes.
"They killed it," said Kenya Barris, the black-ish creator whose company Khalabo Ink Society brought Astronomy Club to Netflix as part of that Oh my good Lord how much money did you say?! deal he signed last year. Barris told TV Guide he'd long been a fan of the group, the aforementioned 16-legged consortium composed of seasoned performers Shawtane Bowen, Jonathan Braylock, Ray Cordova, James III, Caroline Martin, Jerah Milligan, Monique Moses, and Keisha Zollar. Technically, Barris' first Netflix project was Deon Cole's hourlong standup special Cole Hearted, but Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show is the first show from his Netflix slate (his sitcom, Black Excellence, is next) and Barris said he could not be prouder to bring the series tothe screen. "It's everything I hoped for and then some," he said. "It's a black sketch show that's definitely speaking about the black experience, but it's also speaking about the human condition. It's smart, but they're not above a Popeye's chicken sketch."
Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show scoots under 2019's closing door just in time to be part of an unprecedented year for black sketch comedy. In August, A Black Lady Sketch Show from Robin Thede premiered on HBO — bringing the game-changing perspective of four black women to the overwhelmingly male and white sketch comedy arena. Just a few weeks prior, IFC unveiled Sherman's Showcase, the brilliant high-concept variety/sketch hybrid series about a make-believe musical showcase in the vein of Soul Train. The comics in Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show can proudly proclaim that they're part of a black sketch comedy renaissance — a resurgence that fills a big gap left after Chappelle's Show ended 13 years ago, which itself filled a gap when it premiered nine years after the pioneering In Living Color said goodbye.
"We think it's awesome we get to be part of this wave," said Jonathan Braylock, one of Astronomy Club's head writers. He said black people aren't used to having the plethora of options in sketch comedy that are emerging now, and he notes that nobody would ever wonder aloud if the many white sketch shows in existence would be considered redundant or in competition with one another. "We formed at a time when comedy clubs and spaces were white dominated — around the time SNL was having that controversy about not having black women on the show. We love sketch; we love comedy. And we were like, 'We have something to say too.' We hadn't been seen being silly just for silly's sake. We're unapologetically black, but then, blackness is not the only thing that defines us."
Black sketch comedy matters, Astronomy Club's members say, because the form gives players a wide berth to pick at intra-cultural taboos, a space to foster healing and enlightenment, and a forum to just be silly in a way that's liberated from the gaze of outsiders. "It's important to have black spaces because people can see black identity as a monolith," said Keisha Zollar, Astronomy Club 's other co-head writer, a standout with a list of acting, producing, and writing credits longer than DMX's rap sheet. "One of the most important things about black collective spaces is seeing the diversity. We're all different, but also a community." Case in point: One excellent sketch finds Caroline trying to connect with the black identity her pals seem to express so easily by preparing a struggle soul food feast (complete with a horrifying chitlin' pie); in another, we see Ray, perhaps the first openly gay black man in a sketch group, talk about his dick appointment with the same nonchalance with which black straight comics have talked about women for generations.
Unifying the sketches is an instantly comforting premise: The eight players are introduced as flatmates in a crib named Astronomy House, à la the messy mansions of The Real World or Making the Band. This conceit, Braylock said, lets viewers meet the cast as individuals, with each of them playing heightened versions of themselves. Right away, when the gang appears on screen as part of a self-help group for "Magical Negroes," viewers know this is comedy from a collective that knows its audience's pressure points — but when they reappear in another sketch as different iterations of Ice Cube to celebrate the made-up Ice Cube Day, it's clear they traffic in the kind of hyper-specific, goofy observations its audience members probably share with only their best, equally goofy friends. "They're not coming in trying to be super woke," said Barris. "There are a lot of different characters who are coming together to make this interesting tableau."
Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show came to Barris almost fully formed but not entirely, and the prolific producer — a guy with the stones big enough to take on the sacred Coming to America sequel — shepherded Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show to series because it resonates with a lot of his core objectives as a black creative. It's smart, it's silly, it has something to say, and it elevates voices that aren't heard enough. Once everyone was on board, the team trusted Barris to help package their work for TV. "He's a legend," Zollar said. "In terms of creating sketches, the best shows have more material than the world will ever see. Kenya understood being a black voice on TV — the pressure, the expectations — and what we were trying to say and do."
For the members of Astronomy Club, being silly is serious business, something Zollar said she learned when she cut her teeth performing for kids. "A little black girl came up to me after I did something goofy and dumb," she said. "I could see that she saw something she never considered before. If you can see it in the world, your brain adapts to what's possible."
Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show begins streaming Friday, Dec. 6 on Netflix.