“People my age, we’ve been consuming media since we were five – it all seems hyper-familiar to us and we’re just kind of bored.”
I was a fan of Jaboukie Young White long before I was asked to interview him, and I was excited by the idea of getting to meet someone whose tweets have been sent back and forth between my sister and I more times than I can count. When he walked through the doors of Stamp Proper Foods in Los Feliz it almost felt like I was seeing an old friend. The first words out of his mouth were “So, so sorry for being late.” He was barely five minutes late, which in LA times is essentially being 15 minutes early. Generational and geographically a-typical punctuality is just one of the many ways that, as I would soon learn, Jaboukie is anything but typical.
We ordered our coffee and sat down to discuss what is already quite the remarkable career. Jaboukie grew up in Harvey “which is right outside of Chicago proper – I grew up there but my parents are Jamaican immigrants.” He was a film major at DePaul University and attended for four years, but in his last year he was “ so tired and had already started doing stand-up and I was like: What am I – this is a fucking film degree, no one is going to be like, well you didn’t graduate. So I just dropped out and moved to Brooklyn.”
One of Rolling Stone Magazine’s “25 Under 25” Jaboukie is not being held back for lack of a degree. At only 24 years old he’s performed on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and written for the Spirit Awards and Netflix shows like Big Mouth and American Vandal – which is quite the impressive resume for a gent who still qualifies for his parent’s health insurance.
What got you to your first open mic?
Oh my god! I was in New York on vacation actually, with a friend. I had wanted to do stand-up forever, cause I took theatre in high school and was doing improv, but I didn’t want to do it in Chicago because I knew that it wasn’t going to be good. My friend signed me up and didn’t really tell me. I went up, did terrible. I remember afterwards I was being really sassy and moody because I was just so mad at myself for bombing. My friend took me aside and she was like: “Honestly your problem is that you try a bunch of different things and you never actually sit down and focus on getting good at something. You’ll never be good at anything if you keep doing that.” She just dragged the shit out of me. And I was like: “Okay! Well I’m gonna do stand-up. This is what I’m doing.”
Do you remember the subject material of your first open mic?
I had just turned 19, so it was just about... turning 19 I guess, I don’t know. When I describe most of my bits, it’s all very mundane because it’s just whatever I’m experiencing at the time. That first mic, it did not go well. But it was a really good representation of what open mics were like.
Do you watch older comedians and try to learn from them?
For sure, absolutely. I’ve had the opportunity to work with people who I have looked up to forever, it’s been eye-opening. I feel like no one ever gets to a point where they just give up. People are constantly trying to improve, even though they have their own voice and they have their own lane, they’re constantly finding new ways to express themselves or be funny.
Does anyone in particular really stand out?
I’m writing on Big Mouth right now with Nick Kroll, he’s great. Being in the room with him is so impressive. You can tell how long he’s been doing this because, sometimes we’ll just sit there – I also worked with him and John Mulaney on the Spirit Awards – they’ll just go back and forth, writing a full scene in real time, just improvising it. It has been wild to watch, and also very encouraging in that if I keep doing this I can get to that point where it’s that effortless.
I watched Bill Maher this morning and that generation of comics seems to insist that young people don’t know what’s funny, don’t like what’s funny, and can’t handle being offended. But your comedy does push boundaries. How do you find this ‘PC’ culture as someone who’s of that generation but also does really great comedy that doesn’t feel Vanilla?
Being funny is just speaking to a specific culture and making observations of opinions and feelings within that specific culture. Of course, some things don’t translate to other people. That doesn’t invalidate it. Also, a lot of people my age, we’ve been consuming media since we were five years old – it all seems hyper-familiar to us and we’re just kind of bored. We need something that we haven’t seen before, or a new take. And it just so happens most of the media that we grew up on was super homophobic, sexist, racist, very microaggressive and shit like that. So, even beyond ‘being offended,’ a lot of the time I’m like, I’ve heard this. I’m just artistically bored by your choices. Because honestly, if I saw someone have a new, hot, fresh homophobic take. I, as a gay person would be like, that’s not funny to me, but you did something I haven’t heard before. But that has yet to happen.
You tweet a lot. You mentioned in Paste Magazine that your relationship to jokes on Twitter has shifted. What did you mean by that?
I didn’t use Twitter for jokes until I started doing stand-up. At first I was just doing [my] stand-up [act] on Twitter and it didn’t really translate as well. But since I started to get more of a following, it’s kind of a hybrid of my reactions to whatever is going on on Twitter at the time and my two cents on whatever meme is going on. I do use it to test out a joke premise or a one-liner and sometimes I’ll throw that in to my set as like, connective tissue between bits.
So what happens if a tweet fails?
I delete that shit so fast, so quick. I’ll usually be able to tell. There’s some things where I’m like, no I believe this, I want this.
Another, sort-of cliché comedy observation, from the older generation of comics, is that Twitter makes it hard to do socially current commentary because all the best jokes happen on Twitter first, and your audience is the one making them. You’re thriving in this current synergy but do you relate to that at all?
When Trump first got into office and there were so many changes going on, I for sure was a part of the tweet mob just getting Trump jokes off constantly. Because that’s what I was like, deeply, emotionally feeling at the time, and jokes are a way for me to create some sort of ironic distance so that I am not miserable 24/7. But as it’s gone on… I don’t know. In terms of keeping up with the audience it’s just a challenge of making sure what you’re saying has some sort of staying power. And getting to the truth of the situation, rather than joking about the details. You know? It’s like the difference between – in the 90s, joking about Bill Clinton – making a joke about the dress as opposed to making a joke about the ability of men in positions of power to abuse people. The dress, that’s an old joke. But if you were to make a joke about how men in positions of power just turn into shit, that is evergreen. That is never going to go out of...
Yeah! Hopefully one day.
You have a really funny bit that you did on Fallon about all the stuff millennials have destroyed because we’re poor. What next industry do you think we’re taking down?
Oh my god. That is such a good question. I feel like, the housing industry. I feel we’re going after something big. Because none of us are buying houses, like... we cannot.
Who were some of your favorite comedians growing up?
Growing up I really liked the Chappelle show. I haven’t watched it since I was really young, but I loved Chappelle. I loved... It’s so difficult because so many of them have proved to be kind of shitty since then. But I love Chappelle, I love Donald Glover, I was a huge fan of Aziz too, and um... I love Chelsea Peretti. Her Netflix special is still one of my fav-o-rite specials of all time. Love her. Tina Fey, I was a huge fan of 30 Rock and all that stuff. Honestly I was really into TV more so than specific standups. I really loved comedy in general and was down to watch whatever was supposed to make people laugh, I was obsessed with it.
I have a theory about comedians our age. That we all actually have the same favorite comedian but we always forget to name him.
Who is it?
He has literally been on like everything we’ve watched our whole lives, but no one ever mentions him.
That’s so true. I feel like it’s because he’s just been there. Like, he’s stable. Kenan Thompson is oxygen.
What would you call your Netflix special?
Honestly I wanted to call it Happy To Be Here but Tig Notaro’s is called that. And I was very happy for her because, that is a good name for a stand-up special. Yeah shouts out Tig. I could do the sequel or something.
For young comedians who are looking up to you, what’s their “workout plan”? How do they train to be like you?
Definitely perform comedy as much as you can. And be honest, don’t lie. I think a lot of people make the mistake of going to comedy either being like: “Yeah, I’m fucking awesome let me tell you this story about this person that I fucked last week.” Or they get into it super self-deprecating like: “I’m so fat and ugly and everyone hates me.”
And neither of those are true, you know? It’s somewhere in the middle. And I feel like that is the hardest part in starting comedy, getting to a point where you can be honest with yourself and also honestly represent yourself through your material.
That level of self-awareness and authenticity can be rare in early 20-somethings though. Did being inauthentic in a a joke and it failing force you to do that internal work? Or did you just know who you were your whole life?
I wish, that’d be fucking amazing. No, when I first started I was trying to present some version of myself that was not true. Also because when I started doing comedy I was like, not fully out.
If any comedian can have their hologram at Coachella moment, which comedian do you think our generation needs to see?
See, that’s tricky because so much of comedy is such a of-the-moment type thing. Is this a hologram of them… it’s not updated for current times is it?
Well let’s say it’s both. So one answer can be them then, and one can be now.
I would say Andy Kaufman then. And Richard Pryor now. I’d be really interested to see what Richard Pryer would do. I mean, given the time a lot of his stuff has not aged well. But he was very much of the Black Panther movement and a lot of the sex positive culture that was going on. [Signaling quotes with his fingers] “Sex Positive” They were still super sexist but… they tried. Especially because he could be openly bi now. That’s also something I would love to see.
Yeah there’s a whole area of his life that we never got to hear him comment on.
Exactly! Like he would have the best dick sucking jokes, we were robbed of that. We were robbed.
Your Fallon set had a nice mix of commenting on your life, but you also have anti-capitalist jokes in there. Would you consider yourself a political comedian?
I think that my existence is political. I’m definitely not gonna get on stage and be like: “So here’s this embargo deal with Cuba, right now and here’s why it’s so fucking weird. And it’s kind of like popcorn isn’t it?” I’m not like Daily Show-ing it by any means. But I will say if I’m writing a joke and I notice there’s something political about it, I’m not going to stray away from that. But I’m also not going to shoehorn it in there. Like, sometimes I just want to write a silly stupid joke.
Before we finish, are there any specific comedians you want to shout-
Yes! I love Patti Harrison, Kate Berlant, John Early, Julio Torres, Mitra Jouhari, The Three Busy Debras, like all of them. I love Joel Kim Booster. He’s really funny, too, he’s also a writer on Big Mouth. I’m going to leave out people... Lorelei Ramirez, Joe Castle Baker in Brooklyn is so funny, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Gary Richardson…
Any last thoughts?
Watch Big Mouth. It’s on Netflix, the first season. The second season is coming out later this year. I don’t think I have anything super profound. Just you know, be nice to each other.