Two black men walk into a bar. “It was a dark and stormy night,” Open Mike Eagle says in an old-timey British accent, setting the stage. “A man with a double-breasted blazer and a smoking pipe walks in,” Baron Vaughn says, picking up his friend’s story. Then the punchline arrives. The man, a TV executive, points at our heroes: “You, you come here. Be my new negro,” says Open Mike, mimicking a faux-white-man tone. He and Vaughn start laughing. This is not, they assure me, how their series The New Negroes (Fridays at 11 p.m. EST) landed at Comedy Central.
High-concept, racially conscious and earnest, The New Negroes is a somewhat surprising entry to the cable network’s more traditional slate. Part standup showcase, part musical, it was originally conceived and performed as a live show. For the TV version, Vaughn (Grace and Frankie, Mystery Science Theater 3000) and Open Mike (very good rapper) monologue the beginning of each episode, which carry titles like “Identity” and “Criminality.” From there, various black comics — Donnell Rawlings, Shalewa Sharpe, David Gborie — perform, using those themes as a guidepost. There are also music videos featuring artists such as Danny Brown and MF DOOM, who deliver a hip-hop component to the proceedings alongside Open Mike. It’s an ambitious swing for two friends who met at a comedy rap battle in 2012.
As they explain in the first episode, the series’ head-turning title is taken from an ideological movement that grew out of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. “It was literary, artistic, political, social, all of that,” Vaughn told the crowd. “And this show is an extension of that.” Added Open Mike, “That movement was about black Americans at that time changing the way society viewed them.” By phone from L.A., the pair discussed the genesis of The New Negroes and the real story of how Comedy Central came to be its home.
How did you get the idea to bring The New Negroes to television?
Vaughn: I came up with the idea of the show and we did it live a couple of times in the Bridgetown Comedy Festival [in 2014]. It went very well, to the point I was like, “Well, clearly something is happening here.” Every comedian felt really great about the show and what they were doing, audiences felt great. I felt like expanding it to the television audience was an obvious choice. It took a couple years and different iterations of how the show would look and feel. Once Mike came on board I wanted to get his take and see what his feelings and ideas were and sort of fuse them together. That became the TV show that’s out now.
Open Mike: I think the interesting thing to note too is how both me and you are latch-key kids and we both, in separate parts of the country, grew up watching standup TV shows. I think in both of us it’s only natural to want to create a show around that kind of thing.
How did the show land at Comedy Central?
Vaughn: Basically it was old-fashioned pitch-and-meet. I had a relationship with Funny or Die because I had been a writer over there back in their sketch days, when they were putting up a lot of different, original content on the Funny or Die website. So I already had some good relationships there. Once we had a production team onboard with Funny or Die, we went and pitched it to a couple different networks. I already had been on Comedy Central, worked with Comedy Central a lot of different times, so fortunately, they were the ones who were really into the show.
Open Mike: Is it weird to you that our show is on Comedy Central? And I say that sincerely.
A little. I think that Viacom, its parent company, has both a good and troubled history with African-American shows.
Open Mike: Yep, gotcha. Very true.
Did you guys think about that?
Vaughn: Of course.
Open Mike: Absolutely, we’re a very black show on a network that has not — if you look at the history of black shows on Comedy Central, people think Key & Peele, people think of The Chappelle Show… great endeavors, but Comedy Central is not well known for being the most pro-black network ever. So that’s certainly something we’re aware of.
Vaughn: Right now, Trevor Noah is the host of The Daily Show and then we’ve got Roy Wood Jr., Dulcé Sloan and Jaboukie Young-White killing it on that show as well. There’s ironically a lot of black people killing stuff on Comedy Central right now.
Open Mike: In addition to that, if we’re talking about a standup show of any background or variety, what better place to have it than the hub where everybody goes for comedy? I think there’s a lot of networks that, even if their history is a little bit more pro-black or pro-ethnic or whatever, the format of our show may have been a more awkward fit.
It’s interesting how you guys frame each episode around a subject. Why go that way and was that always the vision for bringing this to television?
Open Mike: The answer to that is based in who Baron and I are as individuals. We’re both creators and artists who infuse social commentary and that sort of dialogue in our work even if it’s subtle, even if it’s not immediately apparent. The idea of both of us coming together to make a big project, there was just no way it wasn’t going to have these ambitions of trying to unpack some of the issues behind society, specifically as it speaks to being black Americans. It’s something Baron and I think about a lot. It inhabits a lot of our work. When it came to creating the show and having this kind of dialogue that moved throughout it, we wanted it to tackle some of these things that we all struggle with day-to-day.
Vaughn: It provides that throughline, that sort of arc. We never told comedians, “Do or don’t talk about this, you gotta do material that’s on the topic that we’re talking about.” We told every comedian what topic we might be talking about in an episode so they could ponder it, see if they had material that they already liked and had performed that might fit into that.
How do you decide what musicians should be in each episode?
Open Mike: We were creating all the parts for the show at the same time, and the guidepost for the creation of each episode was that central theme. The first thing that we really got together to decide was what the themes were. We knew we had eight episodes. We knew there was a bunch of stuff we wanted to talk about. So we had to isolate “OK, these are the things we want to tackle.” Once we had those themes, the music production arm of our team started to create songs that fit that theme.
Baron, what do you expect Grace and Frankie fans who see this show might think? Grace and Frankie is a woke show, with two men who come out late in life, leaving their marriages so they can be together, but it’s still a very white-gazing. New Negroes is not that. Did you ever think of that duality?
Vaughn: Absolutely, I kind of live inside that duality.
Open Mike: Talk about it.
Vaughn: Grace & Frankie we’re still in the sixth season of it. It is a very specific environment and it’s a narrative show, which is structured and run in a very specific way on set. Observing it, I’ve learned a lot, practicing it. But in terms of what you’re talking about, which that it’s very white-gazing, I would agree with you on that. My surprise though is when I’m walking around the streets, especially if I’m outside of Los Angeles, and I get recognized by people, four out of five it’s a black person that’s like, “I loved you on that show.” I’d never been expecting that. I get recognized by black people for Grace and Frankie and I’d never thought that would happen, but it’s a good thing. It makes me happy, because it makes me think of that crossover. ’Cause I hope these are the black people who will come see me do New Negroes. In general, one of the big reasons I wanted to create this show was to create a space for a lot of comedians to talk and be themselves, but also for myself. A lot of people don’t know me as a comedian.