On New Year’s Eve, comedian Jaboukie Young-White posted an image of himself in his first movie, the 2017 Scarlett Johansson comedy “Rough Night.” He played an extra at a costume party, but you couldn’t quite blink and miss him: Young-White was dressed as Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character, in a fake mustache, fake perm, a very unflattering one-piece lime green swimsuit that barely held everything together.
It was, if nothing, confident, and he wrote alongside that image: “2017 was a terrible year for me a black/queer person but a GREAT year for me as a writer/performer.”
Young-White grew up in Harvey, Ill., and at 24, has become one of those rising talents whose name appears on lists of people to know to stay culturally relevant: Rolling Stone’s “25 Under 25,” Variety’s “10 Comics to Watch For,” et al. In the past year he has joined the writing staffs of two of Netflix’s best shows, the true-crime parody “American Vandal” and “Big Mouth,” an almost unbearably spot-on animated comedy about young love and hormones (the show’s second season just landed on the streaming service).
And last week, he became a correspondent on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” explaining to the host why millennials don’t vote and why he shouldn’t need an ID to vote: “If you want my ID, my Uber is the best ID there is. It’s got my face. It’s got my rating — 4.8. All my driver’s license will tell you is where I once lived.”
He has turned a talent for the concise Twitter-friendly quip — “A Chicago hot is a New York cute, and a New York cute is an LA shunned” — into a breakout moment. But so far what Young-White is best known for happened on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” a few weeks before that New Year’s Eve posting. In a five-minute set, he carried himself like a stand-up veteran, joking about millennial poverty, racial identity and hitting on a male Uber driver.
After the set, he posted on Twitter:
“i just came out to my parents on national TV.”
When I caught up with him the other day, the new season of “Big Mouth” had arrived hours earlier, and a few hours before that, Young-White had made his second appearance on “The Tonight Show.” The following interview is an edited, condensed version of a longer phone conversation.
Q: Am I right that you haven’t talked much to Chicago media? Am I establishing some new ground here?
A: You are! But — when I was 18 I was on the cover of the Chicago Reader for a fake porno I was making with my roommate. We used to post fake porn ads on Craigslist: “Hey we’re casting (too raunchy to write), send us a resume!” One day a Reader journalist sent us a note, and we were like, “Oh! OK, well, guess now we have to do this!”
Q: Backing up, last New Year’s Eve — what did you mean by that post on Instagram, that it had been a terrible year for you but also a great year for you?
A: I meant just living in America today and what this country is prioritizing feels like we’re trying to establish a white male ethnostate. You just feel left out of things. Yet, at least as my career is going — it really was a good year.
Q: How did your family react to you coming out?
A: My mom was immediately (supportive), my dad is only now coming around. A lot of the circles and spaces I am in, being gay is so blase at this point, it just means nothing. But after that set, the dual-sidedness of America hit, and I heard a lot of “It meant so much to see a queer person of color on TV,” but also all this totally angry vitriol too — so I was like, oh, wow I guess we do have a long way to go.
Q: I don’t know if this is still applicable, but a stand-up set on “The Tonight Show” used to mean a make or break for a career — do comics still feel that pressure doing that show? Never mind coming out on national TV, you just didn’t appear nervous.
A: I don’t give energy into being anxious, but that pressure is there — that is still a huge audience. I still have people who say they only caught the clip. But when I did it, I was thinking, “It’s only this room of 200 people, with cameras.”
Q: Did being a two-time Illinois high-school speech champion help?
A: That 100 percent helped me out. When I started out in stand-up, I was already used to speaking in front of people, how to project, control my voice — a lot of learning curves I had overcome. I went to Marian Catholic High School (in Chicago Heights), and I had gotten injured playing basketball in eighth grade and needed to do something. I knew people doing speech (team), right when Obama was elected. All these people were “You look like Obama!” So I kind of went with that. I started out serious, straight up oratory. By senior year I did two comedic speeches that I wrote and I thought, “Well, I could do this.”
Q: What did you feel, at 18, you had to say?
A: I wanted to say things I couldn’t say in everyday conversations that were taboo. Like, a lot of my speeches were about sex positivity. It was a Catholic school and there was zero of that. Whatever I’m writing has seemed to be about something I don’t feel I could freely express in my everyday life, and stand-up is a really effective medium for getting people to hear exactly the things and viewpoints that they normally don’t want listen to.
Q: You write about the fluidity of identity — in New York everyone thinks you’re Puerto Rican, in Chicago everyone thinks you’re mixed race and in CVS, everyone thinks you’re shoplifting. If you’re being seen differently depending on the context of where you are, does that affect the writing itself?
A: Oh, it does. Because stand-up is not just material, it’s how people see you, and you have to be aware. I brush up against that issue because the way I look and present myself, people assume a certain background and I often have to dispel. I rarely meet someone who has me pegged so I find myself explaining. My parents are Jamaican immigrants and both have a multi-racial background. They’re Jamaican but my genetic makeup is West African, European, Asian. My parents would watch “Saturday Night Live” and there was this one Jamaican comedian named Oliver Samuels and they would get his DVDs — the Jamaican Tyler Perry, basically. I think I got into comedy because it was a shorthand establishment of social mores and codes, so it’s how I learned American culture and customs. Because I grew up in a traditional family and the things that (everyone knows) like … the Beatles! It was not passed down to me. So my firsthand American experience starts in like … 2004. Comedy was a way of catching up.
Q: Did you try out for “SNL”?
A: Last year, I got a call back, but …
Q: Where did you do stand-up in Chicago?
A: I started at DePaul, where I went to school. I had done open mics but the environment was hostile. So many try (stand-up) casually that comedians hate people just starting, they feel this person doesn’t actually love stand-up. A lot of toxic ego is involved. On top of that, it was straight white males in their late 20s, early 40s, and I was a 19-year old gay kid of color. What I was talking about was not applicable to their lives and what they were talking about was not applicable to my life. Also, people are just homophobic and racist. Not everyone, but there were too many bridges to cross. But there was a stand-up class Kevin Bozeman was teaching at DePaul. He had been on “Last Comic Standing.” The class was 18 to 25-year olds and I realized, ‘Oh, I am funny, I’m just not funny to these other people — and that’s OK, I don’t have to speak to them.’
Q: Is it true you were homeless in Chicago?
A: It never got to the point where I was checking into a shelter, but there were periods with my family that were weird because I was not out to them and I didn’t want to risk the morsel of financial stability they were providing but I couldn’t go home and stay in the closet anymore. So I spent a couple of summers in Chicago, no income, sleeping on friends’ couches. Then I dropped out of DePaul and went to New York with like $1,000 and was, “OK I might need assistance here.” Then I found cheap rent (in Brooklyn).
Q: How did you end up writing for two shows?
A: I don’t know if it was one reason. I think we’re past the point in entertainment where you can have one thing and explode. If you have one thing, people ask, “Alright, what else?” You have to be multi-hyphenate. Which is sad but I always wanted that. I know a lot of people who are amazing stand-ups who just want to do stand-up but they do not see the same opportunities as people who do a lot of things.
Q: You’ve become known for working on jokes in plain sight on Twitter, and I wonder, a lot of comics say they hone material online, but isn’t it a worse place to try out their jokes — way worse than, say, a small open mic? Isn’t there a risk of doing damage to a career by failing on Twitter?
A: In a lot of ways. There was a joke I just did on Jimmy Fallon that I tweeted first and after it exploded I noticed (similar posts) that do not credit me. It’s weird how you can lose credit. The last time I did “The Tonight Show” some people were, “This guy steals jokes from Twitter!” Which forces you to go, “No, that was me — those were my jokes!’
(Article written by Christopher Borrelli)