"The New Negroes": The comedy you get "if you say 'James Baldwin' 3 times in the bathroom mirror"

Baron Vaughn and Open Mike Eagle discuss bringing their live stand-up show to TV, wokeness as a weapon and more

By Melanie McFarland

Published April 19, 2019 5:00PM (EDT)

Open Mike Eagle and Baron Vaughn in "The New Negroes with Baron Vaughn & Open Mike Eagle" (Ramona Rosales)
Open Mike Eagle and Baron Vaughn in "The New Negroes with Baron Vaughn & Open Mike Eagle" (Ramona Rosales)

The number of Comedy Central series hinging on the stand-up format is beyond easy counting; they come and go with the fickleness of the seasons and the Zeitgeist. But the ones that make it do so because they have a very specific message that finds the right audience, regardless of time slot.

Having a title as attention grabbing as “The New Negroes” can’t hurt either, even though its co-hosts Baron Vaughn and Open Mike Eagle anticipate a bit of side-eye from uninitiated channel surfers.

It’s about that word: “Negroes.” As Merriam-Webster warns, gently, that's a “dated, sometimes offensive” term. Vaughn and Eagle know it, which is why they open the premiere episode of “The New Negroes,” debuting Friday at 11 p.m., with a little back-and-forth bit addressing the weight the word carries.

“You see, some people thought you would all be like ‘Negro?!  NO! Burn this show to the ground with the hot fire of Black Twitter…and salt the Earth so nothing may grow there!’”

“It wasn’t some people, it was me. I thought that,” Eagle deadpans. “And let’s be clear, that could still happen.”

It probably won’t. For one thing, Vaughn and Eagle’s show has been a known quantity in the world of live comedy for four years now, used as the umbrella title for their L.A.-based live comedy showcase for black comedians. Students of history probably recognize the title as borrowed from Alain Locke’s 1925 anthology of fiction, essays and poetry, too, written by some of the Harlem Renaissance’s foremost authors. (In another episode, Vaughn jokes, “This is the stand-up show you get if you say ‘James Baldwin’ three times into a bathroom mirror.”)

With their show, Vaughn and Eagle pay homage to Locke’s original concept by featuring sets performed by different African-American comics each week. Some are famous, such as “Saturday Night Live” featured player Chris Redd and former cast member Sasheer Zamata, Lil Rel Howery, Hannibal Buress and the legendary George Wallace, while others are emerging talents.

There’s a pointed stealth in their approach, in that Baron and Eagle have taken a format considered to be “safe” by comedy standards — the stand-up series — and using it to foster discussions about race without making the audience freeze up.  If the idea of the Harlem Renaissance was to create a space for black people to define themselves as opposed to others foisting false definitions upon them, "The New Negroes" aspires to be a half-hour devoted to exploring various definitions of blackness in view of a broad audience.

The first three episodes are titled “Identity,” “Criminality” and “Wokeness,” and throughout their host bits and each comic's tight set the performers maintain focus on the week's topic, making it personal while giving the audience permission to relax into the absurdity that comes with existing in a state of double-consciousness and inequity.

In case the audience doesn’t pick up the through-line in each comic’s set, each half-hour also includes a video featuring original music created by Eagle and some heavy-hitters in the hip hop world. Now, this may remind viewers of the close association Dave Chappelle cultivated with “Chapelle’s Show” and hip hop, a smart strategy given that series’ stratospheric mainstream success.

But Chappelle and his producers used that series’ popularity as a stage to showcase the hottest talents of that era and their established hits. Eagle’s approach is as different as 2019 is from the early Aughts.

For “The New Negroes,” Eagle told Salon in a recent interview that he wanted each episode to feature a new song “that can speak to the things that we're talking about rather than having musical guests come in and perform one of their own songs … We felt like we were able to make something that was a little bit more engaging if we were able to compose something new.”

In doing so, Eagle collaborated with such musicians as Danny Brown, who appears in the season opener; MF Doom, Lizzo, Method Man, Phonte and others, to create cuts and videos designed to go viral on social media, thereby earning their show more attention than simply relying on an attention getting title.

About that: when I chatted with Eagle and Vaughn in a recent phone interview, I had to bring up the fact that Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. recently referenced the phrase in a different context, and not in altogether glowing terms. We chatted about that and other aspects of the creative inspiration of their new show, in the following interview edited for length and clarity.

Not long ago I had a conversation with Henry Louis Gates about his PBS series, “Reconstruction: America After the Civil War. " I don't know if you've seen it, but in our interview he specifically referred to Alain Locke's concept of "The New Negro." And in the context of his study of African American history, he was shocked at this whole idea that a concept which is commonly is praised as being the basis for launching the Harlem Renaissance, was also used as a way to differentiate Northern black people from recently released slaves.  Do you two have any reaction to that?

Baron Vaughn: That is very interesting. I am surprised that I have not gotten to see that documentary yet, but I will be watching it because I am very fascinated with the Reconstruction Era. And I had never heard that before, that it was used to kind of be a separation kind of a thing.

Our intention to use it is out of love, if anything, and a celebration of all the different shades and flavors of black people that are out there. Basically escaping, if you will, the stories that are being told about us and being able to tell our stories ourselves … bringing us forward.

 Open Mike Eagle: What it reminds me of is that in the history of the struggles against oppression and struggle for equal rights and civil rights, in that journey as a whole there's always the politics between the oppressed group and the oppressor. Then there's always in group politics as well inside the oppressed groups. Oftentimes, it does take digging to find those tensions inside of the group. That's something to chew on for sure. I hadn't heard that perspective, but that is very interesting.

This jumps into my questions about how you chose the topics of each episode, and speaks precisely to the action in the video at the end of “Wokeness” [the third episode].  That was a truly accessible interpretation of intra-group politics, especially in terms of dissecting the concept of being “woke.” Was there something specific that inspired that video and the episode in general? To feature it in the top half of the season is an interesting choice.

Eagle: Just to speak to the song in the video, the idea for that comes from what my literal experience is in barbershops all around the country.

Vaughn: [Laughs.] All around the country?

 Eagle: All around the country. It's so funny, what invariably happens is a conversation that turns towards conspiracy theories, because that's kind of the way that wokeness takes shape in a lot of these circumstances. There's always that competition, there's always like, "Oh, you don't know what's going on, I know what's going on." People start digging up YouTube videos, and start quoting up all sorts of unreliable sources, but all in an attempt to figure out what's really going on.

Within that there is this competition to see who is the most enlightened in the group. The song kind of came from that tension, and that's why we set the video in a barbershop.

Vaughn: To jump off of that, what's always struck me, at least, is there was a point where I felt the term "woke," or at least the concept of it, became a weapon. I was always very interested in weaponized wokeness, which is essentially people putting each other down. Mike's talking about the competition, and I guess I was always concerned about the bullying aspect of it too.

The point of wokeness was to be able to see what lies we have been taught or things that have been forced down our throats, or that we just take for granted as truths and become aware of what is and isn't real, but then also help others to realize that. But instead I always saw people pointing fingers at each other proclaiming that someone isn't woke or isn't woke enough.

It's become this issue of cultural appropriation, as well. There's this whole idea of people talking about what wokeness means without actually really knowing what that answer is, or deciding what it means in the context of being an ally or even broader themes of social justice.

Vaughn: Absolutely. I think context is key when it comes to that. There's a lot of terms — wokeness, you mentioned cultural appropriation — these terms get out into the culture. They become a part of the everyday parlance, and then they are used willy-nilly without any understanding of what it means, or how to use it. Again, that's a thing that I'm particularly sensitive about, people using all these terms without knowing what they really mean, but using them as bats to hit each other with.

Let’s step back and take a wider view of the series in general, specifically the structure. I love the stealthy usage of the very classic and commonly understood stand-up format to actually get at these social issues, not just with humor but actually with some really hard-hitting context and intelligence, without lecturing the audience or coddling their possible fragility. Most stand-up series are primarily talent driven, but you're actually bringing the comedians and their sets into the theme of the week, staring with “Identity,” “Criminality,” and “Wokeness.” That makes it, in some sense, a topical stand-up show, that brings in a music video element. Can you talk about how you came up with that idea?

Vaughn: I thought it would be very interesting to open up the can with a lot of these things. I'll call them “evergreen topical,” in the sense that they're not as topical as what some specific Senator did last week, as much as these are social issues that are always going to be relevant. Clearly we're not going to solve racism tomorrow, so it's always going to be something that is talked about. I wanted to be able to examine some of these issues with a little bit of consideration, and being able to be silly as well. Silliness is sort of my forte.

Every episode has a theme, like you were saying. It took us a while to identify which themes we wanted to talk about, and on top of that, how far we could get into that theme with the time that we have. That was the thing that was always going to be real, that we didn't necessarily plan on, which is there are very strict boundaries to how much time there has to be in each act of the show before we go to a commercial. Some of these themes, they're pretty broad concepts, you could say, we were like, "How much can get into for a minute and a half before we bring up a comic?"

As far as the comedians, a lot of people asked — and this is the question that happened over and over again — are we going to ask comedians to write material towards the subject, or to specifically talk about the subject? I was always of the mind that I don't want to tell anybody what they should or should not be talking about because it's their story to tell. They have as much understanding or as little understanding of whatever they're talking about at that very moment, and I always thought it was also going to be a natural, sort of ... what's the word I'm looking for ...?

Eagle: Connective tissue.

Vaughn: Yeah. A natural connectivity between the subject matter and all these comedians because all these comedians are just talking about life. If you are living life and trying to understand it then you are coming face to face with these issues every single day, and all these comedians have spent years, months, working on their subjects, working on their material to get them what they want and to express themselves. I assumed that connectivity would happen, but I was happy to see that it actually did. Does that speak to your question?

It does, absolutely. When you were looking at the topics for each episode … well, you guys have an eight-episode season, and I assume your list was longer than eight. How did you decide to prioritize which topics would make the cut for those eight episodes?

Eagle: When we came together to make the show we wanted to design it around these conversations between me and Baron about these particular issues. We might have spit-balled and come up with twenty issues to start with. We did kind of focus on some that we thought could have some sort of statement that we could make in the short time that we had allotted. In none of them were we going to be able to resolve anything, like Baron said.

The hope is to open up these conversations, and open up these dialogues, start these discussions. The answer that Baron and I have to represent, typically, are real perspectives on issues, and a video that in some sense speaks to that issue as well. We are hoping to kind of start and keep that conversation going in the public sphere.

Vaughn: I always wanted to make sure that both Mike and I were always saying things that we felt we could stand by, that felt true and real to us as well. Also, we're not experts. That speaks to the resolution sort of thing. These topics aren't things that you can figure out as much as you live with them, and that's where we're coming from, we're people who are alive and dealing with these topics on an everyday basis ,so we have this understanding of them at this point.

I'm hoping that this next question lands correctly: I think that any time that there is a series that merges elements of stand-up, and particularly known stand-ups, with any kind of social issues with regard to not just culture but race, it is inevitably compared to “Key and Peele” or, even sixteen years later now, “Chappelle's Show.” The reason I bring up “Chappelle's Show” in particular is that the also brought in musical guests, but just to show off their own tracks.

 When I saw the video aspect of your show I thought, "Oh, this is a clever way to do that callback, but actually do it with a specific purpose that brings it into 2019." I was wondering if that played into your plan at all, just in terms of creating these episodes.

Eagle: I think that one of the challenges for us in conceptualizing this for television off of a pre-existing live show that we do, was that in the live show we have comics, and I perform music live in the room, and that's the musical element. Aside from me playing music to bring the comics on and off the stage, that's kind of the way the music represents itself in the live show.

We had an opportunity given that we were selling the show, based on combining these elements, the conversation for us was, "How do we do this in the most interesting way?"

For me personally, I don't want to speak for Baron, it's a lot more interesting to do it with something that's written, something that's created.

There were a ton of obstacles in doing that too, honestly, because Comedy Central as a network wasn't necessary prepared for the legalities of trying to compose new music with established artists that are already in record deals. We kind of had to blaze a trail towards making that something we could do. In a sense, it kind of follows more the Lonely Island path than, necessarily, the “Chappelle’s Show” path.

Vaughn:  I also knew that if there's a three act structure to this thing, for Mike and I to start this show with a little unpacking, then maybe have a second bit, and then finish it with that music video, it creates that through line. It creates that thing that the rest of the show can hang its hat on, if you will. We never knew what the comedians were going to necessarily talk about. So we had no control over that as much as we have a control over what we're going to say and how we're going to do it.

I look at the video as the third host bit, and in some episodes, the second host bit, since it all connects together to create that unity.

It's incredibly smart too, to have that music video that has  a chance to go viral and then bring people into the next episode. The fact that it's an original song actually gives people a reason to tune in each week to see what coming next.  I'm sure you guys are excited to see how far that goes, too.

Vaughn: Some of this is Mike, I'll say. Because he is a hell of a self-promoter. A lot of the stuff that we are inventing around being able to get the word out about the show, a lot of it's coming from Mike.

Mike has been a very self-made artist, and I've been a partially made artist. [Laughs.] Self-made in some ways, and then the other ways other people made me. I have lost what this allegory is. I just mean to say, Mike inspires me in ways to get the word out about things that I might not have thought about before.

Eagle: To speak to that a little further, I do come from independent music, and we live and die, our projects live and die, by our press assets. We definitely did come into this, even when we sold the show to Comedy Central, we were saying, "We have a unique opportunity in these music videos to create the breakout content that all networks are typically looking for because they do understand that the way to get eyes is to have stuff that lives outside of the program that you can use to draw people in."

Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarlandFOLLOW McTelevision

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

All Salon Baron Vaughn Comedy Central Culture Editor's Picks Open Mike Eagle The New Negroes Tv