A group of prestigious innovators have to deal with a cocky George Washington Carver. A crack team of analysts stalk a woman’s social media account to figure out if she’s single. A grieving woman has to contend with the increasingly insane features of a discount funeral home.
These are a few of the worlds you’re introduced to in rapid succession when you watch Comedy Central’s raucous, biting new digital series from the rising sketch comedy group Astronomy Club. The collection of sketches now streaming online is the kind of showcase for ensemble work that hasn’t been featured by a major comedy network in years, recalling the best of The State and The Kids in the Hall in the interplay between members Shawtane Bowen, Jonathan Braylock, Ray Cordova, Caroline Martin, Jerah Milligan, Monique Moses, James III and Keisha Zollar, but filtered through a more overtly satirical lens. “Key & Peele also deals with black issues,” says Braylock, “but they’re a duo, and some of the things they we do… they would hire other actors to do. And I think the chemistry between all of us is the thing that’s really special.”
The group initially started off in 2013 as a sketch and improv team at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre in New York. “It started from an idea I had after auditions for the UCB improv house teams,” says James III. “Specifically, it was the first year after I auditioned for the first time. I saw all the teams the following week, and not that this had anything to do with why I didn’t get on, but everyone that was on the teams the night that I saw it were all white. And I was like ‘oh, that shouldn’t be. There should be more diversity.’” Astronomy Club successfully became a house team within a year, and still regularly performs their show “Let’s Talk About Race, Baby!” at the theater’s East Village location.
“I think over the last few years there are a lot more diverse voices in that scene,” says Keisha Zollar. “It was really cool to see people come up through the ranks and blow up. So, it’s better than it was… The number of times I’ve had people come up and say ‘thank you for the visibility’ has been really powerful.”
Their many years of improvising together are all on screen in sketches like “Witch Hunt,” a Crucible riff on the sexism of the town of “Black Salem,” and the fast-paced family feuding at a Queens barbecue in “World Series of Spades.” Every episode bounces back and forth between the members’ distinct, individual voices to form the group’s collective voice. “Relationship Status” might be the best example of this, nailing the back-and-forth control room patter of your CSIs and NCISes that lets you have a moment with each actor.
“The first three that we did, we actually filmed in 2017,” says Braylock. And at the time we were only going to film three… We definitely wanted to make sure that all of us were featured in some way, because we knew that is where our uniqueness comes from—the ensemble aspect of it. That’s what we did with our improv.” The group approached the episodes like a traditional TV writer’s room, albeit one with a history, level of connectivity and shared input that would make any other writer’s room turn green with envy. It pays off, and every sketch feels like a complete meal as a result.
More than that, the group approach makes this the first sketch show in ages to have a truly cohesive worldview, one that can balance real empathy with its sharpness. “We try to do everything we do respectfully,” says Jerah Milligan. “We try to respect people of color. We try to respect women. We try to really take into account—because there’s eight of us—everyone will voice an opinion so we’re never going out to make fun of anybody or put anybody down or make light of any situation.” So even when the subject of the sketch is a man in a slave ship taking any opportunity to hit on his fellow captives, as it is in “Dying of Thirst,” Astronomy Club has seemingly found a way to balance bleak subjects with a sense of fun. That doesn’t happen without group ties that go beyond those of your average comedy team’s. “We’ve gone past the point of just being a comedy troupe to entering that family-comedy troupe-business realm where we just delight in each other’s work as a collective,” says Zollar. If you’re looking for proof, it’s just a click away.
Astronomy Club is streaming here.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and comedian. You’d be doing him a real solid by following him on Twitter @grahamtechler or on Instagram @obvious_new_yorker. A real solid.