Arts, Television, Review

‘Astronomy Club’ Examines Black Experience in America

4 stars

Despite its title, Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show has nothing to do with science, space, or celestial objects. Rather, the new Netflix sketch series presents boldly unique and relatable commentary on the black experience in America—using humor that is ridiculous yet impressive in its ambitious absurdity. Produced by Kenya Barris, creator of ABC’s Black-ish, the show skewers Hollywood’s portrayal of black people and the entertainment industry’s lack of diversity. 

So why “Astronomy Club”?  “We’re black, and we’re all stars. And like most stars, nobody knows our names,” explains cast member Keisha Zollar.

Based on Zollar’s explanation, one might think the Astronomy Club cast is composed of new up-and-coming actors, but in reality, the group has been performing improv together since 2014 and was featured in the New York Comedy Festival’s Comics to Watch Sketch Showcase in 2016.

Along with Zollar, the Astronomy Club cast includes Shawtane Bowen, Jonathan Braylock, Ray Cordova, Caroline Martin, Jerah Milligan, Monique Moses, and James III. 

The show illustrates the black experience through both comedy sketches and a pseudo-reality TV plot that reappears between skits. In the fake show, which resembles a mix of Big Brother and The Bachelor, the producers of the comedy group’s Netflix show supposedly place the cast in a house. Though fictional, the setup adds a further dimension to the real-life cast members and allows them to satirize the ridiculous nature of reality TV.

Astronomy Club creates comedy that makes you think a little harder. One skit, called “Magical Negro Therapy,” features a therapy group composed of fictional characters from movies such as The Help, Driving Miss Daisy, and Ghost who fall victim to the “magical negro” trope. These supporting characters seem to have only one function: imparting wisdom on the white leads. Once they help the protagonist, they simply disappear. The skit dives into commentary that explicitly criticizes how black actors are consistently given back-seat roles rather than leads. The rehab leader encourages the characters to break out of their assigned roles and focus on their own stories.

Some of Astronomy Club’s skits take on more pressing issues than others. In a sketch that reexamines the story of Robin Hood (Drew Tarver), the club questions what the fairytale character’s motives really are and who he’s really helping. The skit confronts the social divides in race and class, as Robin Hood attempts to rob the wealthiest black man in Nottingham (Jerah Milligan). Robin Hood argues that he’s robbing to help the poor and says that he doesn’t “see color.” But Milligan’s character recalls that he was never helped by any white man when he was working hard to move up in society. The sketch raises the question: Who is Robin Hood’s charity really for? 

While not everyone will understand its jokes, Astronomy Club brings a new perspective to the comedy world and provides a welcome addition to the ongoing conversation about the lack of representation in entertainment. Thanks to Netflix’s large platform, Astronomy Club shines a much-needed spotlight on the black experience in America.

Featured Image by Netflix

December 11, 2019