Some of the best sketches in “Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show" flip the script on racist Hollywood tropes, from horror movies’ “kill the black guy first” cliché to the narrative of the white savior.
During a particularly inspired bit from the Netflix sketch-comedy series (six episodes, now streaming), supporting characters of color from classic films gather to attend a support group.
In one seat, there’s Will Smith’s Bagger Vance, who helped Matt Damon work on his golf swing. In another: Whoopi Goldberg’s Oda Mae Brown from “Ghost,” the psychic who played cross-mortal-coil matchmaker to Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. They’re all here for “Dignity and Ambition for Magical Negroes” (D.A.M.N.), a rehab clinic designed to help them let go of their need to mentor white people.
Sharp pop-culture commentary, escalating punchlines, and versatile performances are in steady supply across this series, which offers the first all-black troupe from New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre their biggest showcase to date. (Quips member Keisha Zollar: “Why the name Astronomy Club? We’re black and we’re all stars. And like most stars, nobody knows our names." Pause. “Yep.”)
That “Astronomy Club” is laser-focused about roasting Hollywood should come as little surprise, given the group’s roster. Three members — Jonathan Braylock, Jerah Milligan, and James III — have a weekly podcast, “Black Men Can’t Jump [in Hollywood],” where they dissect a different film with a black lead every episode.
Their series’ genius, though, lies in its reversals. The first episode of “Astronomy Club” opens with a sketch in which three young black men are locked out of their office building. To get in, they have to convince a white woman to open the door. They succeed, despite her obvious reservations, only to turn around and find Dracula stuck outside. Should they let him in? The vampire’s indignant that they hesitate. But what will the bloodsucker do when it’s a sentient garlic bulb out on the doorstep? Quoth its cloves: “It’s 2020, baby!”
This kind of knowingly ridiculous “heightening” is a UCB specialty, and “Astronomy Club” lets the theater’s star pupils showcase their mastery of it. Their best sketches allow stakes and character reactions to escalate from relatable to outlandish — importantly, without getting there too fast.
The six episodes in this first season, each around 20 minutes, make for such addictive viewing that I had to resist bingeing them all at once. I wish there were more. That’s been a rarity for me lately. As anyone who tried “The Politician” or made it through “Living With Yourself” can attest, most of the recent Netflix originals have been mediocre and overlong, despite the megastar pedigrees involved.
But that makes the streaming giant’s success in the sketch comedy space this year all the more thrilling. After debuting in April, the first season of Tim Robinson and Zach Kanin’s oddball “I Think You Should Leave" sketch series spent a few months spreading across social media. By June, you couldn’t surf Twitter without getting sucked into the ballad of bad-boy baby Bart Harley Jarvis or discovering Ruben Rabasa’s deranged turn as a car focus-group participant (“Stinky!”).
Expect “Astronomy Club” to catch on in much the same manner. It’s every bit as bizarre, and often just as brilliant.