Inside Issue #21: Comedy as a Coping Mechanism: A Conversation with Jaboukie Young-White

Interview by Rivka Yeker

 Photo by  Jerry Maestas  

Photo by Jerry Maestas 

In August, I met Jaboukie Young-White unexpectedly when I went to get lunch with a mutual friend of ours. He was visiting Chicago, his hometown, but was living in New York at the time. I didn’t know Jaboukie personally up until that point, but I had seen his face before and couldn’t figure out why or how. I assumed it was through DePaul, the university we both attended, or maybe just through friends’ online feeds. Later, when I got home and looked him up, I realized that he was a hilarious Twitter personality and someone I’ve probably retweeted before.

Regardless, the minute we started talking, there was an instantaneous bond that lead us to conversations about coming from immigrant families, queerness, and trying to make it. After brunch ended that day and Jaboukie was going back to our friend’s apartment to rehearse for an upcoming audition, we promised to stay in touch and I wished him safe travels back to the East coast. Over the last couple months, Jaboukie moved to LA to work on season 2 of Netflix’s true-crime parody American Vandal and has been gaining further recognition as an influencer, writer, comedian, and actor. 

Jaboukie recently appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon performing a set of his that he described as, “his own material, but finessed a little bit to make it cleaner”, which blew everyone away, along with Jimmy Fallon himself. Jaboukie’s future looks exciting and filled with opportunity, and yet he remains one of the most humble people I’ve ever met. When we got on FaceTime, I felt nothing but excitement to catch up with someone I had such a great connection with the first time we hung out. This time was no different; it was a conversation that left me even more inspired and motivated.


Jaboukie came out as queer to his parents on late night television. 

The first time we spoke back in August, he mentioned that he was still not yet out and that he didn’t know if he ever could come out because his parents, two Jamaican immigrants, would not be okay with it, especially his father. 

“When your family is homophobic and you’re relying on them as your only safety net and that safety net already has holes in it because they’re broke, you’re bottomed out. You tell yourself you can do this until you’re at a point where you don’t need them anymore. So, when I got to the point of being on TV, I was like, ‘well I’ll never to sleep on their couch again, so I can do this.’”

At a certain point, there is no escaping an identity that encapsulates the way you navigate through life. Especially as a comedian, leaving out that part of yourself is eliminating an entire voice that lives inside of you, one that should be breathed into the art you make. 

I asked Jaboukie if he ever saw himself doing what he’s doing now and he said, “I never saw it happening, but I knew it was possible.” 30 Rock was his favorite show when he was 16 and he found out that Donald Glover wrote for it when he was around 22 and he thought, “Oh shit, Black people can do this.” He said, “I didn’t even know TV writing was a job, and I didn’t even know they “let” black people do that. When I saw that, I started working towards it but didn’t know if it’d actually happen.”

Jaboukie originally went to DePaul University for Political Science and then Public Relations/Advertising, and then finally Digital Cinema, to which he joked, “I slowly got lazier and lazier as the years progressed.”

I asked him if his parents ever berated him with making sure he secured a job, as most immigrant parents do. He shared a story about his mom working in an office for most of his life until one day she went back to school and got a Bachelor’s in the US (even though she already had one from the University of the West Indies) and then got her Masters here, was an intern at 40-something, student taught, and then became a 5th grade school teacher who is now thinking about becoming a principal. He said, “She totally switched gears and went to do some other thing. Coming from her, she was like, ‘You can pick the safe route and when your safe route fails, what do you do? What are you left with when your compromise doesn’t work?” So, I had the mindset that I might as well go for what I wanted to do because if I go for the thing I barely tolerate and that doesn’t go well, what would I do with myself then?”

I asked him if he thought that creating a ton of back-up plans and safe routes is an immigrant mentality, to expect change and know that anything can shift at any moment, but to prepare for it. He said, “I think the immigrant thing is two-fold. My parents were more okay with me pursuing comedy because I had shown that I was so serious about it from a young age. In high school, I did speech & debate and my senior year I won both comedic events I was in. If you show you’re incredibly passionate about something, they’ll be like, ‘okay’, but you have to be rich! As long as you’re rich. They’ll be hesitant and then when they see money is coming they’re like, ‘We supported you all along!’” 

We laughed but we know it is true because there is no generational wealth and that their concerns are legitimate. We empathize deeply, but are also confronted with conflicting feelings in how they deliver their worry and love. 

Jaboukie recently moved to LA and he’s been posting on social media about his disdain for the city. I asked him what that was all about. He told me about the first time he visited New York, and the first time he realized he loved the city. He said, “When I was seven, my cousin lived in the Bronx or Harlem and it was like eleven or something at night and I was like, ‘Oh my god Burger King never closes in NYC.’” 

He continued about LA, “The thing that gets me is that it’s so sheltered in a way where I’m in my apartment, I get in a car, I go to work, I get in a car, I go home, I go to a friend’s maybe; you're not experiencing life on the street or on a subway.

The things that you take in on accident in New York are so magical and deeply human; I’ve been transformed just by a subway ride, like ‘I just saw some shit that changed my life and I’m a different person now.’ Those little happenstances don’t happen in LA.” 

I talked about Chicago and how it can sometimes feel both isolating and vibrant, the same way he described LA and New York. But there is something good about LA for writers --  the jobs. He said, “As much as I miss New York, I’m not going to say no to not struggling. I guess I haven’t learned to appreciate that you don’t have to constantly be struggling to feel alive.”

Since we were talking about jobs in LA, I asked if he wanted to continue pursuing writing or stand-up as of right now. He said, “Both. The great thing about being in a [writer’s] room is that the room moves towards a group sense of humor, where everyone is contributing their voice to something that’s greater than themselves. It helps my stand-up at times, not that I’m writing in someone else’s voice, but it allows me to hear other funny people that can open my mind to new material.”

Jaboukie is considered an influencer, which means at one point he was treating Twitter like a job. Now that he’s working in more professional settings, his tweets are less frequent but definitely just as present. When I was at a party and talking to someone about the upcoming cover, he said that he got a lot of his political updates from Jaboukie. I told Jaboukie that, to which he joked, “When I was doing my show in Chicago, someone said ‘I prefer to get my news from someone like you than CNN or MSNBC’ and I was like “That’s so dope, but also … I’m dumb…’” 

He continued, “A lot of the stuff that I post politically is stuff that’s plaguing me, or bothering me, to a point where I need to get it out of my head, so I’m just going to turn it into a joke and then distance myself from it.” 

He said, “I do think it’s cool that it started out as as basically a selfish thing, like something that I’m trying to come to terms with, has been able to reach other people, and that’s awesome, but at the same time, I would really like it if people got their news from reputable sources straight from the source. I am a viewpoint but not the viewpoint.”

I mentioned that as someone who is automatically seen as political just by existing with his identity, it’s almost impossible to escape what people expect from you. They begin to look at you as a person who knows exactly what to say and when to say it. 

He said, “I think everything is a political choice, especially when the world is so globalized. Everything you do or say is politicized. And you can try to ignore that reality and to opt out of that, but that’s also a political choice. We’re at a time where everything is at that level of importance. I don’t think I’m moreso a political person as I am an intentional person and I just try to stay aware of actions having implications. People brand it as ‘political’, but I don’t think necessarily that I’m more political than the next person, I just try to approach my decisions with self-awareness.”

Intention is an integral part of comedy. I mentioned the different kinds of people in comedy and what people can get away with: being purposefully offensive, pushing boundaries, making other people feel uncomfortable for the sake of a joke. I asked him what he thought about that sort of culture within comedy and if it is something that will always exist in stand-up in general.

“People will say fucked up shit and aside from that being a poor moral choice, I think you’re just a bad comedian. A lot of the time, people will go out of their way to say something offensive, or accidentally say something offensive, and it’s like, clearly you don’t know how to read an audience. It goes beyond ‘I should be able to say whatever I want’ No, you’re kind of just bad at your job. It’s getting in the way of what you’re trying to say.”

We discussed how in comedy, you are writing for other people. It’s not just for you, but rather, it’s about connecting with an audience and relating to one another. He said, “It’s one thing if it’s a podcast where people actively seek whatever you’re talking about out, but as a comedian, If you’re bringing your thoughts and ideas to a group of people and you’re not willing to consider the overarching social mores and taste of the time, well, what are you doing?”

He brought up two comedy legends, Lenny Bruce & Richard Pryor, saying that they were, “at the time challenging prevailing social norms.” While they were performative in being over the top offensive, Jaboukie said, “They revolutionized what stand-up is. What made them so radical was the conservative mores that they were pushing against. It’s not that Lenny Bruce was fighting against people trying to say the “N” word, like, he was saying ‘I should be able to say motherfucker’ because that’s how people talk. Richard Pryor was bringing Black culture to a level that it had never been elevated in the American Zeitgeist before, but people like to think of his bits that were wildly misogynistic and fucked up as just as crucial if not more crucial to his legacy. The people who push against PC (politically correct) culture like to look back at those acts and pick out the parts that did not make them legends and icons and use that to justify why they should be able to say the “n word” or be misogynistic in their jokes.”

He laughed because the frustration lies in how bad these jokes usually are. He said, “If these jokes were even good, then I’d be like, ‘Well, ya got me! I don’t agree with you but you wrote a joke and people laughed,’ but what’s so annoying is that these people are just regurgitating mid ‘2000s shock humor, like this was already a South Park episode! People try to write it off as edgy, but it is perfectly the status quo. It is the American culture.

I am lucky enough to have received a liberal arts education and I have the language to dissect these things and point out what is problematic, and there are people who don’t get that.  I was also lucky enough to be young on the internet during a time where there was a huge dialogue going on, almost 24/7, but at the same time...keep up with the times.”

The topic of “safe spaces” came up as we were talking about his upcoming tour and where he’d personally wish he could do shows. Coming from Chicago where the DIY scene is thriving and active, we talked about the term and how people get angry at concepts like it. He joked, “Who doesn’t want a space where they can feel okay and not like they’re being attacked?” I laughed and said, “That’d be a good joke.” He continued, “If I don’t think I can get stabbed, then I’m not going.”

I asked Jaboukie what he thought about identity politics in comedy, since it can be filled with a lot of people, like previously mentioned above, who make efforts to be offensive. I asked if he thought it is up to marginalized people in comedy to represent their identities in their titles and in their work. 

He said, “I don’t think you can divorce stand-up from identity. Out of all the art forms, stand-up is the one that is purely identity-based. It is literally just your identity and your point of view. In a way, I think that’s what makes it such an American art-form. It is an individual, in an individualistic society, talking about their individual experience and point of view — you cannot remove yourself from it.”

I told him that I don’t believe in describing someone based on specific identities because at a certain point, it begins to sound like you’re marketing that person. 

“Sometimes I get angry when people are cherry-picking which identities they want to use to describe me i.e queer comedian, black comedian, millennial comedian. I’m always all those things at once, it’s not like I change from joke to joke. At the same time, that representation can get sticky because then you enter the territory of being the spokesperson for that identity, which! I don’t think is always a bad thing.”

Jaboukie said, “Comedy to me as a queer black kid was the only way to gain access to social capital.” 

It was a coping mechanism, “In my neighborhood I was seen as the lightest person so I was read as white and at school I was seen as the darkest person, so I was trying to navigate multiple confusing identities. Because of that, it was always easiest to say I’m funny because that’s my place — I always felt safe as the funny person.”

Being that funny person became not only a skill, but a way to combat potential homophobia or racism. It became a tactic to fit in, to be treated like anyone else no matter who surrounded him. He says for some reason people think that, “things that evoke joy are not seen as important or meaningful as things that evoke sadness of grief. People think joy is our cheapest emotion.” 

He said, “Comedy is a mass art form --- it is trying to reach as many people as possible.” In knowing that, we look at the ways comedy transforms a society and how we reflect on laughter for growth. What does it do for us in time of emotional turmoil? In political distress? In seeking happiness?

Jaboukie said, “When you laugh at something, you are accepting that thing into your reality.”

Not only is comedy a coping mechanism, but it’s a tool. Comedy guides society, it teaches people, it informs us on what is typically hard to swallow and makes it a little bit more digestible. For Jaboukie, it is how he navigates his life as someone who once used it as a way to be accepted by people he felt alienated by. He now uses it to impact others, regardless of whether his words are perceived as political, the fact that he is speaking his truths, getting positive reactions, and doing it all with intention, shows that comedy can be powerful in a time where the ability to laugh not only becomes optional, but it becomes crucial. 

read the whole issue here