Joking While Half-Black

When I first started doing stand-up comedy I relied heavily on impressions (contrary to how many of you reading may have come to know me, impressions have largely been absent from my stand-act from 2007-present day). One impression I had (shocker) was Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger impressions belong with Trump, DeNiro and DMX in the “not this again” impressions hall of fame.  But I still had one and it was better than most.  One of the frustrating things about impressions if one like an Arnold or a Trump become so ubiquitous, it almost does not matter if yours is great, accurate, etc.  But I was new at stand up and had more voices than minutes of material.

One of my first bits that started doing really well for me in my first year in comedy in Washington D.C. (June 2003-June 2004) was an Arnold Schwarzenegger family reunion bit.  But due to the length of the name, the family had an abbreviation for members of the family: “negger.”  So Arnold would ask his son if he “wanted to be a big strong negger like his Dad or a lazy ass negger like Uncle Frank.”  The bit almost always did really well because the impression was good and the concept was a little risque (like callbacks, being a little “naughty” is easy points with a comedy club audience). In fact, when Dave Chappelle debuted “The Niggar Family” sketch on Chappelle’s Show several months after I had been doing the bit around DC, three different comedians texted me their condolences, not because they thought it was stolen but because my station in comedy would make me look like a copycat if I ever did the bit again.

Now this is not totally a story about how even 17 years ago our comedy tastes were so much broader and less sensitive than they are today, though that is somewhat true (real comedy fans are no more sensitive, but the broader swath of society that consumes comedy through cell phones and the Internet is surely much larger and as I repeatedly say, if you are going to take the increased wealth that can come from increased exposure you need to accept some of the broader taste and sensitivity that come with it).  The reason that the negger family also worked (and why this is not just a PC sucks screed) is because I built disclaimers about my racial background into my material.  I had a bit in the beginning of every set where I planned to do “Negger Family Reunion” about being half Black.  Therefore I had offered my proof of membership in the club where I could take more liberties with racially sensitive material.  I was not saying the N word, but I was dancing on a line gleefully and realized that given my face and the city of my comedy birth, Washington D.C., I needed to offer some bona fides.

Several years later in my career, long after I had relegated my impressions to YouTube sketches and begun developing lots of stuff to say on stage in my own voice, I would encounter a different issue.  Often when I spoke on racial issues, or made jokes about race I would make some audience members (not limited to one race of gender) uncomfortable if I did not offer my racial bona fides early on.  To say nothing of white guys wanting to discuss my dick after shows or Black women (on much rarer occasions) wanting body hair proof of my half-Blackness, it seemed that I had to offer proof of my Blackness to joke about race. However, even after offering my biography and ethnicity CV in joke form, more frequently than I like, I am still not afforded basic respect for who I am.  It is a small percentage of audience members, but it happens at most shows (perhaps being more well known will reduce awkward skepticism, but then it will just be transferred to the next Rashida Jones looking comedian down the road so that doesn’t really spell comedy progress)  So as my comedy became more centered on my thoughts and experiences in life I became much more hostile to proving anything.  The Schwarzenegger joke is really the only time, other than one bit on my first album, where I ever uttered something close to the N word in life or on stage.  So I felt like I was not taking any liberties that a comedian should not be entitled to, let alone one with a Black father.  And as my friend Josh Homer commented one night many years ago (and on a few social media posts during the years), if a crowd did not respect my jokes on their own merits, I would often not bail them out with an “hey folks, it’s ok – I am half-Black” permission slip to enjoy the material they were already anxious about.

Without divulging anything beyond the title, my next album (or hopefully first special) is tentatively called Half Black Face.  We are in this annoying time in comedy where so many of the free speech warriors in comedy veer into “offensive bigots just using comedy as a shield to protect indecency” and people who are so concerned with policing comedy appear to be people who don’t seem to either enjoy comedy or know anything about it.  So if you want to be a decent person with free reign to be somewhat indecent in an art that is built partly on indecency then your creative space feels like it is shrinking.  But what annoys me on a personal level is that too many people want to judge me by rules that I don’t think should apply to any comedians, but still have force because they are about “protecting” certain groups of people.

Over the last year I have picked up an exponentially larger following than I have ever had in my career and I am grateful for it.  But I have also had too many “fans” (often, but not exclusively white progressives) inform me that because I am white (to their eyes… and let’s be honest for half of the year almost all eyes) my comedy did not hit as hard as someone who is not ostensibly white.  While people fawn over clapter comedy or the latest Pet Rock of humor, I found myself forced to defend my material as both original and valid, despite appearing to come from a white person.

Beyond that I have been lectured about my own jokes.  One joke I wrote said that London Breed, Keisha Lance Bottoms and Lori Lightfoot (all Black women mayors who were appearing jointly during Covid news appearances) sounded like the names of superheroes or porn stars.  Multiple people informed me that mocking Black women names was problematic.  I am fairly certain if I looked Black I would not have been lectured by a white progressive (because then they would likely view that as “violence towards me”) but I also believed the joke stood on its own, like I feel about most jokes.  Other than “Keisha” there is nothing about those three names that screams “Black woman.”  Follow that with me making a joke about Timothy Chalamet and JB Smoove looking like Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock and someone calling it racist (mind you, the Ossoff doppelganger was not racist, just the Warnock doppelganger). And then this morning, a joke I made a few months ago about Cornel West looking like an old Don Lemon (the joke was about the verbosity of West, not their appearances being similar, and was promptly met with some progressives denouncing my terrible comedy).

I am of the opinion that offensive comedians should be allowed more space because like speech in general, it is the ugly stuff that needs to be protected.  No one is required to laugh, but condemning jokes seems to be happening too often, especially from people who don’t seem to know or enjoy most comedy.  I am not a jazz fan (musically, we all know I love the basketball team) so I won’t buy tickets to a jazz concert, but I would never deign to lecture someone on what good jazz is or what jazz they should support.  But everyone appears to want to be funny or be seen as having a great sense of humor, which seems to be the only qualification for dictating the terms and taste of comedy.  This would not annoy me as much as it does (though it would annoy me), but for the racial angle, which I take personally.  Some folks seem to think that even including a Black person in a joke as a white (looking) person is off limits.

It reminds me of the time a nice fan complimented me after a show, but told me I should stay away from jokes about trans people (the joke had been about wanting more diversity among serial killers – all the docs were about white killers, but what about women, POC and trans serial killers – the joke was literally about diversity, not attacking trans people, but the new wave of comedy fans truly seem to be triggered by words before they even interpret the context). That would be bad enough, but that sensitivity is coupled with an outspoken boldness. So in many cases you have people too sensitive to enjoy or understand comedy, but simultaneously emboldened enough to condemn it. This particular fan was nice and almost inquisitive so it was not a time for an argument but just an exchange of words, but many people come much more forcefully, despite being equally ignorant.


So when it comes to my own material I want to remain uncompromising, though I do believe I have probably missed out on some opportunities during my recent run because I am a comedian and not an actor or PR creation cosplaying as a comedian.  I don’t need people to know my race and would prefer audiences that embrace the quality of my comedy on its merits without needing a demographic cosign.  I am not comfortable being a spokesperson or representing something other than a true stand up comedian. That is because I am honest about my experiences in life. When I visited Ireland as a child many kids asked if I was North African. But as I grew older many people thought I was Italian, Jewish or occasionally Egyptian. I understand I have had in some ways the whitest (or at least lightest) of privilege – being a large, angry looking beige guy has not drawn the scrutiny that someone my size and disposition might have gotten if I had a different role of the genetic lottery between my parents. I respect that experience when compared to other POC, but it doesn’t fully strip me of my identity and my right to be who I am without having to constantly prove it.

I still think Billy Crystal’s Sammy Davis Jr is a great impression that poses no problem.  Can I say this as a half-Black man who looks white or non-Black to most people?  Who determines if I can say or feel that way?  I am not trying to speak for others, but is my opinion not at least somewhat valid?  I would love to live in a world where all jokes are ok if they are truly meant as jokes, but for every 50 audience members that are triggered, there is a comedian who probably uses comedy more as a weapon to vent hate than to explore ideas.  But I think we need to protect that person as comedians and comedy fans, even if we don’t like it.  But I don’t want to have to protect my own audiences from jokes anymore.


Top 10 Working Titles For My Feature Act Comedy…

Everyone clamors for a book by star comedians who reflect on their rise to success. They usually sell well because they are funny and they give readers a latter-day Horatio Alger story: comedians always seem to start poor or at least unhappy and then rise to a position of fame and wealth and slightly less unhappiness.  But what about feature comedians – the stop on the way to headliner success for some, or the purgatory of comedy for many?  As a national feature act (meaning underpaid, underbooked and under the radar) I have thought about writing a book on the experience of travelling America and seeing the country through the lens of comedy’s middle class.  As I have written before, I think the feature act is an unexplored bellwether for (or at least a microcosm of) the disappearance of America’s middle class:

So as I explore ideas for a memoir here are the ten titles I am considering (I am far too lazy to follow through on an entire book). Keep in mind these are based on my own experiences.  Some comedians may feel the same, some may not.  I applaud those of you that feel the same because you are right. And a message to my civilian readers – I know I can sound bitter – think of my posts (sometimes) as a darkly humorous look at how the comedy sausage is made:

1) 25% Off a $4 Order of Mozzarella Sticks – Nothing feels quite like a kick to the balls than the food discount, especially when the food item is dirt cheap to begin with (not to mention seeing the headliner eat that $7 hamburger free of charge – why don’t you blow your nose with $100 bills while you are at it!).  $1 off a $4 order is not so much about savings as it is about sending a message. The message? “You ain’t sh*t” (another possible title). That is why I now travel with homemade coupons for free back rubs.  If I have to pay for appetizers then the club is going to have to earn my money… the hard way (Rodney Dangerfield blog voice).

2) Trying Not To Get Hit By A Car While Walking On The Side Of A Highway – For every four day trip on the road, I spend about 5 hours on stage and 20 hours walking around towns where the lack of sidewalks help to explain the high levels of obesity.  I am 6’7″ and anywhere between 240 and 290 pounds, depending on how despondent I am over my “career,” but even at my fittest I have this fear that a murder will occur in any number of the towns I perform in and witnesses will say “we saw a real big unhappy sombitch just walking along the highway. And we ain’t never seen him before.” And my only alibi will be “Google Maps told me there was an IHOP two miles down the road.”  Either that or a car will simply hit me as I dart across a highway to get to a Starbucks with WiFi. Headline the next day: “Tall Stranger Killed Trying to Check Facebook. No One Had Any Idea Why He Was Here Or Who He Was.”

3) Why Do All These White People Find This Mediocre Black Comic Hilarious? – If anyone wants to know why large pockets of America think President Obama is a Muslim, just go to a comedy club across America.  This country, for all its progress and love of Denzel Washington, is still an incredibly segregated place, where people of color still possess an exotic aura for many white people.  And no job is easier in comedy, in my estimation, than to be a mediocre opener of color (the darker the better) in front of a white audience.  The white audience in America is often times self-selected (my native Bronx is by no means the only place that has experienced white flight) so no line ever does better (or is more repeated by black comics) than “I must be in the wrong club!”  The goobers in the audience are simultaneously thinking “That’s a funny joke!” and  “That’s true!!”  I was emceeing shows recently and a feature, who was black, told me after a show while we were chatting, “Every time I talk with white people from here after a show, they always want to tell me some ‘black sh*t,’ like some story about a black guy they met or a black person they hooked up with.  Maybe I just want to talk about some other sh*t!”  This is not even necessarily a mean thing (ignorance is not necessarily evil), but it does explain a high tolerance for bad comics of color in America (the gentleman I am speaking of was not in this category).  Now there are terrible comics of every race working out there, but the large parts of this segregated country that still think American black people only exist in prisons, rap videos and sporting arenas (because our president is Kenyan) are giving refuge to a lot of terrible comics of color.  I don’t know which came first, the sheltered/ignorant white crowd or the black comic with way too high a swagger-to-talent ratio, but both need to stop.

4) Why Do All These Black People Love This Asian/White Comic – The pendulum swings both ways and if there is something that annoys me it is when a member of a group gets respect from an audience comprised of a different group, simply having the guts to show up.  I have seen this in black rooms almost as often as I see it in white rooms. Now this is not to denigrate comics with real skill and talent who happen to be different. Rather it’s the ones who coast on their appearance as if that alone is a “voice” or “perspective” (often times these guys DON’T have a voice or perspective, which might make their job more difficult if they are not truly skilled). Of course #3 and #4 are just a prelude to my personal gripe…

5) Why Do White and Black People Judge My Biracial Ass For Making Humorous Commentary On Race – If you can tell from #3 and#4 this is personal.  I have the comedic misfortune of being opinionated and sharp on race in my material while looking like an Italian in the winter and an Egyptian in the Summer (my Dad is black and my mother is white). In other words, black rooms (not necessarily black people individually, but rather comedy clubs with a classic urban sensibility) require me to be more forceful in asserting my blackness before I am “allowed” to speak on it, while many whites don’t like being lectured to on race by some guy who looks mostly like them. In conclusion I hate you both.

6) Please Let It Be a Hotel… Dammit It’s a Comedy Condo – I would lick a Las Vegas Holiday Inn comforter with more mental peace than I have when I get into a comedy condo bed.  “Hey, I like your choice to go with a white comforter in the comedy condo – really brightens the room!”  “Huh, that comforter is navy blue.” Cue Jim Carrey crying in the shower in Ace Ventura.

7) Jack and Jill and Other Things I Am Ashamed Of On The Road – I love going to the movies, but it can reach the point on the road where I am seeing a movie just to avoid staring at a wall or becoming Jack Nicholson in The Shining.  That is my official explanation for why I saw Bucky Larson last year.

8 ) Why Am I Getting Paid The Same As A Feature in 1985?  From several accounts I hear the actual dollar amount is less (especially when considering that travel was sometimes included during the comedy boom), but the fact is that in adjusted dollars features are making far less than their counterparts 20+ years ago.  Any other profession work that way?  Is a partner at a law firm in NYC going home to his family saying, “I just made partner!  How does $50,000 a year sound? What? That is how much our daughter’s private school costs?  OK, well, let me get back to my managerial position at Best Buy where I can make some real cash.”

9) Dear Booker, It’s Me J-L, Please Read My E-Mail – Being a comedian without management is sort of like being Jodie Foster in the movie Contact. You are just sending messages out into space with the faint hope of receiving a reply. (My June and July are open – call me!)

10) Yes, I can Explain That 4 Year Gap on My Resume… I Was In Jail.  This is the excuse I have come up with if employers start asking me about my tweets or YouTube videos. “No, that is not me – my accounts were hacked. I was actually in prison for those four years, but in no way, shape or form was I performing stand up comedy.”


J-L’s New Stand-Up Album “Too Big To Fail” is Available at for FREE until April 30th. His weekly podcast “Righteous P***k” is available for free on iTunes with a new episode every Tuesday.