The Hosts of ‘Black Men Can’t Jump’ Are Ready to Take Over TV
If it seems like comedians Jerah Milligan, Jonathan Braylock, and James III have taken over every platform imaginable, it’s because they have. There’s their nearly two-year-old podcast, Black Men Can’t Jump in Hollywood, performances at UCB with Astronomy Club, and Thank You, Black People, a Snapchat and Instagram series they and writing partner James Carr produced for Comedy Central. With everything they’ve done, which also includes pilot scripts and solo shows, it wouldn’t be surprising if they had a comic book or lifestyle blog called The Swirl in the works, just to check every medium off the list. The creative foursome’s latest project is a web series for Seriously.tv, called Projecting. Set in a suburban movie theater, the five-episode series follows three employees as they confront racial stereotypes, the threat of automation, and a theater masturbator. I sat down with them to talk about Projecting, podcasting, and why they’re ready for their next big thing.
Congratulations on the web series—it’s so great. How did it come about?
Jerah Milligan: James and I used to work in movie theaters. My first job was in a movie theater.
James III: Mine as well. It was a fun location that you don’t see people acting in on TV.
Jonathan Braylock: We wanted to do a series that allowed our personalities to shine and that was somewhat related to movies, because we clearly all love movies and talk about them constantly. The industry doesn’t necessarily like talking about the industry, so we had to find a way to talk about the industry without it being about actors or screenwriters. And one of the best ways to do that was actually at the movie theater with working-class people who are just having fun in this somewhat unique setting.
Jerah: Literally, it’s one of those workplace comedies where you see so many different types. I know in my movie theater we had the old guy who worked there who was so grumpy but never wanted to quit. And parents who would leave their kids there as almost like a babysitter.
Jonathan: And you’ve got the teens who are sneaking in to the rated R films.
Jerah: And in my movie theater we had people who always wanted to hook up, which became one of the episodes with the masturbator dude. I had to find a masturbator once in my life, so that’s a thing that’s real.
James Carr: You really had to do that?
Jerah: Yeah. I didn’t stop it. It was weird. He was in Kicking and Screaming, which was a Will Ferrell movie. No one ever went to see that movie. Usually what you find is when people hook up in movie theaters, they always go to the kids’ movies.
James III: Yeah, in the middle of the day.
Jerah: I saw him. Walked out. Came back in when he was done and said, “Hey bro, you can’t do this.”
Jonathan: You let him finish.
Jerah: You gotta let him finish, man!
Jonathan: Are you a part of it now?
Jerah: If I had went up to him while he was doing it am I a part of it now?
James Carr: I feel like you’re a part of it. I agree with that. That’s a situation where I’d be like, “You don’t pay me enough to talk to people while they’re masturbating.”
James III: You feel differently when it’s your first job and you’re like, “This is the most money anyone has ever paid me to do anything. I’ll go and stop this person from masturbating.”
James Carr: How old were you?
Jerah: I was a junior. And I got paid $8.50. It was a high paying job.
So what was the writing process like?
James Carr: We basically sat down and came up with a bunch of premises that we liked and once we knew we were going to do five episodes, we whittled it down to the five we loved the most. We beated the first one out and I ended up writing it, but that episode was largely written collaboratively. And then we each picked one episode to write ourselves. Jerah wrote episode 2. James wrote episode 4, “Rise of the Ticket Machine.” Jonathan wrote three. And I wrote the last episode, “The Hoppening.”
James III: I really wanted it to be called “Ghost in the Ticket Machine” to talk about the concept of when does a machine gain consciousness.
James Carr: In all fairness, that makes a lot more sense, but it’s less well known. And now Scarlett Johansson’s going to be in Ghost in the Shell. People are so mad about that movie.
Jerah: We’re good at coming together and punching it up when we have to. For Thank You, Black People last year, we did it in a month. We were the first Snapchat series on Comedy Central, so we had to do that very quickly and the new series we have of Thank You, Black People, we did that in a week, maybe a week and a half. We get everyone’s games. Like I usually know that James and Jon, they usually like the same type of comedy. And I may relate to Third, even though I really don’t like Third.
I got that. It’s a theme running through the series. How long did you take for this project?
James Carr: The writing process was pretty quick.
Jerah: It got approved at the end of may, early June.
Jonathan: We probably took three weeks to write it and then got notes from Seriously. We began pre-production in August. We basically produced it ourselves.
Jerah: Yeah, we self produced it with their money.
Jonathan: They gave us a budget to work with and we found a director, Tessa Greenberg. She got us a lot of her crew.
Jerah: We shot at Jon’s childhood theater in Jersey. We shuttled everyone in rental vans every day.
Jonathan: I grew up in Rutherford, New Jersey, and we shot at the Williams Center theater, which is the theater in the town that a lot of people don’t go to because there are bigger and better theaters a 15 minute drive away. The first sketch comedy show I did was there.
Jerah: It had that good small town feel too. We set the fire alarm off during filming and half the town showed up. That was one of the funniest things to see.
How did you go about casting? What were you looking for?
Jonathan: That was probably the easiest part. We’ve all been in the comedy world so long that we know so many funny people. We basically wrote with people in mind and when we didn’t have people in mind we’d discuss amongst ourselves. A lot of out friends are in it. Shawtane [Bowen] is the manger and he is so great. We knew he had to be the manager.
Jerah: So disgruntled.
Jonathan: My friend Steve Way is in “The Beat of the Night” episode. He has muscular dystrophy, and he’s in a wheelchair. We knew Steve had to be in it.
Jerah: I met him through Jon and my stepfather is disabled and he always talks about it’s always a thing when characters on TV shows have disabilities. And he’s like, “How come you never wrote one?” So I’m like fuck it, I will. And one of our other teammates from Jon and my old team, Morgan Phillips, is in that as well.
James III: My fiance is in it. We hadn’t written anything yet and I said “In my episode my fiance is going to be in it.”
Jonathan: My girlfriend is in it too, but I didn’t write her in specifically, so her part is smaller than Kat’s. She was jokingly like, “How come Kat’s got a bigger part?”
James III: We also had to figure out the girl Jerah was dating, who was also going to do the whipping at the end.
Jerah: That took the longest for us to cast.
Jonathan: We wanted to make sure the person could do that without people hating them. But also somebody who would do it. And we definitely argued about the sounds. Do we put these [whip] sounds in?
James III: In post we listened to it so many different ways. Is there a whip crack? Does the whip crack drop out? When does it come in?
Jerah: Either you’re on board or you’re not. It ends with some dude getting accidentally whipped.
Jonathan: We definitely pushed the line there.
Have you gotten any reactions to that?
Jerah: To the whipping? I don’t think I have. I don’t read comments. Jon usually reads the comments.
Jonathan: There were maybe two comments of people saying “That made me cringe.”
James III: But that’s good right? “That made me cringe,” that’s a positive thing.
Jerah: You shouldn’t be smiling.
Jonathan: It’s hard because if you don’t know us and you don’t know anything about us and haven’t heard our podcast and you’re seeing this thing for the first time, you’re like, “Wait a minute. Who are these people? Are they allowed to do this? I don’t know?” We’re in a time when people aren’t sure who’s allowed to do what.
James III: I get whipped in that episode, but you do the brown paper bag test. It’s bad that I get whipped, but that is also bad.
James Carr: It’s a difficult time to take risks. It feels as though if you take a risk and people don’t like what you’ve done, you can’t be like, “Well, I was taking a risk.” Instead you’re like, “I have full ownership over this and I’m so sorry.” I think it’s really hard to do stuff like that.
Jerah: Especially in comedy. In comedy you’re supposed to say stuff and test stuff. Like Chapelle just got dragged. If you listen to what he said after the bit, there was a point to it. How do you even say stuff in a time like this? It’s tricky.
James Carr: I’ve always thought that comedians should be allowed to say whatever they want.
Jerah: Or if you get to a point where you’re so hated, people just expect it.
James III: I think it’s just mean what you say, say what you mean. And when people talk to you, know what you’re talking about. Don’t do something that you don’t know why you’re doing it.
Jonathan: I think all great comedy is going to offend someone. Even the comedy that people think isn’t offensive is probably offending people who aren’t inside of your bubble. We always have people in mind and try to be as respectful as we can, but at the same time we want to push the limit of people’s comfort zones to either make a point or make a joke. Or say, “Hey, maybe we should relax our offense triggers.”
Jerah: It’s a tricky world. I know my mom watched the one where James got whipped and she said, “Why does he have to get beat?” And I was like, “Mom, he’s not getting whipped. The point is there are so many slave movies and slave shows. There’s a slave sitcom coming out.” This is the thing that you see. If one of these slave comedies comes out, someone is going to get whipped on that slave comedy.
Jonathan: It’s this weird monetization of our tragic history, which is simultaneously teaching people and entertaining them. We have to sit back and go “How much is enough? When have we hit the threshold?”
Jerah: You think about these things, like how there’s always another thug role or another slave role. We’ve pitched shows where people of color are not in dire straights, but those aren’t the ones that the higher-ups in companies want to see. We’ve been told so many times that people don’t want to see Hollywood stuff, but even at Viacom there’s three shows about Hollywood. La La Land just came out. Crashing is out. It’s all about Hollywood. Just not from a brown point of view. But the one that does get picked up is about the drug dealer.
Jonathan: Or they’ll say, “Aziz Ansari did that.” But he did it in one episode.
James III: But he did do it.
Jerah: We always talk about Tyler Perry, but at the end of the day, that’s what gets greenlit.
Jonathan: That stuff appeals to a certain population and why should they be deprived of their movies if they want it. It’s just sometimes we notice, which is our whole podcast, that people get pigeonholed into certain categories, and you only see certain types of people in certain types of roles, and that includes Indians and East Asians and women and Muslims.
Did you leave room for improvisation?
James III: Some episodes had more than others, but we wanted that. We wanted to make sure we had X amount of cameras, because we were going to do improv and try to catch it.
James Carr: There’s a lot of improv. If you look at the final episodes, I think every episode has at least 10% improv. “The Whipping” has a lot actually. The opening was supposed to be a 10-second scene and it was 30 seconds. But it’s a great setup of the characters.
Jonathan: I think people expect that from comedy now. Judd Apatow made improv in comedic films famous. But I think we still value the written structure of the story and then allow the improv to breathe within that, as opposed to doing it Curb-style. We know the beats and lines we want to hit and then allow whatever naturally could come out in that moment to color in the details.
I wanted to ask about the podcast, because you’ve been doing it for almost two years.
James III: Yeah, two years since we started recording and then we released it in August 2015.
Jerah: Good goodness. I didn’t realize it had been going on for that long.
Jonathan: We have 70-something episodes. The podcast has been great. It’s super fun to talk about these films and figure out things that we didn’t even think about before we went into it. Speaking for me personally, when I went into this podcast I was pretty sure of all the tropes we would find and then we found more that we didn’t realize.
James III: I can’t look at a movie anymore without thinking of all the stuff we talk about. Going into it I was like, “Yeah, someone’s playing the thug or he doesn’t have a dad” or all these things I could put on the black lead. Now any black character or POC character, I’m like, “Wow, they aren’t getting a chance to do much of anything.”
Jerah: The two things that shocked me, one, that the podcast has gone on this long. I thought one of us would have bailed by now. And the fact that people will actually listen to it. They will comment and say, “We agree. We disagree. Leave James alone.”
James III: That’s the most surprising thing.
Jonathan: “I love the swirl.” “I hate the swirl.”
Jerah: When we first started, I got mail from so many black women saying I was hurting the culture. it was insane. It was like, “You don’t care about black women.” And I was the one bringing them up! I remember being so mad. But it’s a cool thing. My agents now listen to the podcast and because of the things we say, they don’t even send me certain auditions because they know I’m going to get mad.
Jonathan: To be able to have some of the guests we’ve been able to have on has been great. We were so lucky to have Keegan-Michael Key on one of the first episodes. He was so excited to be there.
James III: He was like, “I believe in what you guys are doing.”
Jonathan: He was talking to us about Keanu before it came out and about how Jordan wanted to direct Get Out.
Jerah: He told us the real story about how they got started. It was right before we met with Carr and it was one of the things that propelled us. He was like, “You guys need to start doing video.” And he told us, “Don’t be the sketch show after us.” They had Chocolate News after Chappelle Show so they had a buffer.
What’s next for the podcast?
James III: I’ll say this, I really want us to do White Chicks with famous white female celebrities. We could do White Chicks with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.
Jonathan: There are so guests that are in the works for sure: Roy Wood Jr., Wyatt Cenac.
Jerah: Jon hooks up all the guests. He has the hookup. I’ll call them once and they don’t respond.
Jonathan: Early on we got Keegan-Michael Key and then we were like, should we get this friend of ours? Nah. We felt bad. We would have before. Phoebe Robinson was another one of our first guests. We had Phoebe Robinson, Keegan-Michael Key, Natasha Rothwell.
Jerah: I think we’re also figuring out what a 30-minute show is going to look like. Either Projecting or I still have faith about the one about actors. I just read this thing about Robert Townsend and I’m like “Yo, fuck it. Someone’s going to hear that pitch again.” I feel like now we’ve done the digital thing. We’ve done Comedy Central. We’ve done Seriously. We’ve been on stage at UCB. I feel like these dues have now been paid. We’ve proven ourselves. Let’s get a show so we can put our friends on it.
James III: We’ll try to get my fiance in there.
I’ll make sure that’s in the article.
Jonathan: All we want is to make out friends famous. We have nothing to say. Nothing to add to the culture or the cause. It’s about nepotism. If Trump can put Ivanka in the White House…
James III: I’m just saying, my fiance is half-Asian and she played potentially a robot in the “Ghost in the Ticket Machine” episode, and then we’ve got Scarlett Johansson. I’m just saying, we did it first.
Jerah: All I’m saying is, we’re at the next step. So hopefully we have some cool stuff that does help the cause. We want to make sure we put a positive thing out there for people and especially people of color.
Photo by Mindy Tucker.