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Sorry, “SNL,” “Astronomy Club” Is Coming For Your Wig

The new Netflix sketch comedy show Astronomy Club is a hilarious delight.

Posted on January 9, 2020, at 10:58 a.m. ET

Lara Solanki/Netflix

If the news is getting you down, I would like to offer you a small reprieve in the form of Netflix’s Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show. It’s a breezy, hilarious, six-episode binge-watch that may help you, if only briefly, forget about the troubles of the world.

Astronomy Club premiered in early December, but for one reason or another, it got lost in the madness of the concluding decade. Starring the first all-black troupe to come out of the famed Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, the group, composed of five men and three women, has steadily built a following since it formed in 2014. With the Netflix offering, the troupe builds on the comedic chops it flashed when Comedy Central gave the group a short-lived digital series in 2018. The sketches, all written by the group’s members, vary in tone, from the downright ridiculous to the incisive and thought-provoking, proving comedy can still be funny without being incredibly insensitive or neutered. On top of being highly entertaining, the show is inclusive in that it isn’t afraid to highlight the ridiculousness of blackness as a monolith — by incorporating various perspectives — driving home the point that creativity can truly flourish when everyone has a hand in the pot.

“Why the name Astronomy Club? We’re black and we’re all stars,” troupe member Keisha Zollar says cheerily in the first episode, right before her face hilariously loses its enthusiasm when she finishes the joke. “And like most stars, nobody knows our names.”

Astronomy Club understands that being able to poke fun is necessary, but it isn’t afraid to make some trenchant critiques as well.

The show’s concept is fairly simple. All eight members of the group — Shawtane Bowen, Jonathan Braylock, Ray Cordova, James III, Caroline Martin, Jerah Milligan, Monique Moses, and Zollar — move into a lofty apartment, which immediately gives the show a Big Brother feel. From there, classic reality television tropes and hijinks ensue, from all of the cast members fighting over one prized possession (in this case, a random moon lamp) to the forming of tenuous alliances, to poking fun at the one contestant on these sorts of shows who takes the competition way too seriously.

Interspersed throughout each episode, breaking up the time the castmates spend in the clubhouse with one another, are the actual sketches. The show really leans into being preposterous. A medical emergency resulting from a woman who sweated out her weave at a Drake concert? Check. A hilarious, ridiculous episode opener where a black woman’s deceptively youthful looks quite literally crack? Check. A man on a plane driven to the brink of insanity because he is apparently the only one who can witness a woman — who has excellence balance, I might add — twerking on the wing of the aircraft? Also check!

Lara Solanki/Netflix

Astronomy Club understands that being able to poke fun is necessary, but it isn’t afraid to make some trenchant critiques as well.

In the Wayback Wonderland Music Festival skit featured in Episode 2, titled “Ice Cube Day” (yes, Ice Cube does guest-star), Astronomy Club manages to address the ways sexual mores have changed while still being funny. The sketch is essentially a parody of the raunchiest ’90s R&B acts you can think of “but on an updated post-'Me Too' vibe." The fictional group Cruditay’s single “Backstage Underage” may have been a hit in the ’90s, but it would never fly now, which is why the title has been updated to “In Our Green Room.”

Then there’s New Sensitivity, an obvious reference to the heartthrob ’80s R&B group New Edition, who have forsaken their onstage act of introducing one lucky fan to a four-way face-grind and instead opted for the more philanthropic option of presenting the fan with a four-year scholarship to the college of their choosing. The final sales pitch for the festival, which plays on an often-cited phrase people use to justify listening to their complicated faves, is the cherry on top: “A music festival where we separate the artists from the art so you don’t have to.”

The show also isn’t afraid to make viewers a bit uncomfortable with race-specific stereotypes. In the zany and slightly obnoxious sketch “Bodegas and Dragons,” the troupe leans into some cringe-inducing jokes — characters seemingly inspired by Game of Thrones, clad in medieval gear while living in Compton, California, must travel to a store in search of ingredients for “hood-famous cheese grits.” And when the names of the characters in this skit are introduced — with monikers like Yolanda, Drug Dealer of the Block and High Priestess of Heroin, and Tanisha, the Thiccest — you might find your finger hovering over the exit button on the remote.

But right before the sketch gets even more chaotic, we’re zapped out of the moment only to realize “Bodegas and Dragons” was the brainchild of an all-white creative meeting. The joke is extremely meta and made even funnier by the fact that the creatives in the meeting are utterly confused as to how this show made it to market, even though the lone black employee, played by James III, tried to warn them of their errors — in fact, he sent “285 emails!”

It’s a perfectly funny commentary on studio executives, media companies, and high-fashion brands that, for whatever reason (racism!!!), continue to get these kinds of things wrong in the 21st century.

Lisa Rose/Netflix

Astronomy Club’s biggest strength by far, though, is that it isn’t afraid to poke fun at itself, like in Episode 3’s “For the Culture,” an amusing showcase from start to finish about the inherent absurdity of being insecure about one’s own blackness. The show finds levity in a touchy subject by ramping up the wackiness. One cast member, Martin, who decides to go from 0 to 100 in terms of repping for the culture, plans to make her fellow troupe members a soul food feast, but it goes awry when the group tastes the nauseating ~delicacies~ she’s concocted, like a ham hock–and–black-eyed peas smoothie, as well as a chitlins cake. The episode does a great job of highlighting that, as a people, we’re at our best when everyone’s perspective is included, all while keeping up the laughs. Cordova, whose “blackness is intersectional because I’m half Puerto Rican,” blesses the show with the perfect amount of thirsty queerness; Monique, who is “Canadian black” and “hard like Drake,” manages to be both charming and vexing, much like the performer himself. “Look, we all express our blackness in different ways,” Bowen says after the group jumps down Martin’s throat for her less-than-appetizing food. “Okay, that’s what makes this team special, we’re all different.” For all the laughs the show delivers, it also excels at sneaking in a bit of heart.

Now if you’re still unconvinced, that’s okay — I, too, was a little skeptical of the show at first. Sometimes sketch comedy can really miss the mark. There’s the staid institution that is NBC’s Saturday Night Live, which is doing a good job of remaining culturally relevant even if it isn’t always the funniest show; there’s HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show, which debuted last year, had a promising premise, and marginally improved after a slow start (here’s hoping Season 2 is much better than the first). But with Astronomy Club, which sits at an impressive 100% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, you’ll be laughing moments after you hit the play button. In fact, I’d recommend watching “A Good Old Fashioned Shade Off,” one of my favorite sketches of the season, if you’d like to test the waters before firing up your Netflix account.

So what have you got to lose? Why not start your new year off with a bit of joy? ●

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