Update: This show has been postponed until Sept. 15 due to weather-related travel issues.
James III—yes, his friends do call him "James the third"—is a comedian from Akron, Ohio, whose credits include the Black Men Can't Jump (in Hollywood) podcast, three dramatic lines on Law & Order: SVU, and a very rousing performance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in second grade. But mostly, he's known for his prolific improv work with Some Kid, Take it Personal, and Upright Citizens Brigade.
Upright Citizens Brigade—the notable improv company founded by Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh in the late nineties—is sending a group of players to perform original ninety-minute sets around the country, including a stop at the Carolina Theatre on Friday. Improv is a game with rules, rounds, and characters where performers create jokes instantaneously in reaction to audience suggestions. In order to be a successful improviser, performers should be able to think on their feet, say "yes and" to all propositions—and, apparently, have a working knowledge of late-Renaissance principles of comedy. The INDY recently spoke with James III to discuss moms, commedia dell'arte, and what it's like being the only black person on a stage.
INDY: There are different boot camps for becoming a comedian—sketch comedy, stand-up, improv. What drew you to improv and to joining Upright Citizens Brigade?
JAMES III: Improv was what I was introduced to first; I did it as a kid. I did, like, commedia dell'arte in my performing-arts middle school. And I was always a fan of Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Wild 'N Out.
At what point did it no longer become schoolwork, but something you wanted to make as a career for yourself?
The real moment that I wanted to become an actor was in the second grade. I did the last ten lines of the "I Have A Dream" speech for a play. I was really scared and crying. I did it. And after I was done, the audience cheered uproariously—probably because I was so nervous and they wanted to make me feel better!
You've talked a lot about being one of the few black people in Ohio. Was your school like, Oh my gosh, we have a black kid this year, we should have him perform the "I Have a Dream" speech?
[Laughs] I didn't start being one of the few black people until I went to the performing arts school. There weren't a lot of black kids in drama. Drama was not the thing that the black kids did.
So much of your non-improv work concerns race—the Black Men Can't Jump (in Hollywood) podcast, the YouTube sketches on tokenization, or even your stand-up routine where you talk about being "black-ish." How does race manifest in improv work?
The typical experience of a lot of black people in improv is that you're one of the few on your team. One time I was on tour [for Upright Citizens Brigade] and I was on a team with three white people, and a young lady wanted us to address that "straight white men get everything they want." A teammate came out onto the scene and was like, "Hello, I'm a straight white man, give me this job!" The other person in this scene played along and was like, "Yes, right. Hello, straight white man. You can have whatever you want. You have no experience? Great, come in." And it was this really fun scene just sort of poking at this idea. Then I came in a little later in the scene and put on a stereotypical old-black-man voice. My idea as I entered was, Oh, I'll come in and be more qualified for this position than this guy, but I'm the janitor. I did that and the other two white people in the scene looked at me like deer in the headlights, because they were like, Oof, I don't know how to attack this.
A year later I was improvising with some of the same people and I ended up being a robot in a scene. And somebody said something like "You people" to the robot. And then we were playing this game of, Oh, the robot is like people of color. And we were very much playing exactly those tropes. Someone came on the scene and said, "Some of my closest friends are robots!" It was playing with the idea that we're really addressing race, but without it being as scary as the other scene, directly saying, "Black people aren't getting ahead. White people are." And the scene was very successful.
It's hard. Everyone tries to be respectful and doesn't want to ignore these realities, but also, sometimes, it's easier to drop into the code switching.
Does your mom get your jokes?
One time, I talked about how Tyrese is a beautiful man. I said that repeatedly on a podcast. And I identify as a straight, hetero male. But after listening to that episode of the podcast, my mom was like, "What did you mean by that?" And what I meant was that Tyrese is a beautiful man. So I think my mom does get my comedy, but sometimes she is trying to navigate: What does it really mean though?
This story appeared in print with the headline Model Citizen.
Clarification: This story has been updated to refer to the subject by his stage name, James III, rather than his full name.