It’s crunch time for Elon James White (pictured), the 29-year-old Brooklyn native who has come to be known in the NYC comedy scene as a leading promoter of the genre “Black-Alt” comedy. His three-day comedy festival, The Black Comedy Experiment opens tomorrow at The Tank, but White isn’t anxious in the meantime.
“You get a little bit nervous,” says White. “But upon walking on stage, it disappears immediately.”
The Black Comedy Experiment features 33 black comedians, including Saturday Night Live alum, Dean Edwards, and NBC’s 30 Rock writer, Donald Glover. There will be different shows each night, including a gay show, a political show and an all-ladies show.
White wants the audience to experience a different side of black comedy. To do this, he’s lined up performances that challenge what he believes people generally have come to expect from black comedic acts. For example, White shirks anything you might see on HBO’s Def Jam.
“There’s an expectation of what you’re supposed to be when you go on stage with a certain skin color. Hence, when you go against that idea, you are in effect, Black-Alt.”
White grew up an only child in one of the most crime-ridden parts of Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. He was shot at 14 (“For being a gossip, basically,” explains White) and transferred from a Manhattan high school to the notorious former tough school, John Jay High School in Brooklyn.
“It was basically just me getting my ass kicked every day, and then finally I was like I’m not hanging out anymore. I’m just going to go and read a book.”
White may have dodged blows as a kid, but today he confronts any attempt to peg him in a stereotypical way. He says he has an “equal affinity” for the hoodie as he does a sharp-looking blazer. He’s irritated when people tell him that he doesn’t sound black. (He says that one friend has even told him he sounds like a “gay British guy.”)
“I used to catch so much flak because of the way I talk. How can someone speak white!?”
The Black Comedy Experiment comes not only during Black History month, but also during a moment in history where White believes people have race on their minds because of Barack Obama’s bid for the White House, including the frantic gossip about who would be cast as SNL‘s Fauxbama. Racism, for better or worse, is sneaking into the forefront of a lot of public discussion.
“I think it’s great that everyone is questioning [racism today] because we have a black candidate [running for president], and he’s someone that could possibly win. But the truth is, we have been asked so many times, ‘Is America ready for a black president?’ If you have to ask that many times, maybe you’re not ready!”
White sees comedy as his calling, and he’s had a lot of support from friends along the way. After high school, he spent only a semester at college (where he was supposed to get an English degree) but instead went straight to working in I. During this time, he began unintentionally entertaining customers with jokes and stories at the Brooklyn Jamaican restaurant, The Islands. The people there pushed him to give stand-up comedy a chance, and he did. They are apparently still supporting him, as an ad for their restaurant flashes on the website for The Black Comedy Experiment.
“My friends have been very supportive. When I started doing this, my friends were like, ‘Oh, this is what he should be doing.’ They would drive me to shows and even loan my money.”
Now he is hoping that he finds the same supportive audience for the festival.
“I want to make sure we get a certain type of attention. I want that ‘holy crap’ moment from people. I want people to walk out and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that black comedy was that diverse.’”
Although White must of course hope to also make a profit from the show, when he was asked what the perfect outcome of his show would be, he still responded with a somewhat social justice message.
“If everything went perfectly, people in five years would look back and go, Why was there a festival at all, because there wouldn’t be a need for it anymore.”