Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A White comic wants people to get real about race, so he creates a show about America in 2042, when White people are slated to become the new minority.
Okay, so you haven’t heard that one yet, but it sounds like a trainwreck in the making, right? I mean, from Michael Richards to Chelsea Handler, White comics haven’t exactly done a great job of tackling race without defaulting to stereotypes and cynicism.
But Matt Braunger ("MADtv," "Up All Night") isn’t one of those comics, and his Comedy Central web series "White Flight" is no trainwreck. Its episodes may all clock in at under eight minutes, but they tackle America’s race taboos with more candor and nuance than shows twice that length. Braunger took to Tumblr to describe the show’s premise:
About two years ago, I had a ridiculous idea: What if, on the year White people are no longer the majority, the leader/CEO of America (you know that’s coming) teleported all White people to Canada and absorbed it as the New United States? Then, to assure people of color that they weren’t being abandoned, left behind a White "Emissary" every 25 miles or so? Also, what would I call that act of America’s future leader? I went with the "We Just Think It’d Be Better If" Act.
The ensuing chaos sees hapless actor "Gary," played by Braunger, struggling in his new role as an emissary for his Los Angeles neighborhood’s residents of color. He endures a humiliating audition for a White role in a Tyler Perry movie, finds out that his expatriated White girlfriend is racist, explores conspiracy theories with a community organizer (played by comedian and former organizer Hari Kondabolu) and ultimately comes to find some agency and acceptance in his new community.
But this is no White savior fantasy, nor is it a projection of a White man’s emotional growth on auxiliary characters of color. Instead, "White Flight" pushes each of its six episodes to the nonsensical edge and challenges traditional narratives of White redemption to hilarious effect. Braunger enlisted comedians of color in the show’s genesis, and he co-writes each episode with Kevin Avery ("Last Week Tonight with John Oliver," "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell").
We spoke to Braunger and Avery about the show, Donald Trump and why comedy doesn’t belong to the racists.
MB: The people I approached were specifically people I wanted to be in the show too, because I didn’t want to just take people’s ideas. The best example I can think of is Solomon Georgio, who’s in episode four, what’s being called the "Black audition episode." Gary goes in for the White role in a Tyler Perry movie, and the waiting area’s full of Black guys with White guy wigs and hockey jerseys and the like. Solomon’s idea was to have a Black casting director tell a White actor to "White it up," and when we finally got to do that scene, he improvised all of that and I had to respond to it. So that became what is maybe my favorite moment in the series. But I also wanted to be very collaborative with people, and by extension, came to, "Look, I can’t write this by myself. I’m a White guy. Let me turn to my friend Kevin Avery to give it authenticity from a non-White perspective."
Kevin, can you talk about how you came on board as co-writer?
KA: Matt came to me with this idea, and right away, it sounded funny. And I like stuff like that, things that are kind of out of this world. So it sounded like a very funny concept and just something different. My aim was to make sure this character, Gary, evolves and learns to not be freaked out in his situation, and see everybody else’s perspective. That was important for me. Because I think that’s the problem we have now—you hear people saying things on the Internet and everybody has opinions, but not a lot of people have the perspectives of other people when they’re offering those opinions.
Did you feel as if you were "undoing" any of your own internal baggage in the creation of the show, Matt?
MB: Absolutely. I think I’m always learning different perspectives. I am at a massive advantage in modern society, and I was never that conscious of that when I was younger, because you don’t have to think about racism as much as a White person. I got miles of perspective, and constantly do when people have a different perspective than my own. When you sit down with people and get to know them, you’ll hear stories that you haven’t lived. On set, during filming for episode four, each actor I worked with had a different story of something they went through that I would never have to go through. And that goes for women as well, and gay men and women, who are subject to certain levels of prejudice or disregard that I would never [endure]. As Kevin said, you get to see Gary’s evolution in learning about these things.
Did you feel like you were bearing witness to that, Kevin?
KA: I went to an all-Black college, Tuskegee University. And I was having a conversation once, when I first started, with this comedian, A. Whitney Brown. And he was trying to get at the thing about being White, [which is] that he wakes up and doesn’t have to think about it. And he was getting at this idea where I woke up and for the first time, on a regular basis, it didn’t occur to me that I was Black because I was around Black people all the time. That’s one of the key things about Gary. For the first time, he’s a minority. It’s an extreme version of what’s supposed to happen in 2042, and it’s fun comedically, but it’s also an intriguing topic to play around with and explore. The thing that’s great about Matt is that he was always open to as much perspective and as many ideas as possible. I don’t know that I would’ve been able to write this with someone who didn’t already have his perspective in the first place—this show idea came from his brain, and he’s already miles ahead.
Did either of you feel a risk around centering the action on one White protagonist’s experience?
MB: Absolutely. I’ve had a few people get [the show] completely wrong, saying, "Oh, so you think we need White people to lead?" But Gary does not want that job. And the villain, the CEO of America, hits the button on the nuclear solution for White panic. On a deeper level, I do feel like everybody [in America] gets played against one another. Somebody always benefits from strife and inequality. I’m someone who daily recognizes how my ilk [White men] feels threatened. And there’s someone benefiting from people of my ilk feeling that way. And his name is Donald Trump. [Laughs] But it was an idea that wouldn’t work if it wasn’t a White person left by himself every 25 miles. The idea that I might’ve made this up as a starring vehicle for me, or that my character is a White savior—I mean, Gary’s an idiot. He’s the kind of person that I look at in Hollywood and feel sorry for—people that just wait for auditions, don’t write anything for themselves, make videos or collaborate with anyone. Gary’s not a person you would want as your leader.
KA: And the other thing too is that Gary’s not leading the others, they’re leading him. And that’s an important distinction to make. Gary’s wandering into everybody else’s world and learning more about himself and them. It’s a fish-out-of-water story, and it doesn’t work without this guy wandering through his life and going, "What? Everything’s fine! Let the country heal on its own!" And that’s the thing that we wanted to poke fun at and put out there. He is not a White savior, they are saving him.
Was there any reason for the show’s short-episode, online-only format? Will you make it a full series?
MB: Well that wasn’t really up to us. I sold it as a digital series to Comedy Central, and we had a definitive time limit, I think around six minutes. And they put them all up because people, if they like this kind of thing, they generally binge-watch. It was a cool thing to sell the idea and have it as a platform. But I will say that their digital series are [considered] their pilots, so it’s basically a pilot that has a chance to be an actual series. I’m getting a lot of people asking me, "When are you putting the rest of it up?" And I’m not. [Laughs] This is how it is as a web series, because I feel like the next step is a real series. And if Comedy Central doesn’t want it, then we will take it somewhere else, and that’s fine. I give all respect to Comedy Central for buying this idea, because I didn’t think they’d buy it [in the first place]. I cannot overstate how good a writer Kevin Avery is—
KA: Oh, God. [Laughs]
MB: —and it would be cool to see it go somewhere else because I want to see how deep we can dig, in a hilarious fashion.
Comedy gets a bad reputation for being a White guys’ club, where comedians can say whatever discriminatory things they want and claim victimhood if they get criticized. You’re on the ground as stand-ups and writers. Do you think comedy’s moving away from this stereotype?
KA: You know, I never felt that comedy was this White guys’ club or den of racism and hatred. That’s not where I live with comedy. I walk right in the front door. I have not experienced a lot of that [prejudice], and I can’t tell you if it’s changing for the better or worse because I’m not the recipient of that. Yeah, I’m Black, but I’m a man. Right now, women are speaking up about a lot of things going on in comedy. And the thing that sucks is that a lot of people want to ignore that, and nothing changes if we don’t talk. But I refuse to say that comedy’s some sort of cesspool where people can say awful things, because that’s not what it’s supposed to be. I think some comedians think that being discriminatory is how you’re supposed to be edgy, but that’s not what comedy is to me. As far as I’m concerned, those people are coming into my house and fucking it up.
MB: You’re not going to find a lot of White comics talking any real mess about Black people or stereotypes, but at least in recent years, there were a lot of White comics who’d do bits about possible terrorists—and we all know who they’re talking about. But Kevin brings up a good point—much of that White dude anger is against women.
KA: Certainly that hate’s there, but I can’t let that be what defines comedy. Because I know so many comics who are trying to entertain and be insightful, and there are a lot of assholes out there who think that they’re being edgy or hilarious or whatever. And I refuse to give what I do and what Matt does and a lot of comedians do—I refuse to give what we do to them.