The Awakening of Jaboukie Young-White

The Awakening of Jaboukie Young-White

The 24-year-old meme king is bringing queer, black pride to a screen near you.

The 24-year-old meme king is bringing queer, black pride to a screen near you.

Photography: Fujio Emura

Styling: Sho Tatsuishi

Text: SAMUEL ANDERSON

If the conventional wisdom is true—that trauma plus time equals "lmaos"—then comedian Jaboukie Young-White may have skipped the “time” part. While the 24-year-old writer isn’t too far out from adolescence—that dreaded age in which senses of humor are said to be forged—he is already a writer on two comedies that delve deeply into the subject: Netflix’s Big Mouth and American Vandal. “It was not that long ago that I was that age, and it’s nice to have a chance to write about these things so soon after I experienced them,” he says.

Often the resident young person in the Big Mouth writers room, Young-White has an important job. Combining the frankness of an after-school special with the self-effacement of standup, the show depicts puberty in sickeningly cute detail. And while he may still be relatively acquainted with the Hormone Monster (a grotesque, hormonal daemon voiced by the show’s creator, Nick Kroll, 40), Young-White's own unique trajectory seems to be what most informs his humor.

“I grew up in Harvey, Illinois, one of the most violent towns in [the state],” he tells us. “Almost half the town is under the poverty line. I had friends who were wards of the state and were homeless, but they were like 12. They slept in abandoned houses and shit like that. And I couldn’t do anything [about it].” To wit, puberty is rough, but more so for those already vulnerable to trauma—which Young-White arguably was as a queer person of color growing up just outside Chicago's South Side. “My family is Jamaican, and Jamaican culture is one of the most homophobic in the Western Hemisphere,” he says. “It’s bred into [you].” As an alternative, Young-White hooked himself to the television. “That’s how I learned most American norms,” he says. “Which, you could argue, isn’t the healthiest, but that’s really what made me love comedy.”

If Young-White's challenging surroundings had an incubator-like effect on his sense of humor, finding the right creative outlet took more time. At the improv classes and open mics he dabbled in while at DePaul University in Chicago, Young-White often felt out of place in the room. “I was always way younger than everybody,” he says. “I was almost always the only queer person, sometimes the only person of color, and always the only queer person of color.”

Where he thrived was on Twitter. While a 2016 Vulture piece highlighted Young-White's more anodyne observations (“Brave veteran visiting fallen comrades” one photo caption read under a pigeon near eggs), Young-White's political humor seemed to emerge rapidly and fully-formed after the 2016 election.

With his queer, black pride ("“i don't eat bananas. that's gay. potassium? you mean vitamin p for penis? don't need it. just another way they try to femininize black men,” he tweeted in late 2016) and hyper-relatable observations, the cult of Jaboukie soon took off. His takes were a salve: “[W]e all have that one friend who strips you of basic human rights,” he wrote over a retweeted article about Trump’s LGBTQ policies (albeit one born on Black Twitter and then co-opted by liberal Twitter, appearing under somewhat stomach-turning headlines like “These Twitter accounts are killing it in Trump's America"). 

But his all-knowing account had the quality of a secular bodhisattva, exposing the banal traumas of western life and raking in thousands of likes and retweets. “People born after 2000 will never fully understand the generational trauma inflicted by hollister & abercrombie,” read one liked 169,874 times.

While he has never signed a lease (I'm just taking life as it comes," he says) Young-White is ascending the Hollywood ranks; recently he moved back from L.A. to New York to become the "Senior Youth Correspondent" on The Daily Show. And while his job resumé and Twitter may embody the meme-like distillation of all conservative fears (“"hOw CaN YoU tAlK aBoUt GuN CoNtRoL wHeN yOu'Ve NeVeR FiReD a GuN" how ya'll anti gay and you've never sucked cock,” he once tweeted [119,323 retweets, 385,286 likes]), his true talent seems to be pinpointing, or predicting, the exact moment that a widely held implicit bias becomes white and/or straight folly, thereby forcing the rest of us to confront whatever distorted perceptions we may hold. In one soothsaying tweet on May 8, a woman’s tear-stained, panic-stricken face appears over a caption: “White people calling the cops on their shadow,” it read. On May 14, the Huffington Post broke the story of a white woman in Oakland, California, calling the police on a black family for barbecuing with charcoal at a lake.

However topical it may be, his own racial or sexual identity is not necessarily the focus of his standup. “I’m not someone who's going to explain, ‘I’m gay, blah blah blah,’" he says. "I don’t feel like it’s my job to educate you on what my sexual preferences are, but I do [express them] like through subtext and jokes. ” he says. They were apparent enough on his appearance on The Tonight Show last year, which, he says, served as an unofficial coming-out to his parents. “My mom had known because [she caught me] Skyping with my then boyfriend in like 2012, when was like 17,” he explains. "But she was like, 'Don’t talk about it, I don’t need to know.' But my dad had no idea. Neither of them knew that I was a card-carrying, practicing gay,” he says.

As is the millennial way, Young-White's response to his father’s persisting rejection of his sexuality is enthusiastic self-love. “Am I going to choose myself or my family ultimately?" he says. "I choose myself, and [I didn't] have a hard time making that decision. I knew for me to become fully actualized and be the person I want to be, I was going to have to leave and do my own thing."

The self-love seems to be working; both Big Mouth and American Vandal premiered in October to glowing reviews. But he’s not stopping at excavating high school trauma; after all, in today’s globalized hell storm, the notion of fear and insecurity being as temporary as high school is almost quaint. Luckily, with The Daily Show, Young-White says he's ready go viral among a whole new crowd. “[Our] generation is looking at a future that’s extremely grim: we start life thousands of dollars in debt, cannot secure stable employment, and are mistreated by employers. But there’s a huge upswell of young people leaning further and further to the left and I think that’s something I would love to speak on.”

It's a full-circle moment for Young-White, who says the show is what led to his own political awakening. “I was always drawn to [The Daily Show]; I liked knowing what was going on, like, when George Bush was reelected. But I was like, I’m 11 and I can't do anything," he says. "Now that we have an evil piece of shit in the office, I am excited to be on the other side of it.”

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