My Shtick? Being Black

By Jordan Carlos
Sunday, January 7, 2007

Casting directors can be anxious creatures. In their zeal to find the right actor for a part they often use shorthand to explain what they want. "More Chris Rock! Less Cosby!" or "Can you play it with lots of energy and attitude?" (That's code for "black it up.") Sometimes I wish they'd come right out and ask if any actors in the waiting room can break dance while spinning a chicken wing on their finger like a basketball. But I am a young comedian and actor, and until I get my big break I have to take such jabs in stride.

I like being black. Can't change it. Wouldn't want to. In comedy, being a black man has its advantages. You stick out in a field of white guys who joke about how "annoying" Starbucks is, how they hate their families or loathe the holidays. Black comedians can do these kinds of jokes but can do others, too. Of course, the audience expects us to talk about race, and for years that made me wring my hands -- until I started doing jokes about black jokes. I knew that no one would ever buy that I'd had it rough growing up, but people would buy that I was the black comic who was going to joke about the tropes of black comedy, kind of a goofy watchman watching the watchman.

Entering the comedy world as a black man means you always stand out, even during off hours, such as one Christmas evening in New York at my first holiday comedy mixer. All of Gotham's comedic glitterati were there. I cornered a "Daily Show" writer, doing my best to get the inside track on a possible actor/writer gig. We broached the subject of black correspondents. He told me that they "tried a black guy once, but it didn't work out." I nearly threw my imported beer in his face. Tried it once and it didn't work? You say that about Toyotas, not a whole race of people. But to date, comedy writing is pretty whitewashed. As of this season, "Saturday Night Live" has no black writers. "The Daily Show" also doesn't have any, and neither does "The Colbert Report," a show on which I've played Stephen Colbert's black friend "Alan," a member of the staff. That's right. "The Colbert Report" had to hire an actor to play a black person who works on the show.

How did I get to be Colbert's on-air compadre of color? Simple. One day a friend of mine who happened to be a producer for the show called and asked me to come and have my picture taken with Colbert. He explained that it was for a segment they'd be airing that night in which I would play Colbert's black friend. With zero prospects and a gnawing fear that they'd find a replacement, I streaked over to the studios on New York City's West Side, where I was quickly introduced to the man himself, Stephen Colbert. We took the picture and my producer friend showed me out. The joke has since become a running gag. I had hoped to parlay it into a job; instead I got a lot of MySpace "friends." These experiences didn't leave me feeling good, but they did make me think more about being black. Better late than never, I guess.

I come from an upper-middle-class Texas family. My father is a successful ob-gyn. My mother, a community-college literature professor, is from a family of educators and landowning Mississippi farmers. My parents provided us with a pretty great post-Civil Rights-era upbringing: private school, private lessons, ski trips and Ivy League colleges.

After school I got a job as a copywriter on Madison Avenue, and made great money doing it. I moved into a Greenwich Village apartment and took things easy, much as I always had. Much as I planned to do for the rest of my days, and without pausing to think a whole lot about what being black meant to me.

But advertising was my 9 to 5. My 5 to 9 was stand-up comedy. In a few short years, I got an agent, a manager and a conundrum: advertising or comedy?

Like an idiot, I quit my job and plunged headlong into performing, going on auditions and doing comedy sets at rathole clubs. I battle it out for black roles with black men in auditions conducted strictly by white people. White people who look you over and examine your body, your hair, your teeth. No, the casting director didn't enslave my ancestors, but it doesn't mean you can't be aware that black people don't take too kindly to close inspection of their bodies by white eyes.

So while the entertainment industry hasn't provided the security of advertising, it has made me completely conscious of my blackness.

On stage, being who I am allows me to go places my white counterparts can't. I get to joke about how, being black, people think I'm gay because my clothes fit -- and the audience just eats this up because it's so true. I've found my niche, an identity and happiness in my work. Being black is part of my job. Joking about how black I'm not is also part of my job. I call myself the preppiest black guy in the free world. Chess? I've played it. Skiing? I've done it -- twice. Bar mitzvahs? Too many to count.

Chicken-wing break-dance spinning? Still waiting for the call on that one.

Jordan Carlos is a comedian and actor

in New York.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company