From “Fatherless” to the “New Negroes” Baron Vaughn Uses His Unique Viewpoint To Make You Laugh

“Fatherless,” premieres on Sunday, April 2 at 9:00PM on FUSION TV. A heartfelt doc, with a comedic flair, follows Baron as he searches for the father he never knew. Throughout the doc, Vaughn strips away the Hollywood facade and illustrates how you don’t have to let your circumstances define you or hold you back and, in his case, you can overcome being just another statistic. In addition to his ultimate quest, the doc also analyzes how Baron had to formulate his own construct of the black male identity, with no father to teach him.  Amma Marfo talked with Baron about “Fatherless” as well as his stand up, his hit festival show “The New Negroes” and MST3K. Follow Baron Vaughn on Twitter @barvonblaq

“Some of you are probably thinking, ‘I came tonight to hear jokes, not to hear the psychological reason you need to tell jokes!”

It’s a line Baron Vaughn has gotten to use in his standup a lot relatively recently, as his comedy digs into his feelings about police brutality, the Black experience and his place in it, and about growing up without a father. He’s tackled the first two often through his stand up nationwide and through his “The New Negroes” comedy showcase, produced with LA based rapper Open Mike Eagle. But it’s the last topic, his father, that is the newest to his repertoire- and something he’s tackling further in a forthcoming documentary, Fatherless (premiering April 2nd at 9pm ET on Fusion.)

Vaughn describes Fatherless as an opportunity to “set out on a journey to find my father and the truth, because both can be important in a life.” The search, conducted with the help of a private investigator, urged him to confront “very hurtful painful extenuating circumstances surrounding my birth and the relationship between my parents.” But for its serious subject matter, Fatherless does manage to find humor in its circumstances- something Vaughn has always tried to do in his life. Invoking the adage “humor is tragedy plus time,” he ultimately frames the movie as an origin story- a peek into how the Adamantium (in this case, humor and levity) got infused into his bones. But if Fatherless is designed to show how a superhero of sorts is born, Vaughn has been blown away by how relatable it has been to those who have seen it. We spoke a day after the film’s LA premiere, and he was still fielding calls from friends, colleagues, and family who shared how they saw themselves in the story.

Between mining for humor in his own family life, and doing so for the Black experience in “The New Negroes,” it’s easy to see that Vaughn studies comedy intently, moving beyond the easy and expected laugh to find what’s underneath. As we chatted, he spoke of how his time with audiences has taught him what they like to laugh about, and then in turn pushed him to find jokes in the things they’re not as comfortable with. He welcomes the dual challenge- the one presented to audiences to find humor in things they don’t recognize, and also on him to elicit laughs in unexpected ways. “Audience members can tell you at length all the things they don’t think is funny, but they can’t articulate what is funny. [Explanations of] what isn’t funny are specific, but what [they do find funny] is vague.”

Addressing this difference between expectation and results is essential for much of his stand up, but has been particularly important for “The New Negroes” given its provocative naming (borrowed from an anthology of artists, writers, and poets published during the Harlem Renaissance) and eclectic lineup. Those expecting a straight stand up showcase will instead see poetry mixed with writing, “and a few dick jokes as well.”

Vaughn and Eagle seek to create a space where there’s a shared vulnerability, between artists sharing their work on the show and the audience readjusting to what they thought they’d see. “Outside that space, everyone has really strong ideas about what they believe comedy to be- especially comedians.” But at “The New Negroes,” everyone’s coming to that understanding together. As in Fatherless, the experience is more common than might be expected going in.

For all the genre bending and challenges Vaughn likes to present to his audiences, it’s worth noting that he’s gaining a more conventional following thanks to a pair of Netflix projects: Grace and Frankie, now in its third season on Netflix; and the forthcoming reboot of Mystery Science Theater 3000, debuting on the platform on April 14th. When asked how he brings his unconventional ideas to spaces that undoubtedly have conventions, we return to talk of superheroes. Trained as an actor and having learned the trappings of comedy, he sees his many skills as items on a utility belt. “The majority of any job is figuring out what tools are appropriate for this job.”

On Grace and Frankie, he sees his role as Bud Bergstein as one of interpreting the work of other writers, and doing so in a way that is faithful to the format and to the story. (As an aside, the writing for Grace and Frankie’s kids is at its best this season, and you see it in Vaughn’s performance, as well as those of Ethan Embry, Brooklyn Decker, and June Diane Raphael.) And with Mystery Science Theater 3000, his role is active contributor and faithful custodian of the show’s existing legacy. Largely assuring that the highly anticipated new episodes will match the energy and irreverence of the original, he shares, “MST3K is Olympian- I’m throwing out every impression, every voice; I’m singing, I’m whispering…everything is happening and that’s what’s great about the show. Everything is thrown at you, including the kitchen sink.”

As with so many other opportunities Vaughn has seized, it’s been all about finding the challenge at hand and lending his unique voice to it. And from a journey to find his father, to finding the laugh in unearthed B-movies, Vaughn wants to make you think deeply in the process.

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Amma Marfo

Amma Marfo is a writer, speaker, and podcaster based in Boston, MA. Her writing has appeared in Femsplain, The Good Men Project, Pacific Standard, and Talking Points Memo. Chances are good that as you're reading this, she's somewhere laughing.
Amma Marfo
Amma Marfo
Amma Marfo is a writer, speaker, and podcaster based in Boston, MA. Her writing has appeared in Femsplain, The Good Men Project, Pacific Standard, and Talking Points Memo. Chances are good that as you're reading this, she's somewhere laughing.