Why you should care
Because the devil’s in the personal these days.
Naomi Ekperigin scans the crowd of some 450 people at her comedy show in Seattle. It’s full of white folks, or, as Ekperigin has put it before, “white as day.” She bids hello to the “Caucasian Quartet” in the first few rows. It takes a full three rows for her to find a person of color; when she does, she yells, shamelessly, “POC!” in greeting. We white folks go along with it.
Ten years ago, these kinds of jabs might have prickled a little more than they do now. But today, as more Black comedians and actors take the silver screen, television, YouTube and Twitter by storm, this is familiar stuff. And funny. Ekperigin is one of a number of comedians cresting this wave. An African-American comic used to speaking to less-than-diverse crowds (though Seattle’s is a shade lighter than her hometown audiences in New York), she’s an expert in a kind of intimate comedy, in which the comedian onstage is pretty much herself — think the Louis C.K. brand of things, rather than the Stephen Colbert style. She does her share of behind-the-scenes hustle, though, writing for female-led shows Broad City (Comedy Central) and Difficult People (Hulu). Already, she’s been named by Essence as one of eight Black women ready for SNL.
The crazy-best-friend shtick works in part because she’s inclusive: She effortlessly spins out stories about her fiancé (aka her “Jew-boo”), her eating habits, how she sucks in her stomach. Confessional, like brunch with the besties. The night I saw her, she told a newish bit about said Jew-boo stealing all the Nutella in the house — a quotidian-enough story, but her big, physical gestures popped. The first time that joke came out, according to stand-up comedian Aparna Nancherla, who saw its premiere, it rolled out with a nonchalance that’s hard to fake. Fellow stand-up comic Josh Gondelman says that personal-confessional is necessarily its own brand: “Her stories are not stories you’ve heard before.” Which makes it easy to be casual with her offstage, where she wears a pink sweater and jeans, sitting just off from the drunks of the music-and-arts festival at which she just performed. Here, she’s a bit quieter — more reflective and less bouncing-off-the-wall energetic, but recognizably the same person.
Growing up, Ekperigin, whose attorney mother was a Detroit native, spent her time in cushy, mostly white environments: first the elite private school Dalton in New York and then Wesleyan University for undergrad. She felt like an outsider often, which made her introspective, “analyzing it all, wondering what I did wrongly” — the stuff that makes comics observant. She recalls being a quiet kid, sitting in a corner reading The Baby-Sitter’s Club, but also a performer. She took to improv in college, that long-beloved pastime of the liberal arts world.
Post-college, she took on the difficult-to-penetrate comedy world, beginning with a deaf theater group that performed plays in sign language and traveling through Australia with a stand-up routine. New York called, though. She worked as a writer and editor of an art magazine, doing open mics on the side. When she was let go at the magazine, her unemployment intensified her drive. The tide started turning when she met Broad City co-creator Ilana Glazer at a stand-up show and landed a writer’s-assistant job on season one of Broad City. By season two on the increasingly popular show, she’d earned a staff position. Her specialty: writing so-called “alts,” or alternative punchlines to what the head honchos might draft up.
Vulture’s called these times the second comedy boom. It’s a seller’s market, giving way to people like Glazer and Ekperigin alike. Hulu, Amazon, Netflix and even Yahoo are vying for original comedies. And, as the field of content buyers has grown, diversity is increasingly crucial. Makes sense: According to a 2015 Nielsen report, Black audiences spend the most time of any racial category watching live and recorded TV.
Of course, diversity can be a buzzword. The talent pickers at the top remain fairly homogeneous — last year, 96 percent of television network and studio heads were white, and 71 percent were male, according to the 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report. Ekperigin feels an extra stressor because of just how personal her storytelling gets: “When the audience is not on board,” she says seriously, “they don’t like me. It doesn’t feel like they don’t like my writing.”
Her work is described by other comics as embodying contradictions; personal, universal, sincere without being corny. She’s fond of creating her own vocabulary: Being called for an audition because so-and-so Black comedian isn’t available is called being “a Black-up.” Her delivery is Chris Rock-like — she paces onstage, speaks rapidly, drops “mmmkays” in between sentences without pause. The goal for Ekperigin is a varied career: writing essays, doing stand-up, acting, voicing parts. Or, of course, she’d take today’s top comedy prize — her own show, with her name in lights, à la Louie, Mulaney, Key & Peele and Inside Amy Schumer.
After an hour and a half of chatting, Ekperigin suddenly realizes she’s lost her phone. She goes into grand comedy mode, pacing, calling my name — “LIBBY! LIBBY! YOU STOLE MY PHONE!” Onlookers stare. There I am, unavoidably involved, like the Caucasian Quartet, pulled into her Mad Hatter’s brunch. Finally, she reaches into her boot, from which a phone emerges. “I guess you only really appreciate something after you’ve lost it,” I say. “Yeah, like my mind,” she quips. It’s so quick, it could go in her set.