Jordan Carlos, the self-proclaimed "preppy black comedian," was sitting in the Park Slope patisserie Colson’s on a recent Saturday afternoon, sipping a latte. He wore his signature getup: a snazzy buttoned-up shirt and thick-framed glasses. "Sometimes you have to carry this cross of race and struggle but you really just want to write jokes," he said over the din of the cappuccino machine and a whining baby. "I’m just a gunslinger who wants to do his job."
In his stand-up acts, Mr. Carlos, 30, crafts his jokes around the idea of being a black man who grew up in cushy, suburban comfort outside Dallas, Texas. He had an OB-GYN for a dad. His mother was a professor. "My parents are cute and cuddly and very warm and nice, and that’s what makes joke writing a little hard for me," Mr. Carlos said. "You have to seek out things that might disturb or might make you uncomfortable. I didn’t grow up being very uncomfortable."
Mr. Carlos often finds himself the token "black friend" to white people, a fact he uses in his acts. (When a white friend asked him to "translate" rapper Chamillionaire’s "Ridin Dirty" lyrics, Mr. Carlos quipped, ‘I dunno, I’m fuckin’ doing Sudoku over here.’) He lives in Park Slope with his wife, a teacher (who happens to be white), and uses brunch as a verb. In his stand-up, he jokes about sporting his alma mater’s sweatshirt (Brown, natch) while ordering eggs Florentine.
Mr. Carlos has been a regular in the alternative New York comedy scene since 2004, when he left his Madison Avenue job and picked up the mic in dive bars and with improv troupes full time. But what he really aspires to be is a staff writer for a sitcom or sketch show—positions that are few and far between for young black men. For the last year he has been writing spec scripts for shows like How I Met Your Mother and 30 Rock. He’s on the brink of becoming a real-life Toofer, like the 30 Rock character who is so nicknamed for being a "two-for-one deal," as both a Harvard graduate and a minority writer for a sketch show on the NBC comedy.
In fact, Mr. Carlos auditioned for the Toofer role five times with NBC producers, but Keith Powell, a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, landed the part. "I heard later there was some regret about that," Mr. Carlos said with a shrug. "The character now dresses the same way I do, and they kind of used the template I had in my audition tapes to make the character. I was like, that sucks. I mean, I would kind of like to make some money off of that." (NBC representatives declined to comment on Mr. Carlos’s observations.)
"I can’t help it if industry people"—Mr. Carlos stopped himself here and pointed to my voice recorder. "Note, when you put this, ‘He had his tongue squarely in cheek’"—"have no taste." Mr. Carlos added, "I can’t fight that."
Well, maybe. Last year, Mr. Carlos did fight back, or try to, with an article in The Washington Post about the whitewashed comedy scene. The story was titled "My Schtick? Being Black."
In the piece, Mr. Carlos described his first New York comedy holiday mixer, during which a Daily Show writer told him that they "‘tried a black guy once, but it didn’t work out.’"
"I nearly threw my imported beer in his face," he wrote. "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."
Mr. Carlos has actually appeared on The Colbert Report, as "Alan," Mr. Colbert’s "black friend." Mr. Colbert occasionally flashed a photo of his arm around Mr. Carlos, looking sullen and deflated; Mr. Colbert is beaming a wide grin. "That’s right. ‘The Colbert Report’ had to hire an actor to play a black person who works on the show," Mr. Carlos wrote. "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.’"
Soon after the article came out, Mr. Carlos spoke at a panel on race and comedy in Chicago with Lizz Winstead, the co-creator of The Daily Show. "She said, ‘Well, in a perfect world I would hire staff writers of color.’ I was like, ‘Well, it is your perfect world; you can do whatever you want.’ But it’s the nature of the biz for people to hire their friends, hire whoever they want."
Mr. Carlos has also auditioned for a gig on SNL, is up for a role on MAD TV and recently had meetings with the senior vice president of comedy development at CBS, Brian Banks. He is cobbling together his five minutes to present before Late Night With Conan O’Brien producers and auditioned for two different characters, inexplicably both named Phil, for ABC this week.
When he’s not writing or auditioning, Mr. Carlos makes online videos. He does a stellar Obama impression (albeit in a terrible wig that barely contains Mr. Carlos’ puffy locks). In the video "BA-L-ACK OBAMA" on comedy.com, Mr. Carlos, as the presidential candidate, robotically proclaims, "A lot of people want change. A lot of people have meters that are about to expire. I will give them that change." Then he plunks a quarter into a meter on some Brooklyn street. Mr. Carlos as Obama also sips on a 40 oz. bottle of liquor and says, "Mmmm, you can taste the ghetto."
"I’m just saying he doesn’t really know that much about being black," Mr. Carlos explained. "He grew up in Hawaii and went to Harvard. And, yes, he learned a lot about the black experience in Chicago, of course. But people don’t really know about that. People not knowing about that makes it easier for me to make fun of him."
Last week he filmed a scene for a movie called The Rebound, in which he smokes pot with Catherine Zeta-Jones and they reminisce about the craziest places they’ve had sex. He’ll also make an appearance in the upcoming David Koepp film Ghost Town, in which he’ll drop an air-conditioning unit on Greg Kinnear’s head.
Yet, even with all these successes, however modest, Mr. Carlos still makes the rounds in stand-up bars like Comix and the Tank. He recently performed at the Comic Strip Live on the Upper East Side and told the audience he’d like to live there one day. "People were like, ‘Oh you just want to live around rich white people.’ And I was like, no, I just want to look at the pretty buildings," Mr. Carlos said.
"People just want that. They just want what they can’t have," said Mr. Carlos.
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