The premiere of “Astronomy Club” is so dense with fully-formed jokes, wry social commentaries, and wild left turns that you’d be forgiven for wondering if you accidentally dropped into the show’s second season rather than its first. There are sketches about a life or death hair emergency, the chain reaction of biases of people sizing each other up from either side of a locked apartment building door, and a harrowing disaster from the perspective of its gingerbread-men victims. There’s one about a support group for Magical Negroes who can’t let go of their need to help white people (think Bagger Vance), and another about Robin Hood getting a lesson in the intersection between class and race when he tries to rob a wealthy black family. Throughout, there’s a faux MTV-style reality show starring the Astronomy Club itself. (“Why Astronomy Club? We’re black and we’re all stars — and like most stars, nobody knows our names,” explains cast member Keisha Zollar.) This first episode sets the standard for “Astronomy Club” as clever, ambitious, and perhaps most importantly for a sketch show, both self-aware and completely ridiculous. In other words, it’s a pretty great way to blow a couple hours of your life whether you want to think a little harder about your comedy, or just appreciate its total absurdity.
It’s not altogether surprising that “Astronomy Club” comes running out the gate as fully formed as most comedies are a season into their runs. Not only is it produced by Kenya Barris and Daniel Powell (“I Think You Should Leave”), but the eight members of the Astronomy Club — Shawtane Bowen, Jonathan Braylock, Ray Cordova, James III, Caroline Martin, Jerah Milligan, Monique Moses and Zollar — have been performing together for years. Its six episodes also have a tight structure and sketch selection that proves that “Astronomy Club” knows the value of self-editing — a trait that’s not exactly a given, let alone on Netflix, where the “more is more” approach tends to win the day. Some sketches don’t hit quite as hard as others, but they rarely stay longer than their welcome. The ones that do hit — like the one with Robin “I don’t see color” Hood, an ad for a “Wayback Wonderland” music fest failing to adjust to the post #MeToo era, a date that gets derailed thanks to a guy’s “resting creep face” — are smart, to the point, and very funny. (One particularly silly sidebar, in which a baffled man gives a press conference on how easy it was for him to kill Chucky, made me snort seltzer — not a great experience, but pretty unbeatable as a testimony to the sketch’s effectiveness.)
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The continuing thread of the Astronomy Club living in the same house is also a smart way to help us get to know each comedian as a (fictionalized) individual beyond the collective octet. They roll their eyes at Braylock declaring himself “the leader” and Moses putting on an elaborate birthday celebration, indulge Bowen’s Ice Cube obsession and Cordova’s paranoid conspiracy theories, and forget that James is there. In one memorable episode, this faux-reality show gets a little realer as they all sift through what being black means to them, resulting in Martin overcompensating with a truly disgusting shake made from ham hock and black eyed peas (“for the culture!”). These beats are good, but they’re also telling of what “Astronomy Club” can do that few other comedy shows currently on the air can: highlight eight (8) different perspectives on blackness without giving any short shrift. With only six episodes, there’s not a whole lot of time for everyone to differentiate themselves, and yet the Astronomy Club manages it just fine by making the time it does have count.
“Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show” premieres December 6 on Netflix. (Six episodes; all watched for review.)