The Standup Who Doubles as a Digital Emily Post


On a recent afternoon, the comedian Jaboukie Young-White walked into Syndicated, a bar and movie theatre in Bushwick. He had bleach-blond hair and the beginnings of a mustache, and he wore workout clothes. “I like to exercise, but ‘I want to look plump and juicy’ isn’t enough motivation,” he said. “I need more of a narrative.” He had reserved a spot in a Muay Thai class nearby, but the class had been cancelled because of a sudden rainstorm. The gym’s owner texted him a video, and Young-White held up his phone: floor mats covered in gushing water. “Life during climate change, I guess,” he said, sliding into a booth. Two movie projectors beamed images onto a wall—“Fitzcarraldo,” the Werner Herzog film, next to “Whenever, Wherever,” the Shakira video. “Every bar should have this,” Young-White said. “If you’re on a first date and things get super awkward, you can at least look up and comment on something together, instead of each disappearing into your phones.”

Jaboukie Young-WhiteIllustration by João Fazenda

Young-White has thought a lot about cell phones, dating, and New York, in part because he stars in a movie called “Dating & New York,” out this month, a traditional rom-com refreshed for the swipe-right era. The writer and director, Jonah Feingold, was born in the nineties, as were most of the cast members, including Young-White, who is twenty-seven. “The Internet matured as we were maturing,” he said. “We did a lot of comparing notes, on set, about the little etiquettes and mores that you naturally learn when your whole life is mediated through a phone. The right way to punctuate a text, things like that.” Once, as a New Year’s resolution, Young-White turned on read receipts, which notify the people you’re texting with when you’ve seen their messages. “The idea was, this will make me more accountable, so I won’t keep forgetting to respond,” he said. Instead, he forgot that the setting was on: when he let a conversation lag, it seemed like a snub. He said, “It was actually Bo”—the comedian Bo Burnham, another connoisseur of the ways in which the Internet is warping human relationships—“who told me my read receipts were on. He went, ‘I assumed it was a power move.’ ”

In 2017, when Young-White appeared on the “Tonight Show” for the first time, he opened with a joke about being ethnically ambiguous. “When I’m in Chicago, people just think that I’m half Black, half white,” he said. “When I’m in New York, people think that I’m Puerto Rican. But when I’m in CVS everyone thinks I’m stealing.” Later in the set, he referred to himself as queer, which was news to his parents. Milo, Young-White’s character in “Dating & New York,” is straight, an acting challenge that he referred to as a “reverse Chalamet.” (“It was really good,” he said of Timothée Chalamet’s performance in “Call Me by Your Name,” “but I have notes. I think he could have arched his back more.”) He continued, “Playing straight characters, I get to subtly comment on masculinity.” In one scene, Milo spots a stranger at a rooftop brunch and says, “I’m going to marry that woman.” Young-White said, “When we were shooting that, I had to be, like, ‘Please walk me through how this would work.’ I would never do that, and, even if I did, a huge wall would immediately come up: Is that person even gay?”

Young-White first garnered attention as a Twitter comedian, and his style is suited to the medium. “antivaxxers on here defending themselves like ‘if my child dies that’s my opinion,’ ” he tweeted in 2019. (He recently retweeted that one.) For a while, he was a kind of impressionist, changing his avatar photo and display name to impersonate a celebrity or a brand. One year, on Martin Luther King Day, he changed his display name to “FBI” and wrote “Just because we killed MLK doesn’t mean we can’t miss him.” Twitter briefly suspended him for this running gag, but, after his fans protested, his account was reinstated.

Young-White is now branching out as a writer, working with Issa Rae to develop an HBO show about queer gang members, but in his standup he often treats online etiquette the way Jerry Seinfeld treats breakfast snacks. (Speculating about how an Uber driver ends up with a 3.8 rating: “Like, are you murdering people?”) On “The Daily Show,” where Young-White serves as Senior Youth Correspondent, he has explained to Trevor Noah, a “vintage millennial,” why Trump’s tweets were too thirsty, and how to increase youth voter turnout. (“Can’t you just Postmates the election to me?”) These days, perhaps the most online-native aspect of Young-White’s Twitter presence is that he deletes almost all his tweets seconds after he posts them. “It can seem really dark,” he said of social media. “Like we’re all prisoners doing our little puppet shows for each other, just for the dopamine.” But he saw an upside to life under quarantine: “Everyone is finally admitting that they’re as addicted to their phones as I am. I’m, like, ‘Welcome to the party, guys.’ ” ♦


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