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A Conversation with Langston Kerman, the ‘Insecure’ Star and Slam Poet-Turned-Standup-Comic

Langston Kerman is an L.A.-based comedian who tours the country performing stand-up and is on the verge of starring in his own cable sitcom. But just five years ago, he was living in his mother’s basement in his hometown of Oak Park, Illinois, the exact place he vowed never to return to when he left to attend the University of Michigan. Armed with nothing but a degree in English, he went to work teaching poetry at his former high school, and later returned to college to get a MFA in the lucrative art of poetry.

It was during that time, however, that Kerman’s interest shifted from the written word to delivering jokes live onstage, where he delivers a routine of racially infused comedy, such as this bit he delivered on Comedy Central about Louis Farrakhan and the black bookstore in his neighborhood. All of which helped him score a role on the first season of the critically-acclaimed HBO series Insecure as Jered, a non-college-educated Angeleno who identifies as straight, but gets dumped after he admits to having received a blowjob from a man once.

A couple of weeks ago, Kerman stopped by our podcast studio for the latest episode of the MEL Conversation, where he spoke about the controversies surrounding Insecure, outrage culture, discovering poetry and spoken word as a teenager, toughness, race in Hollywood, writing jokes for Chris Rock, having a father who was an outspoken socialist and balancing being an athlete and an artist growing up.

Below is the link to the episode on SoundCloud — you can listen to it on iTunes here — as well as a full-length transcript of our discussion (which has been edited for length and clarity).

Now is probably as good a time as any to mention that we grew up in the same Chicago suburb, Oak Park, and that we went to high school together. What was it like when you found yourself living back there after college?
I mean, it was the last thing I wanted in the world. But I ended up back in my mother’s basement, against my best wishes and against all the promises that I made to her angrily when I was leaving the house for college. It was terrible. I taught for a year at our high school, basically teaching poetry classes to English students.

What was so bad about it? Was it simply that you were worried about being the guy who never made it out?
A lot of times, there’s a shame in going back to your hometown and starting over, because it’s a shitty place that no one was supposed to be in the first place. But Oak Park is a beautiful and diverse place where a lot of people aspire to raise their kids. So being able to go back should come with some pride. But it didn’t, just because I had very different aspirations than what a small suburb could offer.

I wanted to create something for myself. I’ve been a contrarian my entire life, and there’s something to not wanting to repeat the patterns of the adults before me. That alone was enough motivation for me to be like, “Fuck this, I want to be elsewhere.”

But then you ended up living in your mom’s basement.
I was a scrub. I was what TLC sang about; I was not the coolest guy. But with the right person, it can help motivate you to do everything beyond that. So it drove me. It made me feel like, “Look, you got a year, dude. Figure your situation out. Be it poetry, comedy or begging on the street. You can’t be here in 12 months.”

How did you end up there in the first place? What were the circumstances?
I think I leaned very hard on a system. This is something I’ve debated with people in the past, but college is a system. It introduces an idea that if you go to school, follow all of the rules, get good grades and reach out to the right people, you will get a job. But the reality was that I graduated in 2009 when the failures of the economy really took form. I’d followed all the rules and gotten the good grades, but there wasn’t anything for me at the edge of whatever I thought I wanted to do.

Which was?
At the time, I thought I wanted to go into creative advertising, because it would allow me to write and be funny, but not necessarily be a traditional desk job.

A happy medium between a creative career and a real career.
Yeah, with a consistent paycheck. Then I tried it, and it was soul-sucking and not at all what I wanted. And so teaching, which I’d done part-time throughout college and even a little in high school, was the next best thing.

How did you like teaching? Did you like being on the other side?
Oh, I love teaching. I miss the kids every day. I’ve taught in various forms for about seven years collectively, and there’s no part of it that I don’t miss. On the other hand, it was a complete soul-suck for everything I wanted to do with my life. So I’m building these beautiful relationships and inspiring somebody to be able to figure out their shit, and all the while, I’m not being funny. You’re literally stealing jokes from me because I’m spending my hours grading your essays and helping you figure your life out. Something in me is very selfish and doesn’t want that part of me sucked away.

I don’t know if this was your experience, but our high school gave me a skewed vision of what the world was like, specifically in terms of race. Basically, I thought the world was a lot less racist than I’d come to believe when I went go off to college.
That wasn’t my experience. But I had two parents who worked hard to help me understand. Also, being black just takes some of that away from you. But my dad is a white dude, a Jew who practices socialism and who is actively selling socialist newspapers on the weekends to introduce principles and ideas that are separate from what the standard American dream is. Like, it wasn’t a rule in the house, but it was kind of understood that I wasn’t supposed to stand for the national anthem in high school. We would go to games, and he wouldn’t stand. So I wouldn’t stand because he wasn’t standing.

What about when you played on the high school basketball team?
I did when we played because our coaches were mean and I didn’t want to get yelled at. But I remember having a long talk with Coach Maloney one year because he saw me not standing at one of the games I wasn’t playing in and he wanted to understand why and convince me otherwise. I don’t know that I was articulate enough at the time to help him understand the perspective I was coming from, but I do remember him being genuine in his stance on the whole thing.

Yeah, he was a history teacher, and a very progressive one at that.
But as callous as he could be on the basketball court, he wasn’t coming at it from a direction of “You’re an idiot — you better stand up or you’ll have problems with me.” It was more like, “What are you doing?” And me saying, “Look, this is what I know…” A lot of the principles that are asked from us are more traditional than an actual belief. If we’re really standing for the national anthem, it should reflect the beliefs of the people — that they actually believe in these freedoms and the rights of everyone. Instead, it’s, “These people said we’re supposed to stand, so we should stand.”

Coach Maloney was famously intense, but that seemed to resonate with you. Why?
I don’t know. I guess it was something opposite of what I knew. My dad isn’t that guy at all. My dad is a very kind, soft-spoken man who doesn’t yell. He doesn’t get furious at anything, at least outwardly, so maybe it was just wanting that kind of man in my life. Maybe it was because I had coaches who were sort of like that before, and that triggered something familiar. I don’t have some brilliant explanation for it, but it was like, “I get this.” And it worked.

It was something that by today’s standards might be considered inappropriate — socially and in a broader context.
I don’t want to end up being one of those guys who’s like, “It was better when we could beat the kids.” That’s gross. But I think we’ve reached a very gentle place in society where there’s real fear about yelling at a 14-year-old boy, and there shouldn’t be. Fourteen-year-old boys deserve to be yelled at. I yelled at them as a profession, and they needed it. That doesn’t mean you should abuse your power, and it definitely doesn’t mean you should abuse kids. But, for a lack of better words, there’s something animalistic in us, and part of the way we communicate is through these animal-based principles. Again, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t apply human logic to these choices, but sometimes you just gotta yell at somebody, and maybe, that will help them understand things differently.

There does seem to be an element of toughness that’s been lost.
People don’t want to be animals. But animals probably do the most woke shit.

What do you mean?
I read something the other day where two male lions decided to have sex with each other, because they were the least powerful in their pride. They were just like, “You’re hot; I’m hot. Let’s do this together!” There wasn’t then a reaction from the lionesses like, “This doesn’t belong in our society; this isn’t how we’ve done it for 100 years.” They just do it because, “This feels good, and I don’t have anyone else to fuck.” Humans want to coach that into us, right? That’s part of the way we live — that we have to make everyone okay with men having sex with men or women having sex with women, and preference and all that stuff. Animals just figure it out because they figure it out; they don’t add human narratives to everything to make it a rule.

In Insecure, you play a character who isn’t unintelligent, but who’s uneducated and didn’t go to college. You are, I would argue, almost overeducated. You got your MFA in poetry.
I’m over-something. I don’t know if it’s educated, but I certainly went past the choices I should’ve made. I think my choice to go back for my MFA was in part because I wanted to leave Oak Park and figure out the next steps. And I knew that if I was going to go back to school, I didn’t want to go for something I didn’t care about. I’d also figured out that with the masters, I could teach somewhere. I thought, Maybe I’ll end up being a teacher; I’m already doing it anyway. Then I’ll write on the side. Or: Maybe I’ll be a poetry teacher. I could live off of that. So I had a few solutions I knew an MFA could provide.

But did the thought ever enter your mind to do something more stable? Like law or business?
Nah.

You never had a single moment of doubt?
Not at all. I don’t think I knew at that point that I wanted to be an entertainer, but I had a little bit of confidence in myself to see that whatever I was doing for myself as far as art was going to be enough to feed me. I didn’t know it was going to be comedy. I’d started comedy by that point, but the ego was still telling me that this was a hobby. Because you don’t want to say, “This will be my career,” and then feel embarrassed when it’s not.

Were you nervous the first time you were doing comedy?
I’m nervous now! My friend Jack the other day described my personality as a dog in a white lady’s purse, and I think that’s pretty true — shaking a little bit, but also pretty comfortable. There’s no reason to be nervous; you’re in the best purse man! Chill! But nah.

How did you get over that?
Part of the way is that I live through that nervousness. And so, I don’t need to get over it. It’s good nervousness; it’s a rich energy pushing me forward as opposed to sitting back and being too cool and confident. That’s when I stop challenging myself. That’s probably why I liked Maloney. I was nervous for practice every day, and that made me want to work hard and challenge myself. If I’d had a coach who was too cool, I’d have just chilled.

Like other comedians, do you need external validation to feel successful?Honestly, I think the closest I’ve come to feeling successful is having a new joke that works — be it on stage, on paper or on a show where I’m riffing and something funny comes out. I’m not interested in the accolades of having people applauding online. I just dig creating more stuff, and then having people laugh at it. The thing is, that’s a very fleeting feeling. That’s part of where this sickness kicks in. It’s like, “I wrote a joke yesterday that I think is really funny. I can’t want to try it.” After I do, though, I feel this heroine-esque urge to write another joke and fix something else so that I can feel that same thrill again.

You were at the Emmys this year, which like all things in the Trump Era were a very political affair. Particularly, what did you think about everyone giving their anti-Trump tirade, but then Spicer being allowed to make light of everything he did in service of the Trump administration?Maybe this is where I become my combative or oppositional self, but I don’t believe them when they say they don’t like him in the first place. I think that a lot of what these people are saying are reflections of what they know to be moral goodnesses in the world.

So to clarify, you think that when they take a stance against Trump, it’s all virtue signaling and disingenuous?
I don’t even know that it’s strategic enough that I’d call it disingenuous. I think this is something a lot of people actively do — where they believe someone is gross, but at the root of them, they’re not willing to go against what they know to be wrong. In this particular case, these artists — and some of them are very talented, amazing people and probably great individuals — are going on stage and saying that Trump is bad and that we need to fix this country. But what actually in their life has changed? Or what are they willing to change in order to enact the change they’re calling for? Not a lot.

How did people interact with Spicer?
Kissing him! James Corden wasn’t the only one who gave him a kiss. James Corden was just the most famous one who gave him a kiss.

You saw people literally going up and kissing Sean Spicer?
I was literally watching people run up to him to take selfies and hug him, because it’s exciting, because he’s here and because someone else in the room validated their reaction as okay. They saw Stephen Colbert give him a high-five, and therefore, they wanted to give him a high five. They saw James Corden give him a kiss, and suddenly, they wanted to give him a kiss.

But that’s the thing about being black in America — it’s that we don’t have the option to ever feel comforted by white choices. Stephen Colbert bringing Sean Spicer out doesn’t make Sean Spicer okay to me. That’s always the way that we live. We have to make validation for ourselves. Then, at the point we decide to make validation for ourselves, we get ostracized, called monsters or told we’re doing something that’s horrific to the country because we aren’t following white principles. It’s a complicated mousetrap of bullshit.

And yet at the same time, these Emmys were seen as a big step forward for black performers. Donald Glover, for example, was the first black director to ever win for a series.
Yeah, and he’s dope. But what the fuck does that award mean in terms of the transformation of the day-to-day? It doesn’t affect healthcare. It doesn’t support the working class. It supports a man who very much deserved to be awarded for his hard work and cool art. But it doesn’t change the way that people interpret the day. It’s that whole Obama bullshit, where they’re like, “We have a black president, so racism is done, right?” It’s like, yeah, Donald Glover deserves to be celebrated, but that doesn’t change shit for all of the hard-working individuals who aren’t being celebrated.

You don’t think that Donald Glover’s success has changed anything for you? You don’t think you’re auditioning for roles that may not have been available to you previously?
I think that Hollywood is entranced right now with the stories it wasn’t telling before. And that’s a beautiful thing — that [Insecure star] Issa [Rae] or Donald Glover can exist and not just some generic story where we’re getting the same black stereotypes over and over again. But sitting at the Emmys and looking at that audience… Dave Chappelle made the joke, “I think there’s 12 black people here tonight.” Me and my girl started counting, and we were like, “He’s not wrong; there aren’t that many of us.”

So that was an accurate figure?
It wasn’t that off. Then you start to look at who gets invited to some of these things, and it’s like, “You’re getting invited because you’re a celebrity of a certain stature, but you’re not that much more famous than these black celebrities of a certain stature who aren’t here tonight.” Now, maybe they made a choice not to come. Maybe there were invited and not able to be there. But something tells me they wanted me in that crowd versus this other person they didn’t need.

The perception, though, is that the Emmys were trying harder than ever to be inclusive.
And maybe they were, I don’t have any way of knowing that. But I do know from [writing for the 2016 Oscars] that the Straight Outta Compton kids weren’t invited to the ceremony. Their film was up for an award, but they themselves weren’t invited because they had no utility in that room. We had a fake Suge Knight who we invited to the Oscars, but the actual performers from the movie couldn’t go to the Oscars. Do you understand how ridiculous that is? Whereas every white performer who kind of was involved in something Oscar was there. That’s frustrating to see and that’s a reflection of what Hollywood is. But it’s like, “What’s my fight here? Am I going to boycott because that’s wrong? Or am I going to figure out a way to challenge it in the room and in the space?” I was torn. I think [host] Chris [Rock] especially was hit with a lot of people being like, “Man, you shouldn’t go.”

They wanted him to pull out of the show altogether?
Yeah. We were literally in the room writing, and Harry Belafonte called to tell him he didn’t want him to perform.

You witnessed the Harry Belafonte call?
Well, you know, Harry Belafonte is an important man. Chris had to take that call and politely listen and hear out what he was saying. And I don’t think Harry is wrong, but I also don’t think Chris is wrong. I think it’s just choices and making the right ones.

What was it like writing for someone like Chris Rock?
It was a great experience as far as being in the room with your hero. It also, though, was the most terrifying experience — being in the room with your hero. A friend of mine who was writing on the show that year as well said it best: “It’s a weird thing to be nervous for seven hours of your day.”

So Chris Rock is just in the room with you, judging your jokes and telling you which ones he likes?
Yeah. A classic Rock exchange would be like, “Hey Chris, what about this?” and he’d say, “Hmm, now it needs a joke.” You sit there and be like, “I’m gonna shut the fuck up for another three hours and hope that I come up with something that actually makes you laugh.”

I would curl up and say I can’t come into work the next day.
That’s the thing: We never had the option to quit. Nor did he have a superior who I could’ve gone to and said, “Mr. Rock was mean to me today, so you need to check him and have him show up with a better attitude. Otherwise, I’ll lose self-esteem.” Instead, I’d just show up every day, try to write my jokes and attempt to get one past him. And he’s a very nice man. I don’t mean to ever suggest that he was a dick or anything like that…

No, but I bet he has high standards.
For sure. He wrote 90 percent of that thing. We were there for what a lot of comedians tend to use, which is riffing in the room to see where other jokes can be tagged or built. But in his heart, he’s the one writing everything. And he should be — he’s the funniest one in the room, period.

Let’s talk about your most recent project — Insecure. That show was recently embroiled in controversy over the characters not using condoms when they have sex. Well, we don’t know that they weren’t using condoms, but they weren’t shown to be using condoms.
Issa talked about it. They made a point of putting torn condom wrappers in the room. But people aren’t seeing that. Instead, they decided, “We want to see you slowly put the condom on your penis so that we know that it’s being used.”

Can you even show that?
It’s HBO, I have no idea. [Laughs.] No, I don’t think even they’re allowed to show erect genitals of any kind. Even if you look at Game of Thrones and shit, everybody’s penis is pretty flaccid. But then we presume that they become erect magically when they’re inside the woman… I don’t know.

That’s how it works as far as I know.
I tend to get erect before I go inside. But I like that you wait until you’re in there to turn it up.

But what did you make of that controversy?
I think it’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. And I think it’s very much a reflection of people being bored on the internet and looking for something to complain about. It’s even more frustrating because they’re complaining about something that they like.

What do you mean?
They like Insecure. They’re watching the show every week. So they’re enjoying themselves. They’re loving this story. They can’t wait to find out what happens to Issa, Molly, Lawrence and all these people. Then afterwards, they go, “Did Lawrence wear a condom? You know what? I’m gonna write about it.” It’s obnoxious. Just have fun.

But where does it come from? Are these complaints ever legitimate? Or are they all manufactured cynical bullshit?
A lot of it is cynicism. A lot of it is the existence of too many platforms — or at least too many voices within a platform. That’s part of the issue with Twitter: Everyone has the potential to be validated, and everybody’s thoughts aren’t valid. Some of them need to be private. That, of course, is an unfair thing to say, because who am I to decide who is valid and not valid? But in my heart of hearts, I think I’m a pretty good decision-maker, and I wish I could tell people, “Yo, you sound dumb, stop saying it.”

It was also a strange instance of people accusing a show like Insecure of not being progressive enough when it’s created by a black woman and all the main characters are black…
And that’s bullshit to me, too. Or at least not fair to me.

Not fair? That’s an interesting way to put it. What do you mean not fair?
I mean, I think she deserves to be able to make the show she wants to make without having someone question the quality of her art because of a minor detail. In the same way that if I write a joke that’s funny and effective and then somebody is like, “I think there should be a the instead of an a in that last sentence.” It’s like, “Fuck you!” That’s not the point. The point wasn’t about the condoms; the point was about the relationships — and the complexities of them and the challenges that come with being connected with the person and maybe wanting to be elsewhere. That’s what Insecure is digging into. It ain’t got shit to do with whether or not they took the extra two minutes to fumble through a wrapper and put something on his penis.

Do you ever consider the audience when you’re writing a joke?
No, fuck ‘em.

You don’t really mean that.
No, I really mean that. I genuinely will never write a joke because I think the audience wants this. I have in the past, as a younger comic trying to figure out comedy. But at the stage I’m at in my career, it absolutely has nothing to do with them. It’s something I’ve said before and I’ll say it again: I consider the audience my enemy. They’re somebody I’m trying to make peace with by offering my best thoughts and things I feel we can agree on. But it’s certainly not written with the intent of satisfying them. It’s written with the intent of satisfying me and forcing them to understand why this should be important to them, too.

Did I read correctly that both of your parents were married three times?
That’s a true thing.

You obviously have a lot of first hand experience to draw from then. What have you learned from your parents that you’re applying to your own life?
I don’t know if there’s a lot to learn from six collective marriages, but…

I’d argue that’s more than enough.
I think love is hard. And my dad married early — this was before I was born. He married someone and got divorced. Then he met my mother. That was his second marriage and her first. They were together for some time. My dad was a work-focused person who wasn’t great at connecting at home, and my mother wasn’t cool with that. That’s part of why they split. I think I internalize a lot of that and never wanted to end up like my dad, where I spent all my time in my passions and not making someone feel good. So that was the biggest takeaway I got from my parents’ relationship. My dad’s third marriage is with someone who I don’t get along with very well, but it’s someone who he found a life with in a way that isn’t a life that I would ever want for myself but…

What do you mean by that?
He found somebody that needed him in the same way that he needed her. I don’t think it’s a relationship rich in love. I don’t think they give a shit about each other in a love sense. But I think it’s like having a roommate. You need your roommate, and those bills gotta get paid. Plus, you have a kid together — not me, my younger brother. And you and your roommate have a cat. You can’t decide what to do with that cat, so you’ll just keep living together until the cat is gone. Then you’ll probably keep living together because you could talk about the cat.

That actually brings me back to Insecure. One of the most interesting parts of the show is that there’s… Maybe power balance is too strong, but there’s a difference in professional success between two people in a relationship, and all the anxiety that can cause. I mean, your girlfriend, from what I understand, is very professionally successful. Is that something you sought out?
No, I’ve dated artists. The only people that I’ve ever eliminated from my potential dating world is other comics. I can’t date a comedian.

Why?
It’s just too much.

Comedians love hating on other comedians.
I don’t think it’s even hating on them. It’s just like, what are we going to talk about? Are we going to talk about comedy 24/7? I mean, I don’t want that. I want to talk about regular day stuff. My girlfriend comes home, and she tells me about trust funds and weird accounts she’s working on. And that’s dope. I’m the funny one in the relationship, and I love it. It’s great. My girlfriend isn’t funny at all. I tell her all the time: “Your jokes suck, and I love you for it.”