The Black Version, LA’s best kept secret for outrageous laughter for all colors of people will premiere their latest incarnation May 6, 2017 at Largo. Since debuting at The Groundlings Theater in 2010, this all African-American cast has had audiences rolling in the aisles hysterically reacting to their ‘black version’ of popular, typically non-black films.
Better Lemons and I had the opportune chance to chat with the creator of The Black Version Jordan Black.
Thank you, Jordan for taking time out of your crazy, busy schedule.
What specific comment or phrase uttered gave you the inspiration to create your group The Black Version in 2010?
I was literally thinking that we could do a long-form improv show based on a popular movie. Since we would have an all-black cast, we could just do the black version of it. That’s how the idea came to me. Just from trying to think of a long-form concept for an improv show.
Were a lot of The Black Version’s charter members from The Groundlings?
No. In the first show, there were seven of us (including original members Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) and only three of us – myself, Phil (LaMarr) and Daniele (Gaither) are Groundlings alum.
When did you originally join The Groundlings?
I was invited to join in 2000.
So, the conceit of The Black Version is your actors, on the spot, improv a movie suggested by an audience member. What film that you spoofed has received the most enthusiastic, most craziest audience reaction?
We have done so many over the seven years that we’ve been doing the show that I can’t recall. Most shows go over very well. Some of my personal favorites were some of our earliest shows: Titanic, Back to the Future, The Matrix.
Your actors must be film fanatics to know all the characters and plotlines of thousands of popular flicks. Has there ever been a film title that was picked that unbeknownst to most of the cast, one of you had no clue of the film?
Actually, not everyone is. Gary (Anthony Williams), for instance, has not seen most of the films that we’ve done. We’ve learned that as long as our director, Karen (Maruyama), knows the movie well (and she knows just about every popular film backward and forward), then all the rest of us have to do is follow her instructions. When you do know the movie, it can be helpful because you can reference things that the audience will be familiar with. But sometimes you can know it too well, and it can handcuff you a bit.
Do you all have ‘safety words’ when one of you needs help in a particular scene they’re unfamiliar with?
No. We just take whatever is offered and work it into the scene. It’s “our” version so we don’t have to be true to the original. We can be as close or as far away from the original as we choose. The original is more of a template that we can use in any way we choose.
Describe a typical rehearsal before a performance. Or would it be more of a warm-up session?
We have never rehearsed the show. We do have a musical warm-up with the band before every show.
Is there any topics that you would deem ‘off-limits’ to in regards to getting a laugh out of it?
No. It’s really up to the individual performer to find that line for themselves. The audience will always let you know where their line is. And different audiences have different lines and you learn where it is pretty early into a show.
Many have said that the 1970’s hit series All In The Family could never be green-lighted today. What’s your take on that thought?
I’d never say never, but I think it would be difficult. In this social media era, it seems that so many things are deemed offensive without first looking at the context.
You wrote on 20 episodes of Saturday Night Live in their 2003-04 season. Tell us the best thing you learnt from that experience.
That if you cast the right person in a scene, your writing doesn’t matter as much.
What was the most memorable incident that occurred while you were there on SNL?
Looking back, I’d have to say working with Donald Trump, the first time he hosted. Quite memorable.
Hmmmm!!! So, do you remember your job interview or audition for writer on Saturday Night Live?
Yes. I was flown out to New York (for the second time in three years). I had two auditions in two days and got the invitation a few days later to come and write for the show.
What gives you more satisfaction – performing yourself or seeing someone else performing your words on stage or on film?
It used to be performing myself. But as I get older, I find writing and directing to be more and more satisfying.
You must have to ‘time’ your jokes out differently for performing stand-up vs. TV or film with no instant feedback. Do you note a different ‘timing’ when you write for live vs. TV or film?
I suppose, to a degree. With live sketch writing, you are writing for the audience in the room and specifically writing things that you think will work for that live audience. With TV or film, it’s story first; then you work to find the comedy that you believe will translate onscreen later.
In 2013, you directed the TV series Ask A Slave. What made you say, “But what I really want to do is direct”?
I was asked to direct it by the writer and I thought, “Why not?” It turned out to be extremely rewarding. It was my first directing gig. Since then, I’ve directed several webseries including the award-winning Go Go Boy Interrupted.
Would you name some current TV or film or commercials we can see some of The Black Version members?
Cedric Yarbrough stars on the ABC show Speechless. I’m on Return of the Mac, a new sitcom on Pop TV. Daniele Gaither is on The Thundermans on Nickelodeon. Phil LaMarr is recurring on Veep on HBO. Gary Anthony Williams is in the new Netflix feature I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore. Nyima Funk is featured this season on Teachers on TV Land.
What is your primary mission of The Black Version – to teach or to entertainment?
My motto is always to make them laugh first and think second. Because if they don’t laugh, then you’re just lecturing. And nobody wants that.
What film has never been suggested that you would just love to do The Black Version of?
Any Barbra Streisand movie – The Prince of Tides, Yentl, A Star is Born, Funny Girl. (I’m a fan!)
Thank you, Jordan! I look forward to laughing my ass off at your show on May 6 at Largo!
For available tickets and further info, log onto TheBlackVersion.com