One on One With Jordan Carlos

East Side Monthly Magazine ·

On June 1, Jordan Carlos kicks off his New England tour with a night at Comedy Connection. You may recognize him as Stephen Colbert’s “one black friend” (back when the character “Stephen Colbert” was an arch-conservative staging gravitas-offs with Stone Phillips), or as the star of MTV’s I Just Want My Pants Back, depending on your comedic preferences. He wrote for The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore; his various on-screen appearances for the show involved everything from debating punishment for sex offenders with Christiane Amanpour to nervously downing a bottle of Pepto Bismol. He spent the Obama years as College Humor’s go-to presidential impersonator and just performed at Samantha Bee’s Not the White House Correspondent’s Dinner.

Jordan’s June 1 show will be his first in Rhode Island, if you don’t count his performances with Improvidence, Brown’s improv troupe. “I thought that was the farthest I’d ever go in comedy,” he says. “It was the best audition I ever had.” His stand-up career started in his undergrad years at Brown during summers in New York City; his first performance was for the benefit of four people, all his friends. To succeed at comedy, he says, “I always think that you have to have that mix of a bit of stupidity and also some confidence, too, that helps you say, why not me?

Jordan moved to New York after college and worked in advertising to support his evening stand-up habit. “Then I quit my day job like an idiot, then I was broke for a long time, then I started doing [MTV2’s] Guy Code and Girl Code, then finally I got The Nightly Show for two years.” He just sold and will soon premiere a new show, Headliners, which will feature comedians “chopping up the stories of the week.”

Jordan came to Brown from what he calls the “exact opposite of Rhode Island”: Texas, the second largest state in the U.S. But “there was something about Rhode Island that made me fall in love with it.” Mayor Buddy Cianci was then Prince of Providence, a larger-than-life politician the likes of which Jordan had never encountered in Dallas. “I didn’t really know much about New England,” he says, and the “slew of characters was fascinating to me.” The commercials of the Cardi brothers, of Cardi’s Furniture & Mattresses, in particular “really blew me away,” as did the “funny names of towns: Seekonk, Pocasset.” The TV in his dorm ran constant reports that always seemed to involve “some guy from Fall River.”

Along with the haunting blue screen work of the Cardi brothers, the skills Jordan honed in Improvidence, he says, have stayed with him. “Whenever I’m doing stand-up before a show, the best moments are when you’re done with your material and you’ve got the crowd going so well that you can mess with them or riff and then you’re totally in the moment.” It’s like “riding the wave,” he says, “a feeling of being completely one with the audience. It’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on.” So has he performed naked? “Once I performed in my underwear,” he recalls. “But that was a long time ago.”

Jordan returned to the Ocean State last month to talk to a group of Brown students about building a career in comedy. Reflecting on his stint in advertising in pursuit of his comedic dreams, he told them to “be patient with what you wanna do,” he says, “but take yourself seriously. Let rejection be your friend. You can learn from it and whatever you do in the meantime is not a life sentence.”

His Obama impression newly obsolete (or at least on vacation), Jordan continues to adapt to the political times. He recently spoke with fellow comedian Hari Kondabolu at the Brooklyn Historical Society in New York in a public conversation about privilege of all kinds. Kondabolu, the co-host of the progressive podcast Politically Reactive with comedian W. Kamau Bell and a former immigrants rights organizer, is a straightforwardly political comedian. Jordan’s relationship to the topic is a little more qualified: “I like making jokes about politics but I don’t really think of myself as a political comedian,” Jordan says of his own work, though his and Hari’s conversation went deep on “what our privileges are” in terms of race, sex and gender. As a comedian, Jordan says, “you gotta be like a Swiss Army Knife,” ready to joke about a new topic every day, depending on current events.

“If tomorrow I got a job writing for some show that had nothing to do with politics, I would do it,” he says. But “I think pop culture has taken a backseat to politics these days because Trump has made pop culture politics,” and politics now “has that energy that you get when talking about pop culture. I feel compelled to talk about it, joke about it. This is what comedy is all about. Laugh to keep from crying to negotiate reality.”

And speaking of Trump, his name comes up again when the conversation turns to Jordan’s membership in an exclusive and enviable clique: the cast of Nickelback’s “Rockstar” video, which features Eliza Dushku, Kid Rock, and Chuck Liddell and reeks of the early 2000s. “This is what Donald Trump is talking about,” groans Jordan. “I also did the Sam Bee roast but no one wants to talk about that.” He grudgingly explains: “My buddy directed that video; I was desperate to get on camera. It became some functioning zombie that would not go away.”

Jordan’s star has risen since he was desperate for two seconds of lip-synching: he has a full plate of stand-up, an active Twitter feed, the Samantha Bee dinner under his belt, the new TV show… Is this what it means to be a comedian these days? Or does he naturally gravitate toward occupying as many platforms as possible?

It’s not a natural instinct toward hyperactivity, Jordan says: “I’m so lazy I wouldn’t do anything.” This is what successful comedy looks like in 2017. “You gotta be the king of screens; you have to be vying for people’s attention in this industry. Talent is one thing but you also have to market yourself.” His five years in advertising trained him on the essential self-marketing tactics: “Repetition of message, getting your point across, churning out a lot of ideas and knowing that if somebody has a parallel idea that you have, that doesn’t mean you won’t come up with another joke or idea.” And despite the stress of reminding your audience day after day that you exist, the work fits Jordan to a T. “It’s my job to be creative every day,” he says, happily. “And I love it.”

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