A few months ago, I was invited to join a panel discussion on race, police brutality, and the various ways anti-Blackness permeates within the Black community for a new sketch comedy web-series, BOK TV.
Those being such heavy topics, it was fascinating to see how those conversations can happen productively within the medium of comedy, and it illuminated just how satire can shine a light on serious topics in necessary ways.
I spoke with creator Alex Ubokudom about satire’s place in social activism, the complication of capitalism in socially conscious art, and where BOK TV plans to take us from here.
Hari: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. Really excited to discuss this project of yours!
Alex: Thank you for being willing to interview me and for participating on the panel. I’m so honored to have worked with you and Racebaitr. Funny side note: I think I pronounced it Race-bait-R (like the letter R) when I first met you. I was pretty embarrassed after I realized the true pronunciation. Not so smart comedy after all, haha!
H: Or maybe not as clever spelling as I thought – haha. I want to start by discussing how you describe yourself as an actor/writer/satirist. When did you know this was your craft and why satire specifically?
A: You know, I actually trained at a conservatory called the American Conservatory Theater as a classical actor, so the foundation of my artistry comes from that training; but I started taking sketch and Improv class through the Upright Citizens Brigade when I moved to NYC.
I learned quickly that all of my sketches usually had a political slant, which wasn’t a surprise because I’ve always been a political junkie. Like, if you talk to me for an extended period of time there are two things you can expect: that I will make a series of jokes and that I will push the convo somehow into the sociopolitical realm, so it makes sense that my work would follow suit.
I guess satire gives me an opportunity to create a discourse while entertaining, two of my favorite things to do. You’ll also find me in somebody else’s movie or play at any given time.
H: In the first clip that’s available now, you pretty humorously tackle the topics of celebrity worship and media bias as exemplified in football. You’re forward in linking this to the nature of capitalism and how profit trumps almost everything else.
But capitalism affects all of our work. How do you challenge the way your art is profitized for BokTV and beyond? What advice would you give to younger artists feeling similar pressures? And how might you respond to those who hear words like “crazy” in your work and see that as perpetuating oppressive ways of thinking about the disabled similar to what you say you want to work against?
A: I’m stealing this from a Dave Chappelle interview when he recounts his father’s advice upon hearing that Dave was going to try his hand at show business. The advice his father gave him was to, and I’m paraphrasing of course, “know your price, and if it ever gets too high – get out”. That’s the way I try to look at everything.
I have a strong sense of who I am, what I value, and the contributions that I want to make to society. If any endeavor risks the compromising of any of those things than the price is too high. That’s not to say it’s always an easy or even obvious decision. But, one of my teachers once told me that actors (entertainers) are giving a service. If the work that I’m making is only serving a few shareholders and myself then I’ve failed in fulfilling my duties.
I wasn’t thrilled about the name of the first clip either but didn’t even think about the hurtful implication until now. I’m trying to find the line between using pedestrian colloquialisms and contributing to uplifting consciousness. I do indeed have a lot to learn.
H: We all do. I think it’s commendably you’re unafraid to use your art to comment on social issues. Why do you feel this is your responsibility?
A: Because I hope that I am honest, truthful, and not arrogant enough to assume that I know the answers. I really want to find a way to create a space where people can learn and exchange. There are so many forces that are actively trying to sway people’s perceptions and I think it’s one of the main reasons why our society is so dysfunctional. It’s like the propaganda of the Third Reich, but it’s corporate influenced as opposed to coming from the government. I want to contribute to a space where people are encouraged to use their own minds and form their own opinions.
H: I find satire fascinating. One of my favorite books was Animal Farm because of how effectively I think it uses the genre.
At the same time, I struggle with how satire is often a digestible way to deal uncomfortable shit. Maybe digesting it easily and more comfortably is part of the problem, I feel sometimes. And this isn’t just limited to satire, but all art dealing with real social issues.
How would you say this issue is tackled in your work?
A: Haha. As I type this response, think pieces abound about Kendrick’s Grammys performance and if I see another piece about Beyoncé’s activism or faux-activism, I promise to stay off social media for a month. I think that’s the danger of commercial influence, it defangs things like satire and even journalism. Can something truly be radical if multinational forces back it? I sure the hell hope so! Jk lol.
This is an interesting question of which I’ve thought a lot about. Some of it has to do with context. One can argue that Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, and their crew are only here to pacify the privileged liberal through political comedy. But it would be hard to argue that satirical voices like Egypt’s Bassem Youssef, who was jailed several times by different Egyptian regimes for doing his show, are not radical voices in their own respective contexts.
Ultimately, I went to school to be a performer so my instinct is to perform before protest. But as long as I am pushing the envelope, as long as I am giving voice to perspectives that have otherwise been silenced then I think the work is worthwhile. I would also say that social satire has its place, but there is also a time for lobbying and protest and even civil disobedience. I am a citizen of this world that the creator made before I am anything else.
H: I had the pleasure of shooting a round-table segment with you on race along with the amazing minds that are Yulan Grant and George Twopointoh.
We touched on some pretty serious issues that have a very different, more serious feel than what is available so far from you.
Do you worry about how tackling these issues might affect the consistency of your tone? I’m curious (and excited!) to see how that segment turns out in the grand scheme of what you’re trying to do.
A: Not at all. I’m doing an experiment to tell you the truth. I hate applause line techniques that are implored on these round table shows. This thing where people say points so people applaud in the audience or write a piece with the headline “Bernie Backer OWNS Fox News Panelist”. It creates a discourse that lends itself to heated arguments and preaching to the choir.
BOK TV round table is meant to facilitate discussion in a way where people can disagree but don’t feel the need to do so in an attempt to win anyone over. I think people are actually craving that type of discussion, where you can leave with a more enlightened perspective. A discussion where we all learn something as opposed to one where we all leave feeling like we are vindicated. It’s also packaged in a way to maintain the entertainment value. I think it might be some new shit!!
H: One of the hardest parts about discussing something like race in the public sphere is that everybody is coming from a different place, so it’s hard to talk to them all at the same time.
I truly believe that white people need to be having different conversations about race than the ones Black folks have, for instance, because we are situated differently within it.
That said, do you have a specific audience in mind for these sketches?
A: This space comes from me – a millennial man who was born to two Nigerian immigrants and grew up in Detroit, Michigan. It’s a very black space lol. Doesn’t mean you have to be black to be down with us, you just gotta fuck with blackness. Our audience is Black Twitter.
I think Black Twitter is one of the greatest media phenomena of the 21st Century. It’s smart. It’s creative. It’s ratchet. It’s unpredictable. And most of all, it dictates what content is worth being celebrated. There’s no gatekeeper that tells Black Twitter what the hottest album of the year is or who’s the hottest artist out or even who won or lost the debate. The market is in complete control. It’s totally antithetical to the classic media models where the institutions assign worth. It’s truly the free market.
H: What can we expect from you and the show in the future, and where can we find it?
A: You can subscribe to our YouTube BOK TV channel or Like/Follow us on Instagram (@weareboktv), Facebook, and Twitter . Right now, you can check out our NFL parody sketch which is quite aproppo with the Peyton Manning scandal that just surfaced. But, we will be launching the whole first episode February 24 that will all be on YouTube. The first episode includes more sketches, a round table discussion with you, Hari Ziyad, monologues, and much more.
H: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Just want to thank you again and to thank everyone who has already subscribed and supported. BOK TV is out to be the next big thang!!!
Alex Ubokudom is an actor, satirist, and the resident Michael Jackson Historian for all of Kings County. Alex received half of his tutelage on the mean middle-class streets of Southfield, MI where he had to memorize Tupac lyrics to impress his fellow Detroiters. His formal schooling came from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and The American Conservatory Theater – don’t get it twisted, the brother is classically trained. He is a proud first generation Nigerian-American, as his family is of the Annang people