In a summer filled with harrowing headlines, Dad’s Garage improv performer and writer Mark Kendall’s brand-new YouTube comedy sketch, “If MARTA Came to Cobb County” has become a welcome respite in Atlanta social media news feeds this week. The hilarious sketch, set in an alternate reality Cobb County (one where residents finally voted to approve MARTA train service), five Atlanta burglars are about to hop on a train to knock over a Peloton bike and Chobani yogurt stuffed suburban McMansion. On Thursday, the YouTube video had already generated more than 2800 views.
The sketch is a brilliant example of what the 33-year-old native Atlantan does best — making us laugh at ourselves while planting a seed for self-examination and, just possibly, providing an entry point for dialogues on race. The sketch will have its official debut Thursday night just before a special screening of Kendall’s one-man show, “The Magic Negro and Other Blackness” on the Dad’s Garage Twitch page. After Thursday night’s live stream, viewers can go to the Dad’s Garage website where you can purchase a private link for $5 with the proceeds going to Black Lives Matter.
The archival performance of Kendall’s show was shot in 2016 at Rapid Fire Theatre in Canada. In 2017, a revised version of “The Magic Negro” played to packed houses on the Alliance Theatre Hertz Stage.
In a week filled with headlines about Atlanta police officers being charged with murder and aggravated assault in the killing of Rayshard Brooks, the NFL reversing its stance on kneeling, NASCAR banning Confederate flags and even Aunt Jemima getting cancelled, Kendall’s comedy feels more important and timely than ever. He spoke to us Wednesday afternoon by phone.
Q: What inspired you to film your now-iconic “If MARTA Came to Cobb County” sketch and fill it out with other actors?
A: I had worked with [director and filmmaker] Bill Worley last year on a show and we had discussed shooting a bunch of sketches together. The MARTA sketch was the first one we shot in March and less than two weeks later, quarantine started. We had it finished but I was unsure about when to release it. When I decided to do the streaming event for Dad’s Garage and Black Lives Matter, I decided the time was right to play it before the show.
Q: What is it about this piece that resonates with Atlantans?
A: Probably the specificity of it. Some common feedback I get from that piece is people telling me, “This is what I’ve been trying to tell my friends in Cobb County!” or “This is what we’ve been dealing with.” It’s a silly way to articulate what people try to explain logically. We’re explaining it, but in an absurd way.
Q: For locals who have watched the evolution of this sketch from Dad’s Garage to the Alliance Theatre to this new filmed version, there are some new surprises awaiting. How did the very funny references to the Vanessa Hudgens Netflex film “The Princess Switch” end up in this version?
A: [laughing] I have watched that movie multiple times, no joke. That entire rant is what I think about the movie. The way it made it into the sketch was this was a piece I’ve been doing now for years and this was a way to keep it interesting for myself. It was just an adlib that I had worked into the sketch at that time. Plus, I really love rom-coms.
Q: Can you tell us about Rickey Boynton, André Jarboe II, Anthony Jeremiah Nash and Josiah Edwards, the very funny gentlemen who appear in the sketch with you?
A: I’ve done improv with Ricky for years. I love him so much. Josiah is a guy I taught in an improv class last summer who is super talented. Anthony was in “Wrath of Con 2” at Dad’s Garage and I was really impressed with him in that. André is an actor and improviser in the Atlanta scene who is very talented. My only regret is we couldn’t use all of the outtakes of the banter of all of us going back and forth. Otherwise, it would have been a 30-minute sketch.
Q: What can you tell us about the 2016 version of “The Magic Negro” that streams tonight on Twitch benefitting Black Lives Matter?
A: It’s a performance filmed in Canada so one of the reasons we’re showing the MARTA sketch before is because it’s so specific to Atlanta, I didn’t perform it in Canada. We shot it at Rapid Fire Theatre’s improv festival in Edmonton, Alberta. Honestly, it wasn’t even really filmed for an audience but more as a way for me to give theatres an idea of what the show was. There are sketches in this version of the show that I don’t do anymore and jokes that have evolved quite a bit. It’s a filmed version of where the show was in its development at the time.
Q: So much of your work speaks to these times. Are you too busy processing the news or are you able to write right now?
A: Both, truthfully. With sketch comedy, improv and stand up, you can have fully fleshed out ideas and put them together quickly. But at the same time, those ideas have the capacity to evolve and change. Take “The Magic Negro” as an example. There are ways I phrased jokes in 2016 that I don’t do anymore. It’s not because it was terrible, it’s because my thought process has evolved. I’ve also evolved as a person and experienced changes. But while I might be inspired to put stuff out right now, my normal routine has been altered, due to the pandemic. My normal routine is, you go through life every day, you write stuff down and then you go up and try it in front of an audience to see if it works. I can still write things but I can’t see the expressions on peoples’ faces when I deliver it. It’s definitely a weird time. I miss performing. At the same time, this has allowed me to reconnect with the writer side of me.
Q: What might your next show look like?
A: The show I’m developing right now has a working title of “Diversity Now!” I play a fictional version of myself. In it, the company I work for has just made a racist faux pas and they realize they need to reexamine how they treat their black employees. So, as the only black employee at this large company, I’m tasked with teaching a diversity and inclusion seminar to the new black employees. For me, the show reflects how I feel a lot of times when there are discussions about diversity and inclusion. Prior to this current moment we’re in, those conversations have traditionally gone at the pace of white peoples’ understanding and comfort level. That requires black people to do most of the physical and emotional organizational labor to create those spaces. And so, this is meant to spoof those diversity and inclusion seminars. At least, that’s where it was last summer. Now, I’m trying to absorb everything that’s going on and then determine which direction it takes from here.
The 2016 version of Mark Kendall’s “The Magic Negro and Other Blackness” streams tonight at 8 p.m. on the Dad’s Garage Twitch TV page. For the next week, fans can go to dadsgarage.com and with a $5 donation to Black Lives Matter, receive a private screening link to watch at home. You can follow the writer and performer on Instagram on his official artist account.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.