Invitation to Laugh: Demi Adejuyigbe on Communal Comedy 

Demi Adejuyigbe on the set of his final September 21st video in Sept 2021. — Photographer… Demi Adejuyigbe
Demi Adejuyigbe on the set of his final September 21st video in Sept 2021. Photographer… Demi Adejuyigbe

As Jordan Peele’s new blockbuster Nope opens in cinemas, playwright Adesola Thomas has conversations with comedian, writer and Letterboxd personality Demi Adejuyigbe about Black joy in movie theaters, dinosaurs in the hood, and humane comedy.  

Most people online know comedy writer and Talking Heads fan Demi Adejuyigbe (The Amber Ruffin Show, The Good Place, Gilmore Guys podcast) for his September 21st donation-drive dance videos—and his mega-popular Letterboxd reviews on everything from obscure arthouse flicks to big budget studio thrillers. Adejuyigbe also makes hyperspecific, musically inspired Letterboxd lists like movies whose full title can be perfectly and comfortably sung to the rhythm and cadence of the ‘I know who I want to take me home’ part of “Closing Time.”

In addition to his word play and cinematic insights, Adejuyigbe is interested in using comedy to explore Blackness (among other things) outside of the macabre, traumatic category it is often reduced to. It’s the cartilage between characters that intrigues him, the overt yet unnamed brand of particularity that exists within a bit, or pools throughout the microbiome of a joke. 

It’s the way that Adejuyigbe values comedy—and entertainment on the whole—as this “tool to tether” that I set out to explore in a series of conversations over the past year, in which we dug into big screen comedies like Game Night, the sanctity of Black laughter, stressing out together at Jordan Peele films, and what he would make if he were given a bajillion production dollars tomorrow. 

Demi Adejuyigbe in his final September 21st video (2021). 
Demi Adejuyigbe in his final September 21st video (2021). 

Adejuyigbe’s undying love for carefully crafted comedy is evidenced by his recent obsession with the Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All at Once, an A24 film he has seen four times as of the publication of this story (and which is currently—still!—the highest-rated film of 2022 on Letterboxd). The film centers Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh hive rise), a woman whose life is upended when she learns to travel through the multiverse and harness skills that she possesses across timelines. 

In one of his four Letterboxd reviews of the film to date, Adejuyigbe writes:

“To me, this is kind of the prototypical example of what comedy can do—an idea that is inherently the silliest, most goofball of concepts, executed in the silliest, most goofball ways, leaving us disarmed and open enough that we are laughing at something, only to find ourselves saddened and emotional at the vulnerability on display in that same silly, goofball moment.”

The belief that levity or playfulness can precipitate vulnerability propels Adejuyigbe as a comedian and as a person. He leverages comedy to surprise, to humanize, to discover alongside his audience what it means to live a life. 

In our conversations, the first thing that stood out is his respect for fellow comedian friends. They include fellow Letterboxd members Ayo Edibiri (yes, of The Bear), Jaboukie Young-White, Biniam Bizuneh, along with Jordan Temple, Punkie Johnson and Sydnee Washington (Demi aspires to write a comedy for Johnson and Washington to co-star in). It’s clear he has a care for the sublime sense of community that can undergird both Black spaces and spaces dedicated to the cathartic craft of comedy.  

Sausage fingers (modeled by Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All at Once) are on the menu at Demi Adejuyigbe’s inevitable 2023 Oscar watch party. 
Sausage fingers (modeled by Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All at Once) are on the menu at Demi Adejuyigbe’s inevitable 2023 Oscar watch party. 

Community came up again on our most recent call, as Adejuyigbe and I brainstormed a menu of ostensible Everything Everywhere All at Once themed-snacks for his next Oscar watch party: everything everywhere à la mode (sorry lactose intolerant people); everything bagels peppered with googly eyes. I felt that I’d caught a glimpse of the arc of his personhood when he kept returning to his admiration for the Daniels’ collaborative approach. 

Often people assume masterful work has to be done alone. Everything Everywhere All at Once was an important reminder that that wasn’t the case. And I use ‘reminder’ here deliberately, because Adejuyigbe sees fruitful creative partnerships as the drawcard to filmmaking, not the allure of the proverbial “lonesome, auteur creative genius.” I’d like to think that he loves the Daniels’ touching, whimsical, weird movie because it leverages comedy the same way Adejuyigbe does: as an invitation. 

Joe Pera Talks You To Sleep (2016) has an average Letterboxd star rating of 4.3 out of five.
Joe Pera Talks You To Sleep (2016) has an average Letterboxd star rating of 4.3 out of five.

In our very first conversation, in April last year, Demi said the following about the craft of comedy when talking affectionately about Joe Pera: “It feels revolutionary to me when people are able to do comedy that doesn’t feel like it’s punching down at anything…. Comedy is so often telling people what not to do that when it’s supportive and heart-warming, it feels nicer.”

Black comedy is comedy that allows Blackness to shine in a positive light and makes it part of the world where it isn’t the punchline.

—⁠Demi Adejuyigbe

Comedy for Adejuyigbe does not seem to be about finding ‘the funny thing’ fast or cruelly or even in a sexy way. He is less interested in the frills of the sardonic, backbiting, sometimes delicious internet humor that has come to mark our collective moment. Rather it is about finding engaging ways to share a comical story with other people. It is the freedom to shape ‘the funny’ in a way that honors his own humanity and that of the people he creates with and for. 

Danez Smith, poet, performer and co-writer of the short film A Drop of Sun Under the Earth (2017).
Danez Smith, poet, performer and co-writer of the short film A Drop of Sun Under the Earth (2017).

When I asked him about his hopes for Black people in comedy and future portrayals of Black experiences, Adejuyigbe turned to Danez Smith’s illuminative poem, ‘Dinosaurs in the Hood’. The speaker in Smith’s poem yearns for Black characters in a make-believe film to experience a spectacular circumstance without having their own Blackness be the subject of spectacularization or voyeurism. The first verse suggests the opening scene:

Let’s make a movie called Dinosaurs in the Hood.
Jurassic Park meets Friday meets The Pursuit of Happyness.
There should be a scene where a little black boy is playing
with a toy dinosaur on the bus, then looks out the window
& sees the T. Rex, because there has to be a T. Rex.

There’s a caveat. The odyssey that the Black residents embark on to reclaim their territory from a terror of T. Rexes is meant to be fantastic, maybe even ridiculous, but not necessarily allegorical for any of the threats that Black people are forced to endure in real life. The dinosaurs won’t symbolize the prison industrial complex, racialized poverty, or another colossus of structural violence. They are just dinosaurs. 

Similarly, the Black residents are living, breathing people, or as Smith describes in his reverent language: 

This movie is about a neighborhood of royal folks —

children of slaves & immigrants & addicts & exiles — saving their town
from real-ass dinosaurs.

Arnold (Samuel L. Jackson) never did get his close-up with a dinosaur in Jurassic Park (1993). 
Arnold (Samuel L. Jackson) never did get his close-up with a dinosaur in Jurassic Park (1993). 

Over the course of our year-long conversations, highlights of which are excerpted below, I could feel Adejuyigbe’s desire to surprise, and to reimagine what comedy can feel like. These desires reflect Smith’s aspirations for the Black boy in ‘Dinosaurs in the Hood.’ The purpose of the fictional film is not to persuade audiences that these Black stories or people are legitimate (that there could be dinosaurs in the hood). Rather, it is an exaltation of the legitimacy that Black people can, have, and will perpetually ascribe to ourselves. 

To me, Adejuyigbe is the boy in Smith’s poem, an author and finisher of his own fate, “his eyes wide & endless/ his dreams possible, pulsing, & right there.” 

Demi Adejuyigbe in a Girls on Tops Céline Sciamma tee. Photo by Cheyenne Peerson, edited by Adesola Thomas.
Demi Adejuyigbe in a Girls on Tops Céline Sciamma tee. Photo by Cheyenne Peerson, edited by Adesola Thomas.

I love this theater in Atlanta called North Dekalb AMC 16. They show indie films, blockbusters, Bollywood, filmed theater events. There’s a hallway we affectionately call ‘murder hallway.’ The tickets are seven dollars, max. But my favorite thing about that theater’s culture is how comfortable Black people feel to exist there. Tell me about your relationship to camaraderie and the movie theater experience.
Demi Adejuyigbe: The theater is so important to me because it is a communal experience. As films go to streamers and stuff you’ll be able to see these films alone if you want. Going to the theater for the opening night of, like, a Marvel movie is exciting because as much as I’m a cynic, it’s about sitting there and watching people be excited. It’s a sporting match for all of these characters they care so much about. It’s kind of goofy but it’s also so special for people to care about this thing. 

There have been times I’ve walked into a theater to see a bad movie and I walk in and you can tell immediately that everyone knows it’s going to be a bad movie—and we’re about to have so much fucking fun. When they’re laughing at all the right things—that’s what you want from a communal theater experience! I don’t want to sit and watch Game Night at home alone, that’s just sad. 

“Moonfall feels good in a place like this,” writes Demi of seeing Roland Emmerich’s Moonfall, starring John Bradley, Patrick Wilson and Halle Berry, in a cinema with friends. 
Moonfall feels good in a place like this,” writes Demi of seeing Roland Emmerich’s Moonfall, starring John Bradley, Patrick Wilson and Halle Berry, in a cinema with friends. 

My friends and I went to see Moonfall the other day. It was me and three of my friends alone in the theater. We just kept leaning over to each other and making comments and laughing and that’s exactly what the movies are supposed to be about—recognizing exactly what you feel in a theater and being able to express that wholeheartedly and just feel like you’re in sync with the rest of the theater. It’s such a joy! 

Getting to do that with Black people is such a rare experience, the more that I go into areas that aren’t predominantly Black. Even if there are other Black people we’re all at odds with the stereotype. We’re not the only ones who talk in theaters but somehow we got the reputation for doing it. 

Daniel Kaluuya with writer and director Jordan Peele on the set of Get Out (2017). 
Daniel Kaluuya with writer and director Jordan Peele on the set of Get Out (2017). 

But there have been so many joyful experiences watching movies with Black audiences. I remember going to see Get Out and I was like ‘oh my god this is so intense,’ and we’re all so stressed. Then when he’s getting away in the end you see the police lights and everybody’s just like ‘fuck!’ without even knowing. It was so well directed, we all cheer when the TSA door opens. You don’t have that at home. 

I went to see Girls Trip in a theater with a bunch of Black people. It was so nice. It was the first time in a while that I’d seen a Black movie with a Black audience. It was special to me and I think about it often. Black joy is important to movies and in movie theaters because it is community.

In-flight with Regina Hall, Tiffany Haddish, Jada Pinkett Smith and Queen Latifah (Girls Trip, 2017).
In-flight with Regina Hall, Tiffany Haddish, Jada Pinkett Smith and Queen Latifah (Girls Trip, 2017).

Demi, what are some examples of TV or films that exemplify the elements of comedy you love?  
The happy birthday Mr. Duvet episode of Detroiters (Season 1, Episode 5), written by Amber Ruffin. She has written my two favorite episodes of the show. It’s a birthday reunion episode where they’re all going to give speeches at Sam’s (Sam Richardson) father’s 60th birthday. There are jokes that are Detroit-based and you don’t really have to be from Detroit to get, and then there are little jokes where it’s normal in that world but it would be crazy in ours. 

Sam is really focused on giving the perfect birthday speech and it’s all about his father’s mustache. Then he sees his father and he’s shaved the mustache. It’s this big traumatic thing for him. He’s panicking about this and his friend takes the jokes he’s thrown away and goes up there and is like “hey remember his mustache?” and everyone’s like “yeah!” It’s such a perfect thing because it’s such a simple solution.

Rod Kimble (Andy Samberg) dares to dream and dreams to stunt in Hot Rod (2007). 
Rod Kimble (Andy Samberg) dares to dream and dreams to stunt in Hot Rod (2007). 

There’s so much in Hot Rod. The first thing that blew me away about that movie is the forest sequence which starts off as a parody of Footloose. He goes into the woods because he’s angry and decides to punch-dance out all of his rage to a song. It just goes on longer than you think and is absurd in a way that works. I feel like a studio would have told them to cut them down. 

He’s doing Olympic vaults and flips. There’s all this gymnastics then he trips over a log, the music cuts out, and he starts tumbling down a hill. And he just keeps tumbling for a while. There’s different angles of him tumbling. He’s clearly on a wire whipping through the tree. And at the very end he serendipitously sees a sign that is the instigator for the rest of the plot. And you’re like ‘this is what we were leading up to?’ 

The interpersonal language within the world of the story or joke is what you like rather than someone who is ridiculous or goofy. I wonder if you find the communal aspect of comedy more rewarding than writing on your own? Or if they both have different kinds of rewards? 
I feel like it’s a different kind of rewarding. I love the communal nature of comedy so much more than I like doing it myself. When it comes to execution or doing something where the plot isn’t fully developed, it’s so much more fun to work with a group and bounce ideas off of friends. I have friends that I love bouncing things off of. But sometimes it’s hard to do that if you have a very specific vision of how something should be executed. 

“I think I could watch this a thousand times,” Demi writes of Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar, which served up some of the biggest laughs of 2021 according to Letterboxd members.  
“I think I could watch this a thousand times,” Demi writes of Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar, which served up some of the biggest laughs of 2021 according to Letterboxd members.  

You’ve spoken about some absurdist comedy, physical comedy, observational stuff. When it comes to the comedy you find interesting and want to be a part of, do you find it useful to self-label as a comedian, or does it feel limiting? 
I wouldn’t say it feels limiting, it just feels hard. I’ve never really known how to describe my brand of comedy. I feel like it changes so much. The things I’m interested in aren’t necessarily the things I do or know how to execute. I think about the movies I find so funny, like Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar and Hot Rod—I’ve never tried to write something like that because it feels so beyond reach for me. 

But then I look at the things I do write and think to myself, if someone else were writing this I don’t know how much I’d like it or if it’s the thing I’d be drawn to immediately. Often I find that the things I’m most blown away by, I look at and think, ‘I could never do that.’ That’s part of why it’s so impressive to me. 

The most important element of comedy is surprise. A joke in its simplest form is inherently a way to catch an audience off guard. When I think ‘what is my type of comedy?’, at every point I’m thinking ‘how can I surprise people?’ And that’s kind of hard sometimes. 

I like what you said about comedy and surprise. There was a seven-minute set by Sarah Squirm at a comedy festival that I recently saw for the first time. It made me feel so not crazy. There’s a specific physicality and unabashedness to her humor that felt so electric. I’m not sure how else to describe it. That’s one of the beautiful things about comedy. Surprise. Sometimes you feel really certain what your brand of humor is but then you sit among a new group of people and find yourself finding their humor funny. I wonder if there are any comedy films you’ve seen recently or are looking forward to that have some sort of surprising element?
I remember watching Game Night a few years ago and being so constantly surprised not only at the execution of the jokes but also how the cinematography was particularly executed. A lot of comedies don’t give a shit, which is very frustrating. I remember seeing that and being inspired that someone out there was making studio comedies and their thinking of framing, delivery, how that goes into a joke… The fact that it goes into the mystery format. I loved that and respected it. 

It felt like the sort of thing where I thought ‘this is the kind of movie I would want to make, could make, and am still impressed because they pulled it off.’ It was inspiring and made me think ‘ok, maybe a studio would let me do something like that.’

“Please go watch Game Night,” writes Demi in the current most popular Letterboxd review of the 2018 comedy. 
“Please go watch Game Night,” writes Demi in the current most popular Letterboxd review of the 2018 comedy. 

Can we talk about Black comedy specifically? What that means to you, if anything. 
Black comedy is comedy that allows Blackness to shine in a positive light and makes it part of the world where it isn’t the punchline. I wouldn’t count Blazing Saddles as Black comedy. But I would count Barbershop as Black comedy that I love. Or even something like Black Dynamite where the joke is about Blaxploitation films but recentering them around Black people inherently—taking the style of a Blaxploitation film and making it not only the set up but also the punchline for how insane a world set in that genre is. That’s something I loved so much. Or even Dolemite is My Name is a lovely Black comedy that took a different approach.

I don’t often see Black comedies where the Blackness is not a part of the logline. There’s not a thing that’s happening and the cast happens to be Black, which I think is a shame. But Black comedy as a genre has to take on the fact that the cast being Black is a change to what the characters are. 

I would say [Blackness] can’t be the plot in a way that feels exploitative. I want to see Black people being funny in a way that it does not feel like you are using them to make some grander point about Blackness. Sometimes I wonder if that’s all that Black people are allowed to be in Hollywood… I would love to feel that we’re getting to be more. 

Comedy is Demi’s name (and Dolemite is Eddie Murphy’s in Craig Brewer’s 2019 feature).
Comedy is Demi’s name (and Dolemite is Eddie Murphy’s in Craig Brewer’s 2019 feature).

For me, finding that perfect line isn’t about me being (insert whatever way I’m othered by society), and yet the context of my othering does influence my everyday activity—but let’s not make that the most interesting thing about me being here. I want that more for Black comedy. I feel like there are more people on board with that, which is exciting. 
That’s something I’m trying to sort out how to make happen as I write things. Is there a way to weave Blackness into the plot but make it something where I can sell it with Black people? Where I can have Black characters just ‘cause, and it doesn’t have to be a fight? Still have to Trojan horse it. 

Really? That’s disappointing. 
With everything, people will ask the question “why does it have to be this?” And then they’ll make the case that it’s easier to “open it up”… Sometimes when you’re writing a reboot people will say “oh, that’s a new, fresh take.” But with an original story they’ll say “oh that might dilute the audience or make it confusing or see it as a Black project.” But I wouldn’t want to write something for—

—People who wouldn’t watch something because it’s a ‘Black project’!
Exactly! But then if you don’t care about them there’s less money you can spend on things. There’s all these capitalist factors. It’s not impossible, just a little more difficult. 

I feel like if we lived in a world where Terrence Nance got to make his Space Jam we’d be living in a better reality and I think that’s what you’re speaking to. Okay, if you could be in any Black comedy film, either as yourself or as an existing character, which film and character would you choose? 
Richard Pryor in Uptown Saturday Night. He’s playing this very shady guy who’s caught by the police. Every line he says is so good. I would love to play that kind of character: small and weasley and trying to hustle but clearly not good at it. 

Trying to get out of the hole is digging deeper. That’s the role I would love to play: a loser who’s trying so hard not to be a loser—it’s not a sad thing, but it’s funny because he’s going about things the wrong way. 

Sharp Eye Washington (Richard Pryor) in Sidney Poitier’s Uptown Saturday Night (1974). 
Sharp Eye Washington (Richard Pryor) in Sidney Poitier’s Uptown Saturday Night (1974). 

You, like me, are Nigerian-American. Are there any Black films that felt like connective tissue between you, your family, and friends? 
The connective tissue between my family and I was Rush Hour

Yes!
My mom’s favorite comedian is Chris Tucker until this day. Maybe I should watch that with her when I go home. Rush Hour feels like a Black classic… Rush Hour 2 was such a formative film in my house. 

Do you know what it was about the film that was able to reach you and your parents? 
It was goofy and fish-out-of-water but in a way that took on cultural things we could all understand. The Michael Jackson stuff worked because kids know Michael Jackson, parents know Michael Jackson. You have these characters that are inherently funny on their own, action that brings in thrill and surprise; at the same moment in that film you’re caught between suspense and funny. 

Jackie Chan came in with such well choreographed fight sequences, got Chris Tucker involved in a way that was so four-quadrant. So many elements of that movie can’t be replicated and I think that’s what is so special about it. 

Rush Hour’s Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan watching a comedy on a plane like regular movie lovers. 
Rush Hour’s Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan watching a comedy on a plane like regular movie lovers

If you could wave a magic wand and there is no red tape, and a studio like NEON gave you a bajillion dollars tomorrow or two million dollars and you could do anything you want—stupid brilliance or high camp—what story would you want to tell? 
I’m working on a rom-com that doesn’t have to be queer or include people of color, but it will. I have a murder-mystery-musical thing I want to do with Black people, but I won’t be able to do that for a while because no one will give me the money for it. I have things I want to do that are very genre-based or revolve around playing with an idea. I think it’s exciting to do that, to tell a story that surprises people. That’s the root of what I want to do.


Demi Adejuyigbe currently writes for ‘The Amber Ruffin Show’, and has a regular live comedy show, ‘Everything’s Great!’ with Addie Weyrich and Nick Kocher. He is also working on various screenplays (and recently punched up the script for ‘The Lost City’), and volunteers with OMG Everywhere, a non-profit teaching filmmaking to the next generation. Ayo Edebiri and Punkie Johnson star in Emma Seligman’s ‘Bottoms’, which premiered at the 75th annual Cannes Film Festival in May, with a release date pending.  ‘Nope’ is in US cinemas now.

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