Comedian and actor Baron Vaughn, 35, plays Nwabudike Bergstein on the Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie and will star as Tom Servo in the reboot of the cult hit Mystery Science Theater 3000 later this year. Born in Portales, New Mexico, Vaughn was raised in Las Vegas and studied acting at Boston University. On stage, he’s acted at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, on Broadway opposite Alfre Woodard in Drowning Crow and off-Broadway in Damn Yankees. He was a series regular on the USA show Fairly Legal, and he has appeared in Arrested Development, Cloverfield and Black Dynamite. As a stand-up, he has toured all over the country and appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Conan. He lives in Los Angeles.
Baron Vaughn: Firstly, it’s an honor. Secondly, it’s cray. And I mean that the way Kanye means it because it is not only cray, but also cray cray. She was already a big influence on me as a comedian; now she’s becoming an influence on me as a person as well. My favorite part is how much she’s willing to play around on the set and in the scene. It’s fun to be around her, and comforting to know she’s there to support whatever silly decisions I make…you know, like moms do.
Three adjectives to describe Jane Fonda? I rarely use the word fierce, but a woman like Jane makes me understand what it means. She’s also present. She’s in her body in the moment in the scene. Anytime I know I have to talk to Jane on screen, I’m like “I better be on point,” because that’s what she’s bringing. She also thinks I’m funny, so the last word would be kind.
Do we really need a reboot of Mystery Science Theater 3000? It’s a classic! Well, to answer the question, I would refer you to the fact that we broke a Kickstarter record with the fundraising. So the people have spoken.
Were you a fan of the original show? I was. I can’t claim to have watched it faithfully, but I, like everyone else who turned on that show, knew there was something unique, original and hilarious happening.
Portales, New Mexico. What goes on there? It’s one of the leading makers of soot. That’s what they make there. Ash from a fireplace. But we moved to Las Vegas, which is what I claim as my hometown.
That’s maybe even weirder. Yes, it is. It was very strange going straight from math to showgirl class. We all had to do high-kicks. And learn how to count the chips. It was that period in the late ’80s to early ’90s when they tried to make Las Vegas a family destination by putting in a couple of rides. It was like, “Go ride a roller coaster while I lose the rent at the roulette table.”
What was the joke in your comedy career that just completely fell flat? In my career? That happens every week. That’s what comedy’s about! I can tell you what fell flat last night!
Anything on your resume you’d like to see erased? [Laughs.] Well, actually, I think there’s a Showtime pilot on my IMDB resume that never happened. Like, I was cast on the show and then they cut the role. When you’re starting your career, and I think it’s true for anyone in the arts, you spend a lot of time just chasing work, instead of figuring out what work it is you want to do. There was a point where I took any job I could because I needed to pay my rent. And there was a hidden-camera prank show on MTV that I did called The Gamekillers. It was produced by Axe body spray and basically was a glorified commercial for it. I wish that I could erase that, not just from my resume but from my mind.
Funniest person you know? I know a lot of funny people. But someone who never fails to make me laugh is Maria Bamford. She has a Netflix series coming out called Lady Dynamite. She’s a lightning rod, and she talks about things people don’t talk about, and she talks about them in ways people aren’t used to. It’s like watching a magician cast a spell.
Favorite late-night show to appear on? I haven’t been on all of them. But I’m of the generation for whom Conan was a big hero. He was wild and experimental and reinvented a show Letterman had created and made it his own. That said, when Craig Ferguson had his show, I really liked his vibe. I wish I could have done The Ed Sullivan Show at the height of his popularity. Hell, I wish I could have sat next to Charles Nelson Reilly on Match Game.
Host you admire the most? I don’t think Arsenio Hall gets his due. I think he was very underrated and discounted.
What would you attribute that to? I don’t know…[coughs] blackness! Maybe he was something people weren’t ready for, or he had a sensibility people couldn’t connect with. Who knows…[coughs] blackness!
Most important thing you learned at BU? I learned what it means to collaborate with people. Stand-up is a control freak’s domain. We go up there. It’s us alone. We wrote it. We’re saying it. Our voices are magnified. Yours are not. So stand-up is “Shut up and listen to me!” In theater, and TV and film, you’re part of a bigger picture, and I learned how to do that at BU.
LA: Strangest place on the planet? It’s weird, but I actually like it. It takes a couple of years. But I’m not sure liking LA is the point of it. There are very few people here because they like it. They’re here because they want to be here, have to be here, to do whatever it is they’re trying to do. The energy of people pursuing their dreams, whether they’re killing it or failing hard, those extremes are interesting: the person who’s saying, “I love this Oscar and keep it next to me while I eat Froot Loops,” and the person who says, “I guess there’s nothing left for me, so I’ll put on this Incredible Hulk costume and take pictures with tourists.”
DOES TRAGEDY PLUS TIME EQUAL COMEDY? Definitely. It takes time to have perspective on anything. In the middle of your mother dying, there aren’t going to be so many laughs. But time can show you how something is funny.
COMEDY OR TRAGEDY: WHAT’S HARDER? Comedy. It takes more from you. Comedy has tragedy in it. Tragedy is just dark. That’s just my opinion, but I’m pretty sure anyone who disagrees with me is wrong, so I’m humble about that opinion.
COULD YOU PLAY HAMLET? Oh, yeah. I don’t know that I would crush it. But any actor who’s absolutely sure he can pull a role off is full of shit. You shouldn’t know. Every role you approach should be a challenge. So I think I could pull off Hamlet. It would be a different interpretation, but I would make it make sense. The problem with Hamlet is that everyone coming to see it has opinions about it. As the actor, if you’re worried about that, you won’t be able to play the role.
Anything you’d never joke about? Everything is up for grabs if the perspective is correct, if you have something intelligent to say about a subject. I’m not into bullying, especially based on something like race, gender, sexual orientation, but if I can say something funny about those things, where I’m not punching down, I’ll take a shot. There are targets that deserve to be mocked everywhere.
Anything you’ve regretted joking about? Definitely. Things I’ve said about my family that are really dark. I said some jokes without the skill set to tackle or unpack them. I was relying on the shock factor of what I was saying. You can make someone laugh from discomfort, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re funny. There are 12 different kinds of laughs, and you start to understand what kind of laughs you want.
Are the right kind of laughs like a drug? All the laughter’s a drug. That’s the problem. That’s how some comedians get addicted to those uncomfortable laughs. They can’t tell and don’t care.
Who’s the best stand-up comedian you’ve ever seen? To me, the two greatest comedians of all time are sort of opposite sides of a coin. Bill Cosby—who unfortunately turned out to be a horrible, horrible monster—had an influence on comedy that can not be undone. He might be the most influential comedian ever. And frankly the things that make me know that he’s a brilliant comedian are what make me know that he is guilty of the things he’s accused of. He has such power and control on stage, so power and control are important to him. And the other comedian is Richard Pryor. He was also no saint. He wasn’t always nice, especially because he struggled with addiction. The difference is that it wasn’t a secret. He unpacked his demons in front of everyone. He wasn’t secretive. And his honesty on stage is one of the things I admire most about him. But Richard Pryor would be the first one to say he was inspired by Bill Cosby.
TV show you’ve seen and thought, “This sucks, but I could save it if they put me on it.” [Laughs.] That is a fascinating question. Probably Game of Thrones. I think they need someone who’s got a handful of dick jokes and isn’t afraid to pick up a sword.
Photography: Dustin Snipes; Styling: Alvin Stillwell / Celestine Agency; grooming: Sienree Du / Celestine Agency; wardrobe: TopMan suit, Weekend Offender shirt, Christian Louboutin shoes, Nordstrom socks