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Q&A: The Lucas Bros. On Their Animated Series, '90s Humor, And Ta-Nehisi Coates

Illustration for article titled Q&A: The Lucas Bros. On Their Animated Series, '90s Humor, And Ta-Nehisi Coates

Kenny and Keith Lucas, better known as the comedic duo the Lucas Bros., have a reputation as laid-back stoners. Which is only half-true: In truth, they’re the smartest and hardest-working stoners you’ll ever meet. They’ve shown up on Arrested Development and in 22 Jump Street, and anchored TruTv’s sketch show Friends of the People; now, they write, star, and executive-produce their passion project, Lucas Bros. Moving Co., FXX’s popular animated series based on their comedic personas.


On the show, the play cartoon versions of themselves: cerebral, even-keeled stoners with a detached, almost nihilistic worldview. The episodes are shrouded in ’90s nostalgia; many of the jokes rely on simply recalling pop-culture phenomena that became inexplicably successful, such as the TV show Sister, Sister. In “Willdependence Day,” the Bros. manage to lightly poke fun at four separate Will Smith blockbusters: Independence Day, the Men in Black franchise, Wild Wild West, and The Legend of Bagger Vance. Children of the ’90s will get it immediately, while younger viewers can appreciate the absurdity of a casual stroll through hell, video-game battles with the devil, and attempts to expose Jay Z as Illuminati. Looking ahead, the brothers are in talks with Fox to develop several more projects, and are set to appear in Maria Bamford’s Netflix project Lady Dynamite in 2016.

As for the smart part, they both dropped out of Top 10 law schools—Keith from Duke and Kenny from NYU—weeks before graduating. They’re voracious readers—they often read the same book at the same time and take notes in the margins. Most recently, they finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me; they identify with Coates as intellectual atheists, and appreciate that he doesn’t invoke religion in his analysis of America’s race and class issues. Of particular interest, though, is Coates’s commentary on the mass incarceration of African-American males: Their father went to prison for attempted manslaughter when Kenny and Keith were six years old. In their first-season episode “Freedom Town,” they explore what it was like growing up without their father after his character abandons them for a fraternity of deadbeat dads who spend their days drinking beer and playing cards.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Kenny and Keith in Williamsburg during a recent return visit from L.A., their reluctant second home. Along with all of the above, we discussed the WWE, James Blake, soccer, and more.

There’s a ton of ’90s humor in Lucas Bros. Moving Co. Can you put your thumb on what specifically about that era lends itself to parody?

Keith: I don’t see it exactly as parody. I see it more as an appreciation and fondness of our childhood. We developed our sense of comedy during the ’90s. A lot of our influences were built from ’90s culture.

Kenny: TV shows were so weird then.

Keith: There were so many black television shows, but there wasn’t much of a political bent to it. It was silly.


I think maybe the reason you guys go to that well so much is because watching Lucas Bros. Moving Co. is like being in your heads—we’re seeing the modern day through the lens of your formative years.

Keith: Absolutely.

If you were writing Lucas Bros. Moving Co. in 2025, and our current decade was your ’90s, what do you think the corollary to this decade would be?


Keith: That’s a great question. We weren’t kids in this decade, so it’s hard for me to extract.

Kenny: Obviously the references would change. But I think the sentiment would be the same. We incorporate some newer stuff in there already. I think for the most part, the question is instead of going into Urkel’s mind, whose mind would we go through?


It could be a cool idea for an episode.

Kenny: We’d probably explore Obama a lot more. He’d have a significant role. Assuming we’re doing this until 2020, the stories will have to eventually evolve past the ’90s.


Keith: What’s weird is a lot of young people like the show.

Do you think they’re getting those ’90s references?

Kenny: I think older people get most of the references, but you can still appreciate it without doing so. It’s like Seinfeld when they had the Keith Hernandez reference.


Keith: Seinfeld pulled a lot of references from the ’70s and ’80s that people our age didn’t really get. People love the characters and the story and the style. I love Seinfeld, and some of the episodes’ references are way over my head.

When you’re in the booth, do you give comedians like Hannibal Buress and Jerrod Carmichael a long leash to improvise their characters, or do you stick to the script?


Keith: We like to give funny people the freedom to be funny, because it’s weird to just hand them a script and say, “Read this line.”

Kenny: Usually we’ll do two or three takes of them just doing the lines as written, and then let them freestyle.


Keith: Jerrod was in the writer’s room with us, so he’s really locked in with the show’s vibe.

Both you guys and Jerrod have really unique sardonic styles, but different flavors. I thought his HBO special was one of the best of the past decade. It’s dark.


Kenny: Lo-fi.

Keith: He’s a cynical guy, but he gets away with it because he’s the nicest guy we know.


Don’t you think every great standup has a little evil in them?

Keith: Oh yeah. I think there’s a dark … not even a darkness, but yeah, a cynicism.

What’s the difference in the way you’re received in New York and in L.A.?

Keith: In New York, particularly in Brooklyn, I believe that people who know our comedy respect us. Brooklyn’s more laid-back than L.A. New Yorkers are not going to be overt about their passion for “celebrities”—it’s like, “Oh, y’all dope,” and then they walk away. There’s just a …


Kenny: Celebrity worship.

Keith: Celebrity worship that’s uncomfortable. Because I don’t see myself as a celebrity, but in L.A., people treat me like a celebrity. It’s a lot of, “Hey, you’re the guys from that movie,” but a lot of people know about Lucas Bros. Moving Co. too. In Brooklyn, it’s more of a respect for us as comedians.


You enjoy these street stops a little bit, or not at all?

Keith: No.

You wish it didn’t happen at all.

Keith: I wish it didn’t happen at all, because as a comedian, you want to have the ability to observe. Observe people as opposed to having to interact. And you lose that anonymity, which I think is critical to being a great comedian.


Let’s talk a little sports. Do you guys still watch football?

Kenny: It’s a little barbaric for me. I have a rooting interest in the 49ers, because that’s the team we grew up on. I’m watching less of it, but it’s undeniably an awesome sport. It’s a tough fix, too, because, are people going to quit playing it or watching it? Nah. So how do you make this inherently violent thing safer? The athletes aren’t getting slower or smaller.


Your favorite sport, pro wrestling, has had its share of long-term health issues with its athletes.

Keith: And it’s something that kind of shocks people, because it’s viewed as theater. WWE has done a much better job of monitoring the health of their wrestlers—Daniel Bryan was one of their biggest stars, but they sat him a year because he was exhibiting symptoms of concussions.


What do you like so much about wrestling?

Kenny: They are great actors, and they can also do things that only elite athletes can do. They do superhero things, but they also tell a story. You get to lose yourself in it, like a cartoon. When you grow up in the ghetto, you need anything to get your mind off of it.

You guys both just read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, Between the World and Me.

Kenny: Been a fan of his for quite some time. A lot of his pieces in The Atlantic were quite profound. I think he talks about issues regarding the black community in a way that I don’t think has been done, and he is able to some way make it accessible to lay readers.


He wrote the whole thing as a letter to his son.

Kenny: He’s talking about his experience of being a black man and trying to warn his son that if you’re a black guy, it’s tough. James Blake got tackled by the cops, and that’s just indicative of what Coates is trying to get to. He’s saying your body is a very precious thing, and in America, unfortunately, the black body just isn’t valued.


How hard does the James Blake story hit you? What do you feel when you read that?

Keith: It’s disturbing. Because, apparently, he’s one of the nicest guys. He’s a Harvard graduate, tennis legend, and for him to be treated like a criminal, like a piece of dirt, it’s like, if it can happen to him …


Kenny: Let’s say this: Not all cops are bad. It’s reductive to analyze this issue through the lens of “Are cops good or bad?” Like anything, there are good cops and bad cops. Robocop was a dope cop.

Keith: If you look at New York, can you really say that racist cops don’t exist? Of course not, but the NYPD is over 40-percent minority. Still, the James Blake thing beats home the point that we all sort of look the same in the eyes of some cops—they don’t factor in other attributes.


Coates made the point that Frederick Douglass was a criminal, for “stealing his body.”

Keith: Dr. King got arrested more than Tupac.

Coates just wrote a piece on how the justice system is not broken, it’s working exactly …


Both: ... as intended.

And so, he says, if your intent is to jail massive numbers of people …

Keith: Check. If you say that the system is broken, that means you’re saying the justice system was at one point trying to be fair to everyone, and that’s clearly not the case if you look at the history of America.


Kenny: We started with white dudes deciding the fates of every other person in the country and effectively excluding them from the decision-making process.

Have either of you been stopped and frisked?

Kenny: Yeah, I’ve had many encounters with the NYPD. Maybe four or five.

Keith: I was parking my car, and two cops just walked up to me and asked for ID.

What did you do?

Keith: I told them it was completely against the Constitution, that they need some sort of probable cause to check my car, and they didn’t have it, so we sort of just stood there for a couple of minutes, and I told them that I went to law school, and I’m not going to let you guys take advantage of me.


I’m surprised that worked out for you.

Kenny: I was just standing. I was standing away from a group of people who were being rowdy, and the cops immediately came up to me, and they said, “Get out of here, move.” And I said, “I’m not going to move, I’m waiting for a cab,” and I refused, and they wrote me a citation.


Did they put their hands on you any of these times?

Kenny: No, but I’ve had a cop come into my face screaming obscenities. Just yelling at me like I’m not human. I’m like, “Dude I’m a citizen. I’m not doing anything wrong. I pay taxes.”


How quick do you say, “I went to NYU Law or I went to Duke Law?”

Kenny: I drop it. I tell them I know my rights.

Keith: It’s tough, because with how aggressive some of them can be—you are kind of afraid, because in the back of your head, you know this guy has a gun.


How did your dad going to prison shape you?

Keith: The consequences were profound. You’re growing up without your father, and the psychological damage it does to you as a person—you can’t even begin to explain it to people. Just not having that male figure to help guide you through life. When I was seven, I had to figure out how to be a dude, and our mom, as great as she is, you can’t teach a guy how to be a guy.


Kenny: You also look at Coates’s book, and how he is talking to his son and trying to give him guidance on how to be a black male, and you lose that.

Keith: You can just be taken away at any time. And as I got older and learned more about the criminal-justice system, you start to think, well, maybe he didn’t deserve as much time. The state decides, based on some of his actions, that he’s not worthy of being in the real world. And they don’t think about the ramifications of taking him away.


Kenny: And that’s the shame. When we moved down to North Carolina, all the teachers would ask, “What do your parents do? You’re so smart, what do your parents do?” My mom is a secretary and my dad is in prison. You’re a bit ashamed.

I imagine you were the smartest guys in the room in most of these classrooms. I don’t need the Duke and NYU credentials to know you’re insanely bright. I’m sure there were a lot of double-takes when you had to say that.


Keith: It certainly sparked our interest in the criminal justice system.

Kenny: At the root of it, you just want to help your dad. I want to help my uncles who are in prison for 20 years for selling drugs.


Keith: At one point our dad was in prison, three of our uncles. Our aunt’s father, who was like a quasi-grandfather to us. They all spent considerable time in prison.

Kenny: Looking back it’s like, almost every male figure? Spent some time in prison? Crazy.

You just did an EA Sports commercial. Do you have a FIFA team?

Kenny: Maybe Real … is it Real Madrid?

You said it right, but you lacked conviction.

Keith: Barcelona is the only one I know. What’s the one with Messi?

That’s Barcelona.

Kenny: So I’d go Barcelona.

That’s a brave choice.

Keith: Bro, soccer hasn’t really made it to the hood yet. We’re trying.

Zachary McDermott is a writer and public defender in Brooklyn, NY. He is currently working on a memoir.