Baron Vaughn

Jun 26, 2020

Baron Vaughn has had success as both an actor and a comedian. After graduating from Boston University's theater program, he appeared in a variety of television series and movies, ultimately landing the role of Nwabudike "Bud" Bergstein in Netflix's Grace and Frankie. He voices Tom Servo on the Netflix revival of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and hosts SyFy Wire's The Great Debate, where actors and comedians debate topics like, "Who'd be a better hang, the crew from Cheers or the Golden Girls?" The show, inspired by a popular Comic-Con panel, premiered on June 18.

As a comedian, Vaughn co-hosted and co-created Comedy Central's The New Negroes, a socially aware stand-up series showcasing both comedians and musicians. He also co-hosts a new live Funny or Die web series called Call & Response, where he discusses the current state of the news with a special guest.

Recorded remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, NPR's Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg and house musician Jonathan Coulton talk to Vaughn about his new projects and debate about who would make a better roommate the X-Men's Wolverine or The Incredible Hulk.

Then, he takes two Ask Me Another challenges: a guessing game inspired by The Great Debate.


On his Comedy Central stand-up and sketch series The New Negros

"I feel like every couple of years there's always a show that expands the black perspective. Which is to say there is no one way to be a black comic. There is not necessarily a thing called "Black comedy." However, I'm playing with that with a lot of ironies because I made a very Black-centric show with all Black people. But the whole point of it is to show how much range there is to everyone's stand-up."

On his new Funny or Die topical web series Call & Response

"To make something funny, you have to understand it first. You can only make a joke out of what you understand. So this is a means of me and Mike [fellow performer Open Mike Eagle] trying to process what the hell is going on. And it's true for anyone who wants to search or to tune in. We're talking to comics, writers, philosophers, activists, union organizers, all different councilmen, directors, just all kinds of different people around the country that are doing something or have something to say. The secret selfish thing is that me and Mike are getting smarter."

Heard on: Jane Levy and Alex Newell: Zoey's Extraordinary Zoom Call.

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JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: This is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.


Thanks, Jonathan. Let's welcome our special guest. He's an actor and comedian. You've seen him on the Netflix series "Grace And Frankie," and he hosts the SyFy Wire show "The Great Debate," Baron Vaughn. Hello, Baron.

BARON VAUGHN: Hello, Ophira.

EISENBERG: So I don't even remember what year we met, but it was a long time ago. But I will tell you...

VAUGHN: It was.

EISENBERG: ...This memory.


EISENBERG: I remember it was some show in the East Village. And it was the first time I'd met you. You had just arrived into town and just started doing standup around. And we were like, cool. You seemed very nice. And then you went up onstage and killed.

VAUGHN: Oh, wow. That's - thank you so much for saying that, Ophira. I mean, I'm not even joking because it's funny to look back at that time and think about what it was like for me (laughter), you know, being inside my own body. And I don't remember those things at all. But from the outside, everyone thought I was having a good time. So...


VAUGHN: ...Let's stick with that.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: Now, I know from your comedy - and your first comedy album is called "Raised On Cable" (ph) - that you love television.


EISENBERG: And Lily Tomlin is your mom on a series.


EISENBERG: As an actor, is it the TV mom you've always wanted to have?


VAUGHN: Wow. There's a group of 10 moms that I would have - the nomination pool was very competitive, but to even be in it in and of itself...

COULTON: You've got a shortlist of possible moms.

VAUGHN: Exactly. I had shortlisted a couple of TV moms, and Lily Tomlin luckily was also on the shortlist. Yeah. I mean, I'm a huge fan of Lily Tomlin's. You know, like, she was a gigantic influence on me. I did watch "Laugh-In" as a kid. And then I saw her in movies, you know, and I saw a "9 To 5" obviously when I was younger, too, which, of course, has technically my other TV mom, Jane Fonda, in it.


VAUGHN: There you go.

EISENBERG: So in 2019, you co-hosted a show on Comedy Central with Open Mike Eagle called "The New Negroes," which was a mix of standup and music and sketches all coming from a socially aware point of view.

VAUGHN: Yeah. That is how we sold it, yeah.

EISENBERG: Right. Being socially aware and doing that through standup isn't new. But what made this different?

VAUGHN: It's different, but it's also the same. I feel like every couple of years there's always a show that expands the Black perspective, which is to say that there is no one way to be a Black comic.


VAUGHN: There is not necessarily a thing called Black comedy. However, I'm playing with that with a lot of ironies because I made a very Black-centric show with all Black people. But the whole point of it is to show how much range there is to everyone's standup. You know, even people who are from the same d*** city don't have the same things to say because they're different ages or they're from different neighborhoods. And that was the whole point of it, where it's just kind of like, no, we're not a monolith, you know? And I try to put us in the tradition of shows like "Def Comedy Jam" or "In Living Color," a show that was a huge influence on me, which was called "Partners In Crime." It was a show that Robert Townsend had on HBO way back in the day.

You know, there's always been different versions of this. It's always been part of my mission and the mission of most of the comics I'm around to be like, hey, I'm here. I exist.


VAUGHN: But that's the whole point of that show.

EISENBERG: And then you an Open Mike Eagle have another show right now...


EISENBERG: ...A new live Funny or Die web series called "Call & Response." So in this one, you're inviting on a guest, and you're talking about - really just responding to the headlines and the current state of what's in the news.


EISENBERG: You know, where "The New Negroes" was much more focused on comedy and sketch...


EISENBERG: ...With social commentary, this feels pretty blunt and to the point.

VAUGHN: Yeah, it is pretty blunt. And it's an experiment, you know?


VAUGHN: I mean, there will be comedy. We're funny people.

EISENBERG: You are. It's - I mean, it's a big ask to tackle comedy in this current moment.

VAUGHN: Absolutely. And I don't always want to have to make everything funny because to make something funny, you have to understand it first. You can only make a joke out of what you understand. So this is a means of me and Mike trying to process what the hell is going on. And it's true for anybody that wants to search or to tune in. We're talking to comics, writers, you know, philosophers, activists, union organizers. Like, there's all different councilmen, you know, directors - just all these different kinds of people around the country that are doing something or have something to say. The secret selfish thing is that me and Mike are getting smarter from talking...


VAUGHN: We are talking to a lot of smart people, so we're inviting people to come get smarter with us.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) That's great.

VAUGHN: And that's what "Call And Response" is about.

EISENBERG: That's great. And you have a new show on SyFy Wire, "The Great Debate."

VAUGHN: Yes, I do.

EISENBERG: So this is based on these debates that would happen at Comic Con.

VAUGHN: Yes. Yeah.

EISENBERG: And I - like, I imagine it's like - really the crux of it is the age-old debate, who would win in a fight, Batman against...

VAUGHN: Superman.

EISENBERG: Or Superman.

VAUGHN: Yeah. I mean, like, it's - that's the kernel, and we try to kind of take that idea, that nerds like to fight about the things that we love. And it's that debate, you know, to the Nth degree because, like, who would be the worst roommate, Wolverine or the Incredible Hulk?

COULTON: (Laughter).

VAUGHN: You know, so that's like - it's not just like who's tougher. It's like, oh, Wolverine and the Incredible Hulk in a domestic setting. Let me think.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Yeah. I live with a Hulk right now.


EISENBERG: It's a 4-year-old.


VAUGHN: Ain't that the truth?

EISENBERG: The destroy and the smash is - yeah, it's a lot. So hang on. Also - oh, right. Oh, there's a lot of - in the producers Slack chat right now, they're freaking out about Wolverine versus Hulk as a roommate. I just wanted to let you know.

COULTON: (Laughter).

VAUGHN: Well, that's fantastic. I - here's my take on that.


VAUGHN: First of all, Wolverine, very old. He's been alive for a long time. I just feel like he's going to have a lot of weird vagrant friends that are crashing on the couch every now and then.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

VAUGHN: I'm going to wake up to some homie of his from the Civil War just crashing on the couch like, what's up, man? We met at Antietam.


VAUGHN: I'm 140 or whatever. And then - but The Incredible Hulk, you know, obviously, when you were living with someone, there can be a lot of tension. It makes people's heart rates, you know, go high. That's not good for, you know - for Bruce Banner. Like, he's got to...


VAUGHN: ...Stay calm. The thing is that Bruce Banner would be a really good roommate. The Hulk wouldn't. So it's like Bruce Banner is a scientist, you know?

EISENBERG: He'd be great.

VAUGHN: Yeah, he's a guy who definitely washes a dish after he uses it. You know what I mean? And he dries it, and he puts it back in the cabinet. He doesn't leave it in the rack. He's a scientist.



EISENBERG: So, Baron, on your show...


EISENBERG: ..."The Great Debate," you have various people that are debating pop culture topics, and then you decide who is the winner.


EISENBERG: So we have created, actually, some head-to-head contests that have objective, inarguable winners. Jonathan and I don't know the answers, so we're all going to play this one together.

VAUGHN: Oh, fantastic.

EISENBERG: OK. The movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" versus the movie "Gravity." Which film is more scientifically accurate according to a former NASA astronaut interviewed by the news site Insider?


EISENBERG: (Laughter)

VAUGHN: I have not seen "Gravity," but...


VAUGHN: "2001" was made before the year 2001.

EISENBERG: Yeah, it didn't really pan out.


COULTON: Well, yeah. The space...

VAUGHN: But gravity was around before that movie was made.

COULTON: That's true. Gravity is a real thing, and giant space baby is not a real thing.

VAUGHN: Giant space baby is a real thing in the sense that it's my nickname to my closest friends.


VAUGHN: But in terms of is it in the universe? Maybe not. I'm going to go with "Gravity."

EISENBERG: "Gravity" is more scientifically accurate.


EISENBERG: I might go with you based on the time thing.

COULTON: Yeah. I just think it's probably become more important now to make a sci-fi film that is more accurate.

VAUGHN: Scientifically accurate.


EISENBERG: OK. That's - let's see. That's what we're saying. And...

COULTON: We're saying "Gravity."

EISENBERG: ...Here we go. The answer is "2001: A Space Odyssey."

COULTON: Oh, no.


EISENBERG: Oh, my goodness.

VAUGHN: That's why everybody thinks that Kubrick shot the moon landing.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right. Former astronaut Garrett Reisman gave "2001: A Space Odyssey" a 9 out of 10 rating. He said the rotating space station is a realistic depiction of how to create artificial gravity. Conversely, he gave "Gravity" a 2 out of 10...

COULTON: Oh, boy.

EISENBERG: ...Saying the movie, quote, "completely blows off the laws of physics."

VAUGHN: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: Sick burn. Sick burn.

VAUGHN: I can't imagine watching a movie and sitting in the theater and going, this is blowing off the laws of physics.


VAUGHN: Woo (ph). Why can't I - I got to get my money back.

COULTON: I came to this movie to see a movie that respects the laws of physics.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

VAUGHN: Hey, what was that astronaut's name?

EISENBERG: Garrett Reisman.

VAUGHN: Hey. Hey, Garrett. Did you see "Gravity"? See it? I lived it.


COULTON: All right, Baron, here's your next one. The dragon Smaug from "The Hobbit" versus Scrooge McDuck.

VAUGHN: (Laughter).

COULTON: Who is wealthier, according to the Forbes list of 15 wealthiest fictional characters? - which they stopped updating in 2013 for some reason.

EISENBERG: I think they stopped after 2013 because, you know, people were like, yeah, people are hating these characters now...


EISENBERG: ...As soon as - yeah.

COULTON: Don't want to talk about rich people anymore.

VAUGHN: Bernie's like, (imitating Bernie Sanders) the 1% of fictional characters...


VAUGHN: (Imitating Bernie Sanders) Scrooge McDuck has been in bed with Enron.

I don't know.


VAUGHN: I'm not even doing Bernie. I'm doing James Adomian doing Bernie.

EISENBERG: I love it.

VAUGHN: The Money Bin - now, they don't - you're not clarifying whether or not it's '90s "DuckTales" or new "DuckTales" - which Scrooge we're talking about. The Money Bin dimensionally has kind of - it's tricky. You know, when you see it, it's on top of a hill. There's not really anything around it for, like - for comparison, you know? Like, you're like, if only there was a Leaning Tower of Pisa here. Scrooge goes in it. Obviously, he's the only person that can dive - you know, belly flop into gold besides a cray cray (ph) dragon. Now...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

VAUGHN: ...Scrooge's money is stacked up, and I feel like Smaug's is really spread out because he wants to...

COULTON: It's just piled, yeah.

VAUGHN: He wants to make snow angels in it. He wants to make gold snow angels in it. (Imitating Smaug) All mine, all the gold.

EISENBERG: So that makes me think the answer should be Smaug.

VAUGHN: I think it's Smaug, too.

COULTON: I think it probably is Smaug.

EISENBERG: OK. And the answer is Scrooge McDuck.

VAUGHN: Come on.

COULTON: Aw (laughter).

EISENBERG: Scrooge is at the top of the list with an estimated worth of $65.4 billion acquired from mining and treasure hunting.

VAUGHN: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: Smaug is No. 2. (laughter).

COULTON: Mining - I didn't know he was into mining.

VAUGHN: He does. He has mines.


EISENBERG: Smaug is at No. 2 with an estimated $54.1 billion. Ooh, 10 billion less - acquired by marauding.


EISENBERG: So to compare in real life, Forbes says Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is the richest person in the world at a net worth of $113 billion.


EISENBERG: So I guess he's a Smaug and a Scrooge...

VAUGHN: Put together.

COULTON: Put together.


VAUGHN: And according to his ex-wife, that's true. Watch out.



EISENBERG: This is really the subtext of the whole game is like how could we slowly insult Jeff Bezos and he will never - he'll be fine. All right.

VAUGHN: He will be fine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.