“Maybe all you needed was a little hip-hop pizzazz,” says Jamel (James III) in the first episode of artist Jayson Musson’s new time travel comedy series, The Adventures of Jamel. That proves to be the missing variable that makes the new “temporal navigation unit” developed by Doctor Wright (Kenneth McGregor) tick, setting up the premise for the entire series: Jamel, a charmingly naive young man dressed in a red Adidas tracksuit and matching Kangol hat — a perfectly throwback costume — visits various moments in human history, precipitating hijinks and hilarity. His first stop: the antebellum South.
When his breakdancing-powered time travel lands him in a pastoral setting, Jamel’s initial response is that he “must be in Connecticut” (the episode’s title). He asks the first people he sees — an enslaved black man and white owner — “Do y’all know where I-95 is?” This, predictably, does not go over well, leading to a showdown between Jamel and the slave owner that closely resembles “The Time Haters,” a sketch initially cut and eventually broadcast as part of a “Great Misses” episode of Chappelle’s Show, comedian Dave Chappelle’s hugely successful Comedy Central series.
In Chappelle’s version of the ‘contemporary black men travel through time to the days of slavery in the South’ scenario, the Playa Haters (a group of extravagantly dressed men who make fun of each other) explain the origins of the term “honky,” ridicule the slave owner, and then shoot him, freeing his slaves. Earlier in the skit the Playa Haters also pay a visit to Hitler, a future encounter that’s promised in the opening credits of The Adventures of Jamel.
Musson’s first foray into time travel comedy disappoints here: Jamel’s interactions with the fleeing slave are awkward, his exchange with the slave owner stiff and stilted, and the ensuing break-dancing lesson goes on for much too long. Simply editing this nine-minute episode down to five might have made all the difference. But the opening scene setting up Jamel’s adventures is sharper. Doctor Wright addresses a conference room full of comically reprehensible men at “Illuminati Headquarters” in New York. Musson proves himself to be very adept at prop comedy: the walls feature portrait photos of suspected Illuminati members including the Queen of England, the Pope, and Jay Z, and the table boasts a platter containing only a doll’s head, a bowl overflowing with grapes and octopus legs, and a taxidermy peacock. Musson puts in a cameo as “Illuminati oil baron,” while his cohorts dispute the viability of time travel (“You can’t explain time travel, it’s magic!”) and discuss their juvenile desires to use the technology to act out their oedipal fantasies (“Wouldn’t it be awesome to go back in time and give a little hump to your mother?”). After the doctor’s time machine demonstration flops, Jamel, the janitor at Illuminati HQ, comes in to clean up and makes the revelatory suggestion of hip-hop pizzazz.
Musson’s knack for comedy is hard to overstate, as anyone who’s seen his Art Thoughtz videos can attest. The production values of The Adventures of Jamel are light-years ahead of those webcam videos, but the humor has some catching up to do. (Admittedly, it’s much harder to write a funny, multi-episode narrative than a side-splitting rant.) Nevertheless, there are a few comparably comic moments in the “Connecticut” episode. One of them comes during the showdown between Jamel and the irate slave owner, who demands the return of his slave. “This man is a human being,” Jamel says. “And where I come from, human beings aren’t anyone’s property. Unless of course they’re a construction worker in Dubai. Or a teenage girl from Eastern Europe sold into sex trafficking. Or a sales associate at Walmart.”
As Jamel’s adventures continue, hopefully we’ll see more of this stripe of contemporary commentary thrown into sharp relief through historic juxtaposition. And, of course, plenty more of that hip-hop pizzazz.
Watch the first episode of The Adventures of Jamel below: