Jak Knight had to wait outside The Comedy Store for his big break.
Not yet 21, Knight had sprinted down Sunset Boulevard from an early spot at The Laugh Factory upon hearing Dave Chappelle was performing at the Store — only to watch the goings-on in the “O.R.” from the Store’s outdoor patio. Even though booker Adam Eget and the Store staff already knew of the youngster, they couldn’t let him in. Liquor laws forbade it. But Chappelle, after making a few cracks at the expense of Knight and his fellow underage aspiring comedian, beckoned them inside and invited them onstage with him. Knight later recalled not wanting to blow his chance, no matter his nerves. He didn’t.
After the show outside the club, Chappelle offered young Knight some words of wisdom. About a year later, Knight scored the opportunity to open for Chappelle at a proper L.A. gig, which led to Live Nation giving him the chance to substitute on some late dates of the 2015 Oddball comedy festival tour, presented by Funny Or Die. He’d go on to open for two of Chappelle’s Netflix specials.
“Thank god I fucking stood on that patio,” Knight told Adam Ray and Brad Williams during a 2018 podcast.
Knight died Thursday night in Los Angeles. He was only 28. The cause of death was not released. A rep for Knight told the media: “Knight’s loved ones ask that their privacy please be respected during this extremely difficult time.”
Knight can currently be seen as a writer/producer on HBO’s Pause with Sam Jay, and together with Jay, Chris Redd and Langston Kerman, a co-star, co-creator and co-EP of their Peacock series, Bust Down. His previous credits included writing for Lucas Bros. Moving Co., writing and acting in Big Mouth, featuring a character in the NBA2K video-game franchise, and stand-up performances on The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail, Adam Devine’s House Party (both for Comedy Central), and a 15-minute special as part of Netflix’s The Comedy Lineup.
He’d also just wrapped production on his first feature film, co-starring in Chelsea Peretti’s First Time Female Director.
“We are devastated by the passing of Jak Knight,” reads a joint statement from Knight’s Bust Down family Peacock and Universal Television. “He was a brilliant comedian, visionary and artist and we were all lucky to experience his greatness. Our hearts are with Jak’s family, friends and community during this heartbreaking time.”
Jak Knight was a stage name. “My real name is Jakim Malewana,” he told Sean Donnelly and Dan St. Germain in a 2015 podcast, joking about how his parents had very Anglicized names, but had him in Seattle during a very “Afrika Bambaataa” phase of their lives. But he left Seattle as soon as he could. “I graduated from high school. I did two spots. And then I moved to L.A.”
Not necessarily for a life in stand-up comedy, though.
“I moved to L.A. with the thought of wanting to make cartoons” he told Ray and Williams. “I was really really obsessed with The Boondocks. In my head, I was like, so to be a writer, I need to go here. And then someone’s going to see me do something, and I get to write for The Boondocks.”
In a way, that sort of happened. Just not for that show. Because Knight was still just a kid when The Lucas Brothers asked him to write for their animated project, Lucas Bros. Moving Co.
For his first two years in L.A., Knight was hitting up three to four open mics per night, crashing in a dingy downtown basement, and taking jobs at Target and Starbucks. Although he joked he’d gotten fired multiple times for not showing up to work. “A mic would be at like 5. I’d be like, alright, I’m not going to go to work.”
He was 20 when The Lucas Brothers asked him to write for their animated project. That gig came about precisely because Keith and Kenny Lucas saw him performing on a show, and invited him to swing by their offices. There, he riffed an idea about a third sister mad at Sister, Sister (Tia and Tamera) for leaving her behind. They turned it into this episode, which aired on FXX in February 2015.
I first saw Knight in person at New Faces for the 2015 Just For Laughs fest in Montreal. What I wrote then:
Jak Knight: So funny when comedians — especially New Faces — still take a moment to react to the crowd or the moment. Even more so when Knight noticed an audience member in the front row. “Just wear shorts for the thing that means the most to me in my life!” Funnier even when the lights came up afterward and you see that the shorts-wearing audience members are from a different New Faces group (!!). Also, Knight himself was sporting a Sonics (RIP) cap. Funny young man from Seattle who remembers his yearbook calling him “most likely to be the father.”
He’d quickly pick up a lot of gigs in writers rooms: Among them, Big Mouth, black-ish, and Immoral Compass.
Knight’s Big Mouth role initially was to voice the lone black kid in the Netflix puberty toon. But he found that being a decade or more younger than the others in the writers room not only made him more hip to what middle-schoolers actually talk like today, but also a better contributor as a writer/producer because of it.
But the outpouring this weekend from comedians has fallen along these lines: how funny Knight was; how kind Knight was; how enjoyable Knight was to be around.
This clip from his Netflix set is getting passed around even more than anything Netflix put out on their socials:
Please enjoy some more of Knight’s work as a stand-up.
Check out how loose he was for this half-hour he shot in 2019 at Dynasty Typewriter!
He could’ve been the next Chappelle-level talent. More than a few saw his potential for even further growth. He really was still just coming into his own. We’re all sad we never got to find out.
Rest in peace, Jak.