In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
Actor, comedian, and writer Yassir Lester gets to wear all of those hats as part of the incorrigible ensemble of the wickedly funny Black Monday. The former Girls and Carmichael Show scribe plays a stock broker (also named Yassir), who, along with Horatio Sanz, often acts as a goofy Greek chorus, witnessing and commenting on all the scheming and backstabbing at the center of Jordan Cahan and David Caspe’s Showtime drama. Lester has also been at work behind the scenes; he wrote “7042,” which traced Mo’s (Don Cheadle) humbler roots and was one of the standout episodes of season one.
It’s safe to say Lester’s prepared to learn this business inside out; he’s also joined the star-studded voice cast of Fox’s latest animated sitcom, Duncanville. He voices Yangzi, a teenage influencer who navigates social media better than most adults (which is probably as it should be). In between premieres, Lester applied his multi-hyphenate skills to our 11 Questions, when he made the case for DMX, Salt Lake City, and Ed Sheeran.
Yassir Lester: God, honestly, like, cheesecake. Here’s the thing. That’s the real answer. That or my mom’s sweet potato pie. I know probably people have something a little more serious, like success or whatever. But I just feel like if I constantly smelled cheesecake, I’d be like, “Today’s a good day.”
YL: It’s most likely Juvenile’s 400 Degreez. I listened to it nonstop. Then the other one I listened to behind it was DMX’s ...And Then There Was X. [Laughs.] I was a very aggressive, young little boy who did nothing.
The A.V. Club: Did you have to hide your musical tastes from your parents, or were you listening to these albums in the car on the way to school?
YL: I skateboarded in high school—not well, but I did. And this music is what got you motivated. But there’s so many from that time. I listened to OutKast’s Stankonia nonstop, but I don’t know. You choose which one of those make me sound the most interesting and then that’s what we’ll go with. No wait, Tchaikovsky. I listened to Tchaikovsky nonstop.
YL: I’m going to be real with you. This is something that has created a rift between my friends and family a little bit. Here’s the thing, I don’t want to say which ones specifically because then that’ll be the part of this interview that blows up and then I have to issue the apology. How about this, I’ll tell you the one I know is not [plausible]. I definitely believe we did go to the Moon. I also know the world isn’t flat. But don’t you just feel like the world is so bonkers that there has to be a nugget of truth in almost everything?
AVC: The reason so many of these ideas gain traction is because people see a bit of truth in them.
YL: Right, exactly. Actually, you know what? I don’t know the full conspiracy theory, but I do believe that there’s technically someone in the White House or whatever trying to, I don’t know if bringing it down is the correct term, or that Trump actually was installed to destroy the American democracy. [Laughs.] That’s when I’m like, “Oh, yeah, it’s not just we voted for him. It actively is a ploy to burn America to the ground.”
YL: I feel that to be Black in this country means you’re not going to be like, “I love the political process.” So the first time I was disillusioned by politics was all the way back in high school. Around the 2000 presidential election—I must have been a sophomore or a junior. Yeah, I was a junior in high school in 2000. We had to do a mock election, and it was between John Kerry and George W. Bush [the 2000 election was between Al Gore and George W. Bush —Ed.]. I remember that when the results came in, George W. Bush literally got, like, 99.9% of the vote. And when they announced John Kerry’s numbers, they’re like, “And John Kerry got seven votes.” Those votes were literally just me, my brother, and five other Black people. Which is crazy. I just remember in that moment being like, “There is no hope,” you know what I mean? It’s the first time that I realized people aren’t even voting in their favor—they’re just voting by what they heard. And then you realize, “Oh, no one really cares or knows anything.” We’re just kind of listening to our parents or some maniac screaming on TV, and that goes for both parties. I think Democrats think they’re a lot smarter than they actually are. No, you just read Infinite Jest and think you’re interesting. But truth be told, you haven’t actually done the research.
YL: I have tons of friends—well, not tons. That’s a stretch. Jesus. [Laughs.] But I do have some friends. I’m even going to say their full names. I would either call my brother Isaiah Lester, who’s a writer on Black-ish, because a) he’s strong and b) he’s my brother. And this is the kind of thing where you have to think about what are the chances of both of you staying quiet? I’m assuming we’re trying to keep it quiet in this situation. It’s usually not like we’re just going to bury the body.
AVC: For this, we’re talking a burial and then a cover-up, so you have to think about who can actually keep the secret.
YL: Right, exactly, you’re not gonna bury a body and then just be free. Something crazy has usually happened to get you in that place. So it would either be my brother or my best friend, Reza Riazi, who’s also, he’s a producer, just because it feels like Hollywood people would be better at being quiet about it. You know, it’s a weird town. He’s also strong. I would trust my girlfriend, Chelsea Devantez, to keep it quiet, but I wouldn’t want to get her involved. She’s a writer on [Bless This Mess], and I don’t want to mess up her career. My brother and Reza, they got to fend for themselves.
YL: This is going to be a complicated answer. First, I actually hate Halloween. I think it’s only for kids. Anytime I see an adult dressed in a Halloween costume, I truly wish you could, like, hate-crime adults who wore Halloween costumes. That being said, I don’t think I ever got into Halloween because when I was younger, my mom liked to save money and would make all of our costumes. When I was 7, I wanted to be Wolverine from the X-Men. So she bought a $7 yellow sweatshirt and sweat pants combo. And she drew lines on it to look like the costume and put one of those black Zorro masks on my head, over my eyes. And then because Wolverine had claws, she just gave me long, witch’s fingernails. And I was like, “These aren’t the claws. He has knives.” It literally just made me look like an angry bird. I had talons. But that’s one of the only costumes I even remember. I’ll go with that one because it was just bad. It’s my favorite because it was so bad.
YL: I’d want to live somewhere quiet, so Palm Springs or Salt Lake City. Maybe Santa Barbara? Just somewhere that you could still get Postmates, but also there’s just no one, you know what I mean? There’s not a soul around. So it would be either Palm Springs or Salt Lake City. Keep in mind, I’ve never been to Salt Lake City. I have no idea what it’s like. I just have the feeling, ’cause I don’t drink or smoke or anything, that I wouldn’t be affected by any of the religious stuff. It just feels like people just hang out there, you know?
YL: There was a boy in my class in, it must have been kindergarten or first grade, and he was wearing a shirt that said, “Sex wax,” which is a thing surfers apparently use. It was an ad for some surf shop or whatever and it said, “Sex wax,” and all the kids at school were like, “Oh, my god, sex.” So I came home that day and I just, I didn’t even use it in the correct context. I just said, like, “Hey, Mom, can I have a bowl of sex cereal?” or something. And she was like, “What? What’d you say? Sex cereal?” I said, “Yeah, you know, everyone was talking it about at school.” So she told me, “You’re using sex as a modifier. That’s not what sex is. Let me explain it.” So she breaks down what sex is, and I swear to god, that it’s true.
The next day we have to go to a church event. Outside of our apartments, someone had thrown or dropped a jar of mayonnaise, so there’s spilled mayonnaise everywhere, and we’re walking out to the car to go to church with my family and this church event and in front of my entire family, my mom points to the mayonnaise and goes, “See, Yassir, that’s what sperm looks like.” And everyone was like, what is happening? I was way too young.
YL: I’m not even doing this for promo, but Taylor Cox has a hilarious podcast, Hills I’d Die On. I was on it, and I said that black licorice is the worst thing to happen to humanity. I don’t want to repeat that one. So you know what hill I’ll die on? That Ed Sheeran hasn’t gotten enough credit. [Laughs.] You audibly gasped, that’s crazy.
AVC: I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to. But I am going to ask you to elaborate on that just a little, because he has a ton of awards and money.
YL: I feel like there are certain musicians that really do quote-unquote Black music well. When you listen to an Ed Sheeran song—besides “Perfect,” that song’s kind of garbage, but you’ll still be dancing to it. But my point being, is that people clown him for being short and ugly and a redhead. I’m like, yeah, but every song he has is a banger. I’ll say this, we treat Ed Sheeran the way that we treat female musicians a lot: “If I don’t want to bang them, they suck.” So I’ll say he’s the first male artist where his looks have gotten in the way, even though he’s still über-successful. People are like, “Oh, the songs still smash,” but he can’t get away from his looks.
AVC: He’s everywhere—he was just in that movie Yesterday—but being everywhere isn’t the same thing as being respected everywhere.
YL: Right, exactly. Remember when he showed up in Game Of Thrones, and people were like, “Die!” I don’t know. I got love for young Sheeran.
YL: I go the opposite of the field I work in. So, I usually don’t watch TV or movies to feel better. I’ll either listen to some upbeat funk music, so, like old Parliament or The Spinners or just something that makes you dance. The Brothers Johnson, Marvin Gaye. I also love visual art and painting, so I’ll look through one of my art books. Conor Harrington and Janiva Ellis—I just look at their pieces, and I’m like, “Even if my day sucks, people are creating good things, making good things today.” It usually re-centers me.
YL: Oh, god, that’s a hard one. Actually, you know what, it’s not hard. I absolutely would want to know, even if it ended up being today or tomorrow or whatever. I know people are more worried about the countdown of it, but I think that’s the selfish approach. You could actually fill that time with your family and with your friends. You can actually prepare a proper goodbye, versus just bouncing. There was a rapper that died this morning, and it wasn’t meant to be morbid. I just went to Instagram because I really don’t know who this person is. And he had the picture from 15 years ago, of himself in front of an Escalade. But my point being, is he had no idea that was coming, because if so, I don’t think that would be his last picture. You know what I’m saying? So that’s what I would want, is to prepare those around me. You can’t fully prepare everyone or even yourself, but the idea that you could actually say your “I love you”s and make sure that everyone is set up properly—I feel like you’d really cement a legacy, if you knew a little bit more. I know some people who are like, “I have to get famous,” or “I have to do this.” And you would realize how inconsequential that is, and you’d really be with the ones you love. I know it’s kind of corny, but whatever.
Bonus 12th Question from Da’Vine Joy Randolph: What is your guilty pleasure when you think no one’s looking?
YL: I don’t really do things in the shadows. Actually that’s a lie, you know what it is, I’ll buy junk food and throw it away because I don’t want to eat all of it, and I’m just like, “Okay, leave it alone.” What I’ll fully do is if no one’s around, I’ll just reach into the trashcan, and not pull it out but just reach into the trash can and just eat it out of the trash. It’s usually still in a bag of some sort, but sometimes it isn’t. So I’ll just eat, like, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos out of the trash or the cherry Laffy Taffy or Butterfinger Bites. Just fully be standing over the trash can, eating, and thinking about what I’m going to do for the rest of the night. So, eating out of the trash, I guess you could say.
AVC: Without knowing who the next person we speak to is, what would you like to ask them?
YL: Barring alcohol—you know what? Let’s not make it that specific. What food item do you wish was available at every single place you ate at? It doesn’t have to be your favorite food, but it does have to be something that you wish you could get everywhere. Does that make sense?
AVC: Of course. What would your own response to that be?
YL: I wish cream soda was everywhere, so either cream soda or Cookie Crisp cereal with almond milk. I wish you could just go into McDonald’s and be like, “I’ll have a cheeseburger and a bowl of Cookie Crisp.”