The premise: A Black cartoonist named Keef Knight lives in San Francisco, making a popular milquetoast comic strip called Toast and Butter. After a SFPD officer profiles and brutalizes him, Knight becomes spiritually awakened and more sensitized to racism. His cartooning marker and other inanimate objects begin speaking to him, often about Blackness. He becomes more outspoken about injustice, and is now emboldened—sometimes with the help of one of these inanimate objects—to call these injustices out. And the show is called Woke. Seem a little heavy-handed?
"We knew we were taking the piss out of it," Knight told VICE. "If we had some serious, preachy show, it would have flopped terribly, especially with the name Woke."
The show, now on Hulu, works surprisingly well, thanks to Knight's excellent source material. Knight is a nationally syndicated cartoonist, one behind the "The K Chronicles," "The Knight Life," and "(th)INK." The comics cover Knight's own life, politics, racism, police brutality, and American history. He was also profiled by an SFPD officer in real life, though he'd been making political comics since before that incident.
When Knight spoke to VICE, he sounded grateful to be in the position he's in. Before Hulu picked up the show, Knight was able to stay in his profession by supplementing his income with a Patreon, which he described as "a universal basic income for art." He also previously crowdfunded on Kickstarter for his “I Was a Teenage Michael Jackson Impersonator" comic. As he told KQED, Knight ended all of his pitch meetings for Woke by slamming a 500-page compilation of his comics on the table, saying, "There's your first ten seasons." And when he met with Hulu, it worked.
Co-created by Barbershop writer Marshall Todd, the show has an impressive cast. Lamorne Norris stars as Knight in the show, while Workaholics' Blake Anderson, and Chicago actor-comedian T. Murph portray Knight's roommates, Gunther and Clovis; with Saturday Night Live's Sasheer Zamata as Ayana, a journalist-slash-antagonist-turned-ally, to Knight. The anthropomorphized objects that speak to Knight are used lightly throughout the show—an intentional choice—but these objects, too, are voiced by a high-profile cast that includes Nicole Byer, Eddie Griffin, JB Smoove, Cedric the Entertainer, and more.
Knight is aware of the show's polarizing title, but abides by the idea that there's no such thing as bad publicity, as long as it gets people watching. The cartoonist spoke to VICE about his show, cartooning, and the "incidental" timeliness of Woke.
VICE: You've been writing and doing cartoons on topics like racism and police brutality for a couple decades. What were the conversations around those issues like when pitching the show at this point in time?
Keith Knight: [Racism] is an evergreen subject. And I think that's one of the problems with Hollywood is, I don't think as a Black creator, you can sell a show that isn't couched in some sort of oppression. Right? When you look at some of the most popular, Black-led shows, over the past couple years—Lovecraft Country, and Watchmen—it'd be great if our show was somewhere in there. But a lot of that stuff, I don't know if it would've sold if it was like, 'I just want to do one [show] about Black joy. A fantasy, with a Black character.' It's one of those things where I would say that Hollywood needs to get to the place where there are gatekeepers in the room that are receptive to all sorts of stuff. I'm totally grateful for Hulu giving us the opportunity, but if we didn't have a compelling story that dealt with something so topical, I don't know if we would've been able to sell it somewhere. It's an interesting conundrum.
From a pure aesthetic standpoint, I'm sure there was a concern about how to integrate animation to be in service of the story rather than a gimmick. How did you approach that? Were there examples you looked to that executed on that concept well?
I gotta credit Maurice Marable, the producing director, directed most of the episodes. When he was first pitching what he wanted the show to look like, he'd present a lookbook. He came with a lookbook with a lot of images from stuff like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Amélie, Do the Right Thing, and Sorry to Bother You. This is sort of the magical realism that was going on in all those movies. He was the one that suggested that we use puppetry and real-world stuff, as opposed to using flat 2D animation or making it all computer animation. I think that was the key to elevating the animation. It wasn't like we had a lot of examples [of other shows that have done this]. That's why it was [so difficult] to convince people that it would work.
When we were first getting the footage back, we waited till it was completely done. Once it was done, you could see, 'Oh, OK, this does work.' So it's really exciting and gratifying in the end. And also, [our smaller budget] prevented us from overusing animation. If we had our druthers and a super-large budget, we may have overdid it.
Stepping back, can you tell me more about what made you try Patreon before selling the show?
I remember going to an editorial cartoon convention in [Washington,] DC. I was like, Oh man, I'm looking forward to speaking to all the folks who've been doing it longer than me. I just remember all these people walking up to me, going, 'Keith, can you give me advice on how to make it without having a regular gig?' I realized, Oh my god, [if] they're coming to me for advice, we're in big trouble. I remember consciously shifting, going, OK, I'm not going to seek advice out from people 20 years older than me. I'm gonna seek advice out from people 20 years younger than me. I remember someone writing to me, saying, 'Keith, you know, there's this new thing called Patreon that I think you'll do really well at.' A few months later, I saw a cartoonist was making, like $9,000 off of it. Then I started looking at different cartoonists on there that were doing really well. I started to realize this is an opportunity for people to support your ongoing work, almost like a universal basic income for art. It's enough to keep you moving forward and doing the thing you were put on earth to do. It took a while to catch on and really figure it out. But once I figured it out, it was so freeing that I was able to really pursue looking for the chance to develop the script into a TV show. I was in LA at the time, and LA's not cheap.
You've said before that you left San Francisco before becoming one of those of those people is like, 'Everything has changed!' But then you had to go and shoot Woke in Vancouver because it was too expensive to shoot in San Francisco.
Yeah, that's the irony of it, I would love to be able to shoot in San Francisco, but it priced itself out, even to Hollywood producers. For what it's worth, it's nice to hear from people who see the show and say, 'You didn't shoot in San Francisco, but you catch the vibe of it,' which I like.
If you had your druthers, are there things you would've loved to be in San Francisco for, in terms of scenes, or bars, or places?
I just wanted to make sure we didn't spend a lot of time showing cable cars, and Golden Gate Bridge, all the typical San Francisco footage that they show to go 'you're in San Francisco!' The biggest thing for me, I remember saying, was that I want the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence as some extras. So on the set of the pilot, there was some sisters there, and they came up to me, and they said 'I heard you specifically requested us.' I said, 'yeah?' and one of them said, 'My grandfather was one of the original Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in San Francisco.' There was a lot of neat stuff like that that happened. The first night that we shot the scene that I wrote, where I was like, 'Oh, man, I can write for TV!' was the scene where [Morris and T. Murph] find the wallet in the pilot. [In this scene, Morris and T. Murph find a white woman's wallet, and argue about the safety of turning it in.] That street that we shot on was called Keefer Street, and the bus that rode down that street was the Knight bus. We saw that bus ride down Keefer, and we were like, 'Holy shit! We're gonna get this show!'
Speaking of names, how do you think the word 'woke' has changed?
We had the name for a while, and watched it become super popular along the gestation of the show, and then turn into this bad thing. We were actively trying to think of another name. So much so that we were pitching all this different stuff, even during production, but frankly, we weren't coming up with something else that worked. I just remember, at some point, Trump put out "Woke" hats, and someone wrote to me, 'Did you see Trump is advertising your show?' When you see the word, it's like, free advertising for us. Why not just own it?
You've written about how some people have complained that your comics are racist because they depict an act of racism. Is that something that has happened with the show, with a broader audience on Hulu?
Automatically, if you have any show that tackles any sort of touchy issue, you're gonna have plenty of complaints. And if you're going to call your show 'Woke,' you're opening yourself up to a lot of criticism, and it's just part of the territory that you've got to expect. I would be more worried if no one gave a shit about our show.
You've been doing this for a while so you must have a sense of what will ruffle more feathers than others. Have there been responses to things that you didn't expect to offend anyone?
Not really. [laughs] The last thing that really surprised me, I did a strip about how all of the people who are following Trump to all his stops when he was just doing nonstop campaigning rallies, I likened it to the Grateful Dead, and the [Deadheads] following the band around. He does the usual set list, it's when he improvises is when the magic happens, going off script, doing all this weird stuff. I just got all these angry Deadheads writing me, saying, 'You just lost 42 million fans!' And people going, 'Fuck you, Keith Knight!' Saying all this horrible stuff to me. I was surprised. I thought that was really interesting and refreshing.
On a totally separate topic, you've mentioned how Germany approaches its history in a much more straightforward way than how America does. How do you think about that, in terms of the work you're doing, and are you seeing any meaningful change in how we approach our history?
You see stuff like the success of the 1619 Project that the New York Times put out, and people want to put that in the curriculum of schools. And then you see the pushback by Trump and all this stuff. If it's going straight up to the top like that, it really is getting out. And it's just important for us to acknowledge how this country was built, and I just don't think we take the time to do it. This is what I do in my racial literacy slideshows that I do around the country. I think people actually want the truth. And if you hear the truth, it's like, Oh, OK, now I get it. Now, I understand why people are complaining. The police grew out of slave patrols? Poor whites were hired to track down slaves and keep the Black community in order?
When you look at the timeline, [you can] see how Black people have spent more time in this country enslaved than they have been free. And I don't think people totally understand what happens when you have generations and generations and generations of free labor. What is it that you can build? And when they were supposedly freed, what do you think happened?
When I was growing up, slavery was basically covered in a paragraph. And they said, Well, slave owners, a lot of them treated their slaves like family. That's it. We have to change that. We have to come to terms of what happened. And we also have to celebrate the contributions of non-white people to this country, which we don't. Maybe George Washington Carver. [laughs] We need to really celebrate this, just understand what folks went through from the perspective of the Native Americans, the Chinese immigrants, the Mexicans, all that. And I'm just trying to do one little small part. I'm like a gateway drug, hopefully.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Woke is streaming now on Hulu.