We talk with 'The Daily Show' correspondent about tackling race, civil rights, and protests in his new stand-up comedy special.
Starting Friday night, Comedy Central will run a whole weekend's worth of stand-up specials, movies, and original series featuring black comedians. Key & Peele, Chappelle's Show, Katt Williams, Chris Rock, Trevor Noah, Richard Pryor, Kevin Hart, Deon Cole, and Tracy Morgan are all on the docket; on Sunday night and as a kind of capper to the whole mini-marathon, the channel's airing Roy Wood Jr.: Father Figure, the first-ever hour-long special from the popular Daily Show correspondent. Shot in Atlanta, Father Figure is a funny and at times provocative set from Wood, touching on how race in America affects everything from Oscar-bait movies to shopping in a big-box store.
While he was out running errands in New York earlier this week, Wood and I chatted over the phone about comedy in the Trump era, finding the humor in civil rights protests, and how much it means for him to get his biggest showcase yet—at the age of 38—after nearly two decades in the business.
VICE: Your special airs on Sunday, at the end of Comedy Central's weekend of black-themed specials and movies. How does it feel to be the main event?
Roy Wood Jr.: There isn't a single comedian in that lineup that I feel like I deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with. It's a blessing just to get an hour-long special nowadays. I tried to take the material seriously and speak to some stuff that doesn't necessarily get conversed about often in comedy. I hope people watch the special and have a better understanding of why so many black people aren't patriotic—why so many black people are protesting on the freeway. If they do, then I've done my job—even if they don't agree with it, as long as they understand.
The best example of that is your joke about how you always make sure that anything you buy at Best Buy gets put into a bag, so that security won't think you stole it.
It's a joke, but it's such a truthful statement. I taped this in front of a predominately black audience, so when I doubled down and said that not only do I want a bag but I want a receipt stapled to the outside, the crowd was right there with me—they were like, "Of course!" Because they live it. Moments like that is why I did the special.
Why'd you shoot in Atlanta?
I'm from Birmingham, and because I'm talking about race, I wanted to talk about it in a place that's affected by it more than other parts of the country. I'll just be honest—a lot of these jokes are for black people. They'll resonate more with a black person. If you're going to tell those kinds of jokes, you need to be where the black people are, and as far as I'm concerned, Atlanta is the unofficial capital of blackness in this country.
What's your take on the TV show Atlanta?
Dude, it's amazing. That show is probably the realest portrayal of the black experience as you hover around the poverty line—and sometimes below it. The thing that Atlanta gets right so many times is the ability to smile in the midst of your crisis. There are moments when Donald Glover's character is definitely on the down and out, but he has small victories—and that very much encapsulates coming up in the South, where you already have two strikes against you. Atlanta is a spectacular portrayal of the Southern black experience without having to put in a bunch of clapping people at church—or some stupid farm, or a villainous sheriff.
You begin the special with a killer bit about how you're against outlawing the Confederate flag because the flag helps you immediately recognize assholes. How much did you think about what would be your best opening joke?
I've done a lot of late-night TV sets, and for the most part, late-night TV is pretty restrictive when it comes to the kind of material you can do. You can go right up to the ledge, but they won't let you jump off. Since this is my first special and a lot of people don't really know who I am or what I'm about, it was important for me to capture everyone's attention out of the gate.
While I was running my set a couple of times in the months leading up to the taping, I noticed that there was no good way to get into race. I tried couching it with some marriage material, and I tried talking about other societal woes and fun stuff—but there was just no way to segue out of lighter fare into race, so for me the only choice was to dive right in. So that was purposeful, by design. If you don't like this joke, change the channel—better that than you figuring it out 20 minutes into my act when I start talking about stuff you don't approve of.
One thing I've been hearing a lot since November is that now isn't the time to make jokes, because what the country's going through is too serious. What's your take on that, as someone whose job it is to be make people laugh but who also tries to pay attention to the state of the nation?
There's a joke in everything—I don't care what it is. If you look long enough—or, in some cases, if you wait long enough after it happens—there's a joke. Everyone might not be willing to laugh at the same time, but it doesn't mean that there isn't a joke. Is it only a joke because everybody agrees it's time to laugh about it? No, of course not. I try to use humor to dissect some of what's going on. Like I say in my set, people get upset about a group of marchers blocking a freeway instead of asking themselves what the hell is going on that this keeps happening. What people are protesting will always be more important than how people protest. Anyone who inverts the two doesn't have their priorities in order.
I've heard it said that the way white liberals have been reacting to Trump's rise is very different from black Americans. Black Americans have been like, "Of course. This is the way the world has always been."
It's funny, because this is the first time that white liberals feel like something has been stolen from them. Black people have been screwed over enough by society that we're already tempered for this. If anything, it's back to normal. Barack Obama was like an eye in the storm of political bullshit. Now the storm is coming ashore. I wasn't surprised at the election, and I'm not surprised now. All these people getting confirmed with all these jacked-up backgrounds? And people are shocked! "How could the system...?!" You talk about the system? Go get a black friend, take them out for coffee, and let them tell you about the system.
The good thing about all of this is that so many groups are joining in the fight. When you said "protest" three or four years ago, the assumption was [it was about] black people or Black Lives Matter. But if I told you they're protesting in the streets now, you would have to ask, "Who?" It could be women or Republicans at a town hall who want to keep Obamacare. The disturbances in the matrix are being caused by more than just black people. And that's how change comes—from people banding together. There's more of that now than there was before Trump.
You have a couple of bits in the set—one about black history museums, and one about an encounter with an old man who was part of "the struggle"—that speak to the civil rights movement as a thing that happened before you were born. But now it feels like important history is happening right now.
Nothing's changed that much. The only things that are different are cellphones and more colorful signs—and probably more comfortable shoes. But if you took anybody from the 60s—or, y'know, just listen to Martin Luther King's speeches, it literally sounds like he's talking about the present day. We are echoing our ancestors. I don't know if that's a good thing, but at least more people are willing to speak up. Maybe that'll turn the corner.
You dedicate the special to Dr. James Hawkins. Who is he, and what did he mean to you?
He was the dean of journalism at Florida A&M University. Before I graduated, he was one of the people who really gave me the motivation to finish college. I'd already started doing stand-up, and he was a guy who really had my back when a lot of people did not. He passed away a couple of years ago, and I never got to thank him properly. Him and Florida A&M. Because from where I started as a comedian, when I was still college, to the culmination of an hour special? That's very much the end of a journey.
Follow Noel Murray on Twitter.