You might not know Roy Wood Jr by name yet, but you’ve definitely laughed at his jokes. As a correspondent on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and a member of “The World’s Fakest News Team”, Wood Jr has been delivering intelligent, thought-provoking takes on current events on Comedy Central since 2015.
However, Wood Jr has been around much, much longer – getting his start in college radio at his alma mater, Florida A&M University, before breaking through as a series regular on the TBS sitcom Sullivan & Son. After the shows run ended, Wood Jr moved over to talk about his other passion, as a knowledgeable, if somewhat curmudgeonly contributor to ESPN’s Sports Nation.
On a nation-wide tour in support of his 2017 special and comedy album Father Figure, as well as his upcoming role as the host of Comedy Central’s This Is Not Happening, Wood Jr was in Burlington, Vermont when we connected a few weeks ago. The Alabama native and I spoke on the phone on a frigid December afternoon, just a few days after Doug Jones’ win in the special Senate election in Wood Jr’s home state. As expected, he had plenty of wonderful insights on a broad range of topics.
Brightest Young Things: I know you’re from the South, so I’m assuming you’re not much of skier?
Roy Wood Jr: No, not in the least. I’ve gone skiing twice, and I just didn’t really enjoy it.
BYT: I grew up in the Dominican Republic, and then lived in Virginia and Atlanta up until maybe a few years ago, so never did much by way of winter sports. I moved to D.C. and my white friends are always trying to get me to go skiing – I’m like “Nah, I’m good”
Wood Jr: It’s just not..I don’t get why that sounds fun to people.
BYT: I’m not even into water skiing, so I feel you.
Wood Jr: I’m a retired wave boarder myself. [Laughs]
BYT: I loved your 2017 special, Father Figure – you started off on such a strong note discussing the Confederate flag as a way for people of color to identify what kind of white people they’re dealing with. And it continued on as strongly.
It seems like you got a bit of attention with your bit about black patriots and talking about the struggles people of color – especially black people – face in this country. What was the genesis of that bit? How did that idea come to you?
Wood Jr: For me, it’s of course related to [Colin] Kaepernick and the knee and the anthem protests. What it comes down to is not what one side believes and what the other side believes – it’s not opinion A or opinion B is one way to go about it – it’s also about why do you have opinion A or why do you have opinion B?
It’s not so much arguing each side as much as trying to look at “why does someone hold this opinion?” The fact that you think black people aren’t as patriotic as white people already shows a fundamental lack of understanding about the black experience in this country. It’s presumption – and where does that presumption come from? Before we even get to whether or not players should stand for the flag, let’s just talk about why you even think black people should. That’s how my brain works in regards to trying to break down arguments.
Also, let’s be real about it. It’s a lot of comedians, it’s a lot of people commenting on it and they all got an opinion, so I’m trying the best I can to find the anger that no one else is touching on and that’s always been my goal with my comedy. I think I accomplished that.
BYT: Your observation that there are no patriotic songs by black artists, just songs about specific cities that it’s safe for black people to go to, was absolutely killer. I was reviewing a new bar last night and I heard James Brown’s “Living in America” as I was walking in and introducing myself to the manager. I lost my shit laughing.
Wood Jr: Ruins it for you doesn’t it? [Laughs]
BYT: I was trying to explain but I just ended up looking like a crazy person. I was like “so, there’s this bit…”
Wood Jr: And then you look like a lunatic; that’s your fault bro.
It’s funny because that kind of started as one song and it was more of an attack on the lack of patriotic black songs. Then I started trying to do an analysis of “well, are there original black patriotic songs about the country you know?” And I couldn’t find any. I saw a lot of songs about cities, so I started doing it around that and “Living in America”. But when you look at the data, and respect the data in front of you, the truth is that black artists talk about cities, but they don’t talk about America. It’s a much smaller experience for a black artist.
BYT: That’s a very astute observation, was a brilliant observation. You recorded the album in Atlanta – that was a nice bit of crowd play when you mentioned “Welcome to Atlanta” at the end.
Wood Jr: [Laughs] That’s the only place that that joke would’ve gotten an applause.
BYT: I know you grew up in Alabama and then went to college in Tallahassee in the late 1990s. Did you ever drive over to Atlanta for Freaknik?
Wood Jr: No! I never got a chance to get down there. I had buddies from college who flew in they got to go. Mardi Gras came pretty close to Freaknik in terms of the behavioral aspects they brought out of people. I think that Mardi Gras and Freaknik have their similarities for sure, but no I never had a chance. We used to skip school and go to Atlanta and go to Six Flags, but we were in high school.
BYT: How was your experience going to Florida A&M University?
Wood Jr: My experience going to A&M was life changing. I would make the argument that if not for A&M I wouldn’t be who I am today career wise. I feel lucky to have gotten teachers who I felt like cared about me as a human being as well as every other student. I wasn’t just a number, I wasn’t just a warm body in a classroom. I think that level of attention ended up being very important to my growth. Every kid needs different things and I think in a lot of ways professors at black colleges in a lot of places whether they like it or not they kind of look out for you on a personal level, in some regards. If you look at it like that I don’t think I would’ve been given that level of attention as a student at a predominantly white institution. Definitely not what I needed as a child, as a teenager.
BYT: It’s a different degree of focus and attention.
Wood Jr: It’s still great curriculum [at FAMU]. I got a damn good education but I got a damn good preparation for life too and I think that’s part of what college is about. College is as much about education as it is preparing you for life.
BYT: I want to get a bit political for a minute. Your home state made some news this week with the Senate race, and Doug Jones’s victory for the Democratic Party. Are you with Charles Barkley when you say it’s good that Democrats won but they need to do a better job of not taking black voters for granted and only approaching them when they need votes?
Wood Jr: I’ve always said that for a black person, voting Democrat is like eating fast food. You know in the long run it’s probably not that good for you, but you don’t have any other options. You have literally have no choice but to eat some bullshit. Democrats know they don’t have to try anymore because they know we don’t have a better option. They don’t have to do anything better to be the best. I think they could definitely show, more interestingly it’ll show the Republicans the power of the black vote. They can work to win or they can work to suppress it which is traditionally what they [Republicans] have done, just worked to suppress the black vote but I don’t think that’s something that will continue. I don’t think it can continue, because people are too loud, they’re ready to be heard.
Florida got a world of shit on their hands because, Florida just saw an influx of almost 200,000 Puerto Ricans in the wake of Hurricane Maria. That’s 200,000 new voters who currently are kind of pissed at the current president. Who do you think they’re going to vote for in 2020? In that regard I do think that as minorities gain more of a percentage of the population, they’re also gaining more of the votes. Alabama was a reflection of that. More people came out for Doug Jones than they did Obama. More black people did, yeah. Not only is it about trying to change, it’s also trying to make sure that a particular kind of politician doesn’t remain in power anymore. I think that’s what the black people in Alabama said – they said “this shit stops today. It’s done.”
BYT: Have you ever considered a career in politics?
Wood Jr: Negative. I have no interest in organized politics. It’s cool, but in the bigger scheme of things there’s too many rules and I think I could get more accomplished as a free agent.
I think I would be more effective just as a man than I would be as a man beholden by the rules in politics of the government.
BYT: As a private citizen for sure there’s a lot more impact in many ways.
Wood Jr: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying: if I just wanna throw some money at a problem or go help somebody, I don’t have to worry about the interpersonal politics and all of that, or worry about being an ally for another fucking politician and signing off on his bill. The difference between politics and philanthropy is that a philanthropist doesn’t have to kiss someone else’s ass.
BYT: You’re still a correspondent on The Daily Show, and also on tour promoting your own comedy. I saw you do a set at the Village Underground in New York maybe two years ago.
Wood Jr: Yeah! That’s when I was just tuning up the special, getting it all together. That was like finishing touches.
BYT: What’s the balance like for you being on the show and being on the road? Do you have a preference for one or the other?
Wood Jr: That’s a good question. I like The Daily Show – it’s a different type of comedy at the end of the day. Stand up is the bread and butter, and stand up pays the bills. There will come a day when I’m not on The Daily Show anymore but I will always be a stand up comedian. The best that ever did it died with dates on the books. From [George] Carlin to Bob Hope – they had dates on the books the day they died. They did stuff. I feel like comedy is the one thing they can’t take from you. The one thing they can’t control the one thing that can’t be curbed. There’s a freedom there.
Of course with The Daily Show I travel a bit less because I have to give my time to the show and the opportunities that it has brought me. I’ve been very thankful for that, and I’m very appreciative of the time I’ve had to work on the show. It’s fun because when you look at the world that we live in there’s certain jokes that don’t work on the stage that are perfect for television within that moment in time. By the time we get to my next comedy special a year from now and you’re talking about what Alabama did yesterday you have to look at it from a different scope. A wider lens. On TV, you zoom in a lot more and you can be much more specific in the type of jokes that you create. That’s an opportunity I’d never had before working on The Daily Show. Unless you count me talking about sports on ESPN, I’ve never had the opportunity to be on television to talk about a topic with the level specificity that I have on The Daily Show.
BYT: Do you have any advice or suggestions for stand up comics starting out and folks trying to make it in the industry?
Wood Jr: If you don’t live on either coast then I think you for sure need to do what you can to get there –you either need to move to a city where what you’re doing is happening or you need to create the type of scene that you would’ve hoped to have had in that market. What I’m saying is you don’t have to be in New York, just close to New York.
Beyond that, try to get on the stage as often as possible, and explore opportunities to create the type of content that you wish to provide to an audience. Part of why I got The Daily Show was because of the work I was doing on ESPN and part of why I got that work was because I created my own video blog about sports and we would just rant and talk crazy about a topic. Not that different from what I do on The Daily Show. [Laughs]
For people trying to make it, trying to get started in all of this you have to surround yourself with people who are motivated. Anybody in your life that doesn’t support what you do or at least understand what drives a dreamer, you have to get them out of your life. Removing toxic people from my space is something that in my opinion is very understated in the world – in the process of what you need to do to make it. First thing you need to do is find other people that want to make it. Hang with those people, talk to those people. You’re going to drive each other and feed off of each other.