In his Twitter bio, Roy Wood Jr. says he tells the truth like “white draws,” which seems to be his mystical calling, pointing out the excrement in our lives. As a correspondent since 2015 for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, a veritable white pop-cultural institution, Wood Jr. is particularly subversive and incisive because he universalizes the specifics of everyday Black life in the form of dramatic and explorative narratives. And his wry, observational humor, skits, and absurdist commentary elucidate American life, particularly as it relates to race and bigotry. Take a segment he did after white supremacists held a deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. The joke shifts from the comedian ignoring the shock and horror of the rally to the farcicality of what it means to be a master race. Wood Jr. mocks the racists’ bravado, and suggests that if white supremacists were truly indomitable, then the rally should have been held in a Black city instead of a white college town. He then critiques the redundancy of a master race that can’t craft torches and instead has to buy them from a gardening store.
In addition to working on The Daily Show, Wood Jr. is crafting his as-yet-unnamed, third one-hour stand-up special for Comedy Central, which is set to air this year. It follows his previous two specials: 2019’s No One Loves You and his first, 2017’s Father Figure. (Both premiered as the network’s highest-rated original stand-up special.) Wood Jr. had just celebrated his forty-second birthday when we spoke by phone in December 2020. It was close to dinnertime, and Wood Jr. was setting up cameras in a bedroom in the Harlem apartment he shares with his girlfriend, shoe designer Salone Monet, and their young son. We talked about his writing process, comedy as a form of journalism, and one joke he tells in Father Figure, which details why he always asks store clerks for a receipt and a plastic bag. This joke is framed as a tug-of-war with a concerned Best Buy clerk, who insists Wood Jr. doesn’t need a bag for a purchase. When confronted by the cashier about not caring for the earth, Wood Jr. has to decide between saving the environment and risking a dalliance with security. He retorts, “It’s about safety. I’m Black. I don’t get the luxury of just walking out with shit in my hand.” The concept resonated so much with the audience that they joined in to say the punch line at the end of the setup: “I need the receipt!” Leaving without conspicuously holding a bag—and a receipt—could result in a deadly misunderstanding with store security. The joke illustrates the small ways racism affects how people move through the world, especially in stores with high-value items. It’s an observation that’s at once hilarious and heartbreaking because it is so clear that many of us live in two separate Americas.
THE BELIEVER: Your father was a radio broadcaster and he covered the Civil War—
ROY WOOD JR.: Civil War? Yeah. He is really old.
BLVR: Sorry, the Civil Rights movement. He covered stories on racism against Black soldiers in the Vietnam War. Your brother’s also a broadcaster. You studied broadcast journalism at Florida A&M University. How did this training in the family business prepare you for stand-up comedy? What was that leap like?
RWJ: Comedy is a form of journalism. You are either reporting on the world or you’re reporting on your own feelings and thoughts. You’re a documentarian talking about your own inward journey. In journalism you’re in the business of asking questions, really trying to get to the root of things. That’s where journalism helped my stand-up comedy.
BLVR: Writing a political joke is different from mining your own life for observations and material. How do you sketch out jokes differently for your stand-up, Twitter, and The Daily Show?
RWJ: Twitter is more “brown and serve.” Twitter is more about the conversation that is happening now. The Daily Show is more about the conversation happening this week or this month. And stand-up is about what has happened or what is happening. I think the best analogy I could give is that it’s like talking about the weather versus the climate. The day-to-day is Twitter. It’s very much, Hey! This happened today. Here’s a joke that fits what the conversation is today. Twitter is kind of a barbershop. You walk in, grab a couple of jokes, and get the hell on. With The Daily Show, we definitely want to get to the root of real issues that people are dealing with as tactfully as possible, but we use humor as a way to move the conversation. My stand-up, that’s definitely a place where I try to present different perspectives on something that people may not have considered. The standard difference between stand-up and The Daily Show is that at least with stand-up I have the freedom to analyze a problem without presenting a solution. Whereas at The Daily Show, you cannot do that.
BLVR: How do you workshop your jokes? What’s your process?
RWJ: I’ll tell you the one way Twitter is like stand-up. Twitter is a great place to eliminate thoughts. I can’t confirm that something is funny on Twitter, but I can confirm that somebody else is thinking the same thing and I can use that platform as a place to rule out a particular angle of attack on the topic. As far as workshopping material, pre-COVID, at least, the process was getting up onstage and going back and listening to the material. A normal kind of wash, rinse, repeat. It’s a process of eliminating words that are unnecessary, identifying the parts where people laughed, the parts where people felt something. It is just a constant refinement process of shortening your statements and figuring out places where you can touch it up, make it funnier. Once I have the joke deets worked out the way I want, then I watch myself perform the material. Once I know the verbiage of the joke, it’s just: Is it funnier if I say this word faster or slower? Is it funnier if I’m standing near the front of the stage or the back of the stage? Then I start playing around with the sequencing of the jokes: Is it too soon for this joke? Is this too edgy to start out with? Those are the questions I can start exploring, but I can’t do any of that until the jump is solid.
BLVR: What does comedy absolutely need in order to work for you?
RWJ: Mike Birbiglia said something I agree with. He said that in order for a joke to work, everyone has to agree. In order for the punch line to work, we all have to agree on the premise. That’s where comedy is starting to have a lot of differentials now, because we all come from different truths, which is what makes political comedy so difficult. You could start a joke: “The election was crazy.” Well, is that from the perspective of a Democrat or a Republican? There’s a lot of people who feel like Biden stole the election. There are other people who feel like Biden won. Which angle of attack are we looking at? The thing I find interesting about comedy now is that we lack that agreement. I think that makes things very, very difficult. Jokes definitely have to inform people. I think the best jokes are informative about either who you are or how you feel. That’s just for me. I’m not going to say that’s the be-all and end-all of a good joke. The jokes I appreciate most inform me about either the performer’s life or the performer’s perspective.
BLVR: You’ve done Def Comedy Jam, BET’s ComicView, and Showtime at the Apollo. This is the trifecta of Black comedy spaces. Black comedians say it’s harder to make Black audiences laugh, like we make you work for a laugh, right? You’re able to do it and you get mainstream audiences to laugh too. Your stand-up happens in front of a racially mixed audience and everyone’s laughing. Is there an element of code-switching involved in what you do?
RWJ: I don’t think there’s an element of code-switching in what I do. I did Def Jam and [Late Show with] David Letterman in a short period of time. I did the same joke on both shows and didn’t change a syllable. That was about presenting an observation I have about the world. I am a Black man. My comedy is definitely informed through the view of Blackness. I think I just remained myself. Black people will find me. Like any comedian, there’s going to be people that don’t find it funny, especially on the Black side of things. I think the thing that we as Black people reject is fakeness, because we’ve been lied to so much as a culture. Come to me with your honesty, the most honest version of yourself. If it makes me laugh, cool. If not, that’s cool too. That’s something I was very proud of. I went to shows with two different demographics and didn’t change anything. There are topic selections I did differently for Letterman versus Def Jam. A lot of that just boils down to relatability. No, I don’t think there’s any level of code-switching. Look at what I did with Father Figure and that material. That was 100 percent about the experience of being Black in America. I feel like that material could have worked on any show.
Early on, I couldn’t afford to code-switch. As a road comic in the South, I performed for so many people. If you want to perform every week, you can’t perform just for Black people. Can’t do it. I came up with an ideology: What are the things I can talk about that a Black audience would want to hear and that these fucking rednecks that I’ve got to perform for next week would also want to hear? Then a day later, I’m at a casino performing for people over the age of seventy. I’m not code-switching just from Black to white. I’d have to code-switch from rural to urban to rural. Then I had to code-switch from young to old, and that was just too much to be concerned about.
I had more fun trying to find the connector. What is the connective tissue between all of these different races and demos and economic classes? It made how I perceived the world a little broader. I don’t have to come out and go: Black, Black, Blackety, Black, Black, Black. That just ain’t me. It’s obvious I’m Black. I don’t have to go, Black people everywhere, or I, as a Black person. I just think eliminating that qualifier gave me the freedom to talk about stuff like that. That’s the thing I enjoy, actually: it’s talking about race. That’s on a good day. My comedy is for Black people to know they’re not alone in feeling the way they feel and also informing the people who are ignorant of the journey of a Black person in this country.
BLVR: My sense of your work, be it your prank phone calls from your radio days, as a contestant on Last Comic Standing, or hosting This Is Not Happening, is that you tell very detailed, highly nuanced stories that pull back the curtain on the absurdity of racism and inequality, but we don’t know that until after the joke. Can you articulate the common element in your work? What is the DNA of your jokes?
RWJ: Emotion. We can all relate to emotions. I’m not necessarily trying to be right or wrong. I told the story on This Is Not Happening about the time that a guy tried to pay us in cocaine. He pulled a gun on us. That is fear and regret. We all have moments of fear and maybe moments or situations when we wish we could have had something. I enjoyed being able to pull that out of people. If you’re emotionally naked with the audience and you share your fears and the things you’re happy about, the things that confuse you, that stuff becomes relatable. I’m not here to project to the audience. I’m not here to explain to you why I’m right and you’re wrong. I’m just here to explain to you why I think like this. You don’t have to agree [despite what you think you already agree with]. That’s the thing that made George Carlin so beautiful: that you could find yourself laughing at shit that you didn’t even agree with.
BLVR: In Father Figure, you did this bit about never leaving a store without a plastic bag and receipt. The audience said “receipt” just as you were uttering the word. It was unprompted. When I was viewing it, the people who were saying “receipt” were Black. I immediately got what you were saying, because I do the same thing. I never leave the store without a plastic bag and receipt, but I also didn’t realize these are the universal things Black folks do in America. It’s kind of like when you get pulled over by the cops, you switch your music from rap to classical or smooth jazz…
RWJ: Yeah! Yeah!
BLVR: Or when you’re in the emergency room you start saying to the nurse: Well, I have a degree and I volunteer for stray animals and I play violins for cats. Black people try to humanize themselves so they’ll be seen as individuals and hopefully get unbiased treatment. When you make these jokes, I feel like there’s a “wink, wink, nod” to Black folks. Do you have an imagined audience in mind when you write them? Do you care if white folks understand?
RWJ: I don’t care if people don’t understand the inside jokes I have with Black people onstage. Because for them, the joke is the moments of discovery and seeing that there are droves of people that experience a different America from them. Like I said, a lot of my material, that’s just to confirm to Black people that they are not alone in thinking like this. This allows me to go onstage and say, I don’t care about recycling. I don’t care about reusing bags. I’m not leaving the store without a bag, because I will be suspected of shoplifting and I may be shot by the police.
That’s essentially a joke about race, but I use recycling as the way in because that’s what will hook a white person. It’s also the more curious entry point into that topic, because the joke, of course, is about a Black person getting into an argument about conservation. I find it fun to take these Black things and Trojan-horse them into stuff I think some white people are more concerned about. Also, it’s a more fun journey to the punch line because it’s more atypical. I came up with a bizarro premise and then took it to a place where you completely understood my stance.
BLVR: When you are in stores and cashiers resist giving you or other Black folks a receipt or a bag, do you riff on this joke? How does this joke echo in the real world for you?
RWJ: I don’t generally joke with strangers, ’cause I just don’t know them and it’s going to be weird. I don’t know what kind of mood a stranger is in, and if they’re going to take the joke as a joke or take it seriously, and I don’t want to argue. I leave people alone. There are times when I see other people being told they don’t need a receipt, but I just mind my business. I think that’s just coming from New York. But I am stern about getting one. If I want a bag, there is a brief hesitation when I’m considering, What did I buy? What is the likelihood of me looking like I stole this when I walk out of the store? So I always get one.
BLVR: Given your work on Stand-Up Playback [a weekly video series for Comedy Central where comedians watch and critique sets from earlier in their career with Wood Jr.], do you watch the response videos that are made for your routines? Do you feel a sense of satisfaction in seeing people immediately identify with and dissect your jokes? What is your feeling when you hear people laugh and in some cases cry at the astuteness of a bit?
RWJ: I’ve seen some of the response videos. People tag me in them sometimes. I’m happy people find joy in my comedy and I’m more thankful that people give me credit for the material and that these people aren’t just joke vultures stealing stuff for their own gain. At the end of the day, you want your comedy to resonate with people and to have something that leaves them viewing society differently or confirming for them the way they view society. When I see people putting those bits out there and then having people come behind them and go, “Oh yeah, that’s Roy Wood Jr.,” that’s dope. That’s dope all around.
BLVR: You eulogized Dick Gregory in a touching, emotional piece for The New York Times. How did opening twice for Dick Gregory change your comedy?
RWJ: I worked with him once in Nashville, and before that in Selma, Alabama. I was hosting a brunch function and shit was beautiful, man. They presented him as a speaker but it was something deeper than that. I mean, talk about an emotional connection to an art form. Then, when he performed at the comedy club, it also felt like I was watching this speech, this dissertation. It’s just magic. It made me completely let go of any fear I have of trying to make a point and not comedy. Or, how can I put it, the fear of silence… being afraid of that silence. Because Dick Gregory embraced silence and made it part of the performance.
When you talk about leaving the show more informed, you are talking about a Dick Gregory performance. He definitely put me in a different head space to write material. And also the age range at a Dick Gregory show was something I clocked. You have the sense that he was appealing to so many different generations with something very specific to the Black experience. There were white people there. The things that Black people go through aren’t complicated things to understand; you just have to be quiet and listen. I feel like the white people who can show up to these types of shows—if they’re quiet and pay attention—they will catch on and figure it out. I don’t feel the need to really sit down and do anything for them personally. So I don’t.
BLVR: What is your writing ritual? Do you go somewhere quiet? Do you need noise? Are you in the back of a comedy club?
RWJ: [Dave] Chappelle talks about how comedians need to identify their joke machine. I only write material maybe three, four months a year. That becomes the material I workshop the rest of the year. I just have a collection of thoughts on my phone. I transfer all of that over to a Mead Five Star notebook. Kind of write the bullet points. I still like to handwrite because it commits it to memory better, even better than typing. I go onstage in fifteen-minute intervals and just work through everything in my notebook that I collected during what I like to call “high tide.” So high tide is the period of time during the year when my creative juices are flowing and when joke premises are popping into my head. What follows is low tide, when I really can’t think of anything.
I can’t, after twenty-two years, tell you when high tide comes and when it goes away.It just comes and goes. Always has. When it’s low tide, I can’t think of new jokes. That’s when I start looking through what I harvested during high tide. I sift through those premises, work those out onstage, watch the tapes, then hear the audio. Refine! Refine! Refine! But, you know, generally when I’m still onstage, I am working out ideas from the last creative high tide.
Journalistically now—this is where The Daily Show has changed some of my writing style—I like to research topics before I start talking about them. I often try a premise just to think, but if I really want to start getting deeper into it, then I want to do some research.
There’s a bit I’m working on about how when people do horrible things in America, we often blame the parents. That’s the default behavior in this country: to assume that this horrible person, like a mass shooter, didn’t have decent parents. But you would be surprised that there’s some mass shooters that actually had a really good childhood. There isn’t anything that the parents could have done differently. That’s the premise I presented to the audience. I have to have solid, solid information after that. That requires research. After I collect the information I also now have to make it funny. If I can’t do all that, then I can’t put that onstage. That’s just some shit for a TED Talk.
When you start getting into edgier topics, you can’t misstep, because comedy is the one art form created in front of the consumer. And when people are ready to cancel you for doing or saying something they didn’t agree with, they’re not considering the degree of difficulty and the trial-and-error required to say something edgy or to get right up to the line. You have to be a little bit more skilled when developing edgier material.
BLVR: How do you become skilled in developing edgier material?
RWJ: By being wrong. Crossing the line. That’s how you learn where to scale it back and where to become a little bit more appropriate. But that’s also where Twitter helps. Twitter shows you the holes in your premise and the blind spots you may have on social issues. Being able to address those social issues within your joke makes you more of a well-rounded comedian. Twitter lets you know what you’ll be pushing back with in the new material: If I say this, I know this group of people is going to feel this way. I need to be able to address that in the next part of the joke, if I still see fit.
Look at the mass shooter premise, right? That joke is essentially about parenting and the expectations of parents and the presumption that parents are in full control. They are not. I have to make sure that remains the target and not me at any point, making fun or making light of being a victim of a mass shooting in this country. Someone is sensitive to that and sensitive to gun violence. That’s a slippery slope. I cannot at any point be dismissive of the tragedies that the mass shooters dealt to so many people, right? But at its core, it is a joke about how everything isn’t a parent’s fault. There was a mass shooter in his forties and people attacked his mom. She was in her seventies. This man was forty-six years old. This isn’t the same as a teenager. This is a different situation. I mentioned that, and that was the original punch line of the joke. Part of the joke was just about: When are you done being a parent? If your child is forty-six and acting out, is that a seventy-year-old woman’s fault?
Someone made a very fair point. There could be things that happened in his childhood that he never unpacked that led him to unfurl at forty-six. In a lot of ways, the forty-six-year-old is just as unstable as the eighteen-year-old shooter. It just took him time to come out of his shell, you know; it’s terrible. That’s the punch line I have to rework. That’s the angle I have to rework. That’s something where if I’m wanting to mention a forty-six-year-old man, I cannot mention him without talking about his childhood. The joke as it was originally constructed disregards everything else that happened in his life up until that point. Or I have to do the research on his name and see the type of childhood he had to see if it upholds my original thesis. This is not a joke that could just be thrown up really on a five-minute open mic. I have to sit and do research and set a block on it. And once I do all of that, eh, maybe I still have a joke. Maybe I don’t.
That’s a joke I’ve had in my head since before COVID hit. I’ve kind of turned my attention to writing scripts and doing a lot of other things. I missed the stage, but not enough to go onstage.
BLVR: You are producing a sitcom with Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder called Jefferson County: Probation. [In the sitcom, which is based loosely on events in his life, Wood Jr. plays a probation officer willing to bend the rules to prevent his clients’ recidivism.] Can you talk about the creative process between the two of you? How do you work it out?
RWJ: We shot that pilot last year [in 2019]. Unfortunately, we shot the pilot and then Viacom merged. There’s a shit ton of back-and-forth work figuring out what they want to do, what projects they want to achieve. We’re in a holding pattern right now with the network, but in the meantime, I’m doing my best to write a whole bunch of other shit.
Aaron is a gentleman that keeps to himself. It’s a cool thing to be a part of, just to be able to collaborate with someone who I think understands the issues underneath all of this. At the end of the day, Jefferson County: Probation is the television show that, while making you laugh, can show you how recidivism happens in this country. There are more people on probation than in prison. A lot of this prison pipeline stuff is rooted in terrible probation officers and terrible judges. To be able to shine a light on that, that’s something I don’t take lightly. I needed to collaborate with someone who had a degree of understanding about the Black experience in this country.