Jacket, A-1 Couture.
I’m accustomed to seeing comedian Roy Wood Jr. on The Daily Show, nondescript suit, tie slightly askew. However, in his new role as the host of Comedy Central’s This Is Not Happening, he presents a slicker side.
But allow me to digress.
Like most leftist millennials on the older end of the generation spectrum, it was nearly impossible to imagine The Daily Show post-Jon Stewart. Coming of age and into political consciousness during the plague of the George W. years, whenever I lacked the energy, enthusiasm, or intellectual rigor to read The Nation or The New York Times, Jon Stewart was enough. Following an act like that is tough. But eventually Trevor Noah won me over with his adroit insights and sharp critiques, delivered with a relentlessly debonair smile. I was compelled to watch Noah and his lively group of contributors each night, particularly treasuring segments which featured the great Roy Wood Jr., who joined the show as a correspondent in 2015.
Shirt, A-1 Couture. Jacket, Abasi Rosborough.
Wood is not quite a foil to Trevor Noah—both men traverse the increasingly destructive and grotesque political terrain of our current moment and tackle institutional racism—but they do occupy two very different comedic spaces. “I would say the biggest distinction between myself and Trevor is emotion. I have the freedom to be angry a little more than he does,” reflects Wood. “Trevor knows how to handle his anger and where to put it. He came up in a system, apartheid, which is as thick of a social beast as American racism and our own fight for desegregation. His upbringing was different from my own. I think that gives us a different temperament that honestly makes him perfect as a host, because he has more levity and understanding of the issues and fight that lies ahead. Trevor’s already been through a lot of these things. He’s had the crazy dictator leaders, the oppressive laws that made it tough to be black. So much more of what I dealt with growing up was institutional and unofficially racist, but he grew up with official racism.”
During his segments, Wood can be droll in approach and execution, but most characteristic of his performance is a melding of sharp wit and a rawness that goes unmatched. Unlike Noah who is often subtle or diplomatic, or a comedian like John Oliver who takes his audience step-by-step through all angles of whatever socio-political catastrophe is the topic du jour, Wood is simultaneously nuanced and blunt, and his audience needs to come already knowing quite a bit about the plight of the black man in America to fully grasp his message. Wood attributes much of his politicization to growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. “There is a lot of poverty in the South and this begets many different problems. Poverty and lack of access to education. My mother was determined I get a good education, and constantly moved me around from school system to school system to ensure that I got the best opportunities…I’ve been in situations that could’ve ended up a lot worse. I’ve had guns pointed at me … I’ve been called boy, which to me is worse than n*gger. Because it’s completely demeaning. Maybe the ‘n word’ doesn’t bother me as much because black people call me that, but boy—nobody calls me boy, not even ‘my n*ggas.’ Now that I have a child of my own, I can understand the opportunities my mom was creating for me.” Despite his own conscious comedy, Wood emphasizes that politics isn’t a requirement for success in today’s comedic landscape and is only present in his own comedy because it’s inextricably part of him. “I don’t feel like activism is a comedian’s responsibility. If you doing a joke about Oreos is funnier than my joke about protests or police reform, who’s the better comedian? I do talk about some of the issues in the world because those are the things that matter to me. Sometimes I wish I had the capacity to talk about things that don’t matter. There’s a certain beauty in taking the blue pill… there are times when I feel more angry than funny. Being angry is exhausting. I’m still mad about shit that happened in 1993.”
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Though he continues to appear on The Daily Show, Wood has embarked upon a new adventure—one which hopefully provides respite from anger—as he’s taken over as host of Comedy Central’s This is Not Happening. In his opening monologue, Wood gives a glimpse into what will ensue: “Motherfuckers coming up here to tell you stuff that’s going to get them uninvited from Thanksgiving.” Like any good MC, Wood expertly stands back and lets his guests shine. He is noticeably more polished than usual, but that trademark rawness is ever-present, as he tells his own stories: Contradicting his mother who allegedly spots Rod Stewart in a TGI Fridays, and an indelible interaction with controversial rapper and first amendment champion, Luther Campbell. The true departure from Wood’s previous gigs is his starring role in opulent intros of pure insanity, where he dons unforgettable articles of clothing (white suits, gold lamé shorts) and preludes each episode’s theme in the most outrageous ways, whether he is simulating sex acts in a song and dance number, slip ‘n sliding into a pile of cocaine, or envisioning a talking goat until his head literally explodes. “I think what they’re always trying to do with This is Not Happening is to make sure that it’s not like anything you’ve ever seen on television before. They do a good job of that. This is the only storytelling-style comedy show that exists. It’s important to present that this is craziness you’re witnessing, because the stories are extreme. Every little detail about the show matters and I’m so thankful, because we’ve gotten to a place where people don’t care about show intros, themes, or anything that helps to establish context. Everybody’s in such a rush to get to the material.”
Wood is also developing a show which tackles probation, a unique facet of the prison industrial complex. “Probation officers are the branch of law enforcement trying to keep people out of jail instead of putting them in jail,” Wood illuminates. “They’re judged on how many people don’t return to prison. If you have clients that violate their probation, it reflects poorly on you and your ability to keep them out of jail. There are some probation officers who do just want to put people back in jail, and that’s part of what I want to explore, because these are the gatekeepers to people’s freedom. I think it’s an environment rarely explored on television and we have an opportunity to tell interesting stories and make some good jokes along the way.” Investigating this kind of content via comedy is radical, but an unsurprising venture for Wood, who identifies America’s biggest problem as a lack of dialogue about profound issues. He continually utilizes comedy to spark dialogue, but also maintains that it is useful as a tool for healing regardless of content: “Comedy is the salve on these open wounds we have right now. And I think that comedy as a whole, be it satirical or less topical comedy, is an opportunity to escape the madness or make sense of the madness and know that you’re not alone in feeling the way that you feel. That, to me, is the true purpose of comedy. And being someone political is fine, like Bill Maher, as is being as apolitical as someone like Seinfeld.”
With an extensive CV, including numerous notable late-night appearances, a comedy special, a sitcom, and now hosting a show while in the process of creating another, you’d think Wood would take a moment to revel in such accomplishments. But after years of watching embittered comedians on the road, he’s not resting on his laurels. “There’s always another challenge to rise to, so there’s never really an opportunity for me to kick back. I know the day I stop trying to evolve is the day my career ends. If you’re truly evolving as an artist, it’s not a comfortable place. But if you’re not comfortable, how can you ever say you feel successful? You can’t. I’ve seen failure up close in the green room. I’ve seen what happens to a comedian when he stops trying. That is fucking horrific … for me it is a horrific existence to even think about. I don’t know if that’s a positive place to operate from, but it has kept me eating for two decades.”
Jacket, Abasi Rosborough.
Roy Wood Jr. is undoubtedly a renaissance man whose repertoire will continue to expand, as well as an invaluable political voice rallying against injustice via humor. It’s unclear precisely where he will go from here, but chances are it will correlate with his development as a father. “When it comes time to start doing parenting material, I just feel like as a black man I have to prepare my son for two different Americas. He’s gotta know which one he’s in at all times, and how to behave accordingly. I’ve toyed with the idea of doing an hour special about how to prepare your black child for America. That’s gonna take some time and experience with my son. Preparing a black kid for America is like teaching him how to pet a dog. America is this beautiful aquarium full of puppies and snakes. You have to reach your hand in there every day and try to get the puppy. You’re not always gonna get bit. But it’s a possibility. And preparing my son for both is my job, and that’s kinda scary. Once I absorb that I’ll be able to find some humor in it, but for right now a lot of what I’m doing is still trying to dissect society and the insanity that lies there.”
While Roy Wood Jr. balances a bustling career and an unyielding pursuit of comedic growth with the pitfalls of parenthood, he still finds time to contemplate what in America needs to transform systemically: “If I could change one thing by the time my son is an adult, I’d change racism. Racism is the root of a lot of different issues in this country. Get rid of racism and you automatically have some degree of housing reform, you have better opportunities for jobs, and better opportunities for education. You definitely increase the statistical probability of him making it through a traffic stop. There’s a lot of things that I think if racism were off the table, would automatically improve and make the world a better place. But in the meantime, I’ll just teach him how to pet puppies while avoiding snakes.”
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