Roy Wood Jr. doesn’t act like a comedian adored nightly on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. When we sat down at a table above New York City’s infamous Comedy Cellar, he asked about the latest Wolverine movie like we were comedy buddies catching up.
Wood stays accessible because, to him, he isn’t above any other comedian. He’s just in a different part of the cycle. I asked rising New York comedian Neko White what words he thinks of when he thinks of Roy Wood Jr. He said, “Black. Proud. Intellectual.” After meeting with the Birmingham native, I would add “humble” to that list.
The special finds funny nuggets of truth in the otherwise tragic race relations still plaguing this country. Whether that’s a white tour guide at the civil rights museum to racist McNugget policies, Wood’s jokes provide a serious relief to those seeking an escape.
His set list is full of perpetual punch lines befitting of a nearly 20-year comedy veteran. We spoke about his special, as well as The Daily Show‘s election night coverage, the future of radio, and why he learns more from new comics than “the old heads.”
So you shot the special in Atlanta. Any particular reason why you chose to shoot it there?
Well, I’m talking about race and I’m Southern. I wanted to shoot it where race is an issue. I don’t think you should talk about stuff away from where it’s happening. I think that’d be a little disingenuous. The people who are effected the most by a lot of what’s happening in this country are black people. So, I want to tell some jokes to some black people. There’s a lot of black stuff in my act. I wanted to shoot my special in a place where those issues are still relevant. There’s not a lot of black stuff you can find a joke in these days, but I tried my best in this special. The people dealing with the pain and carrying the weight of these injustices are the ones who deserve to laugh the most. If it’s a black joke about blackness, black people are the ones who deserve that five seconds of relief from whatever the weight is on their shoulders at the time.
I like that you didn’t say, “Hello,” to the crowd. You didn’t ask them how they’re doing. You just walk out and say, “What if…”
“Fuck you, let’s start.” Yeah. I’m trying to do more of that in my live shows. It’s something that musicians do and I really enjoy it. Musicians will just start. I saw Janet Jackson at Caeser’s and I saw Jay Z in Atlanta at Phillip’s Arena. And the one thing that was common between the two of them was they just started. The lights dropped and the fucking music started and you got going. I feel like you have to earn the right to even say, “Hello.” The other reason why I started doing that was, when I first moved to New York in 2015, I started realizing that’s 20 to 30 seconds of my act where I wasn’t telling a joke. In my head, it didn’t work for my style.
That’s two or three jokes you lose out on.
At minimum it’s two. And so, unless I have a jokey way to say hello — like, Jim Gaffigan’s the opposite — Gaffigan has this way of getting a laugh on hello. I don’t know how to do that. I kind of did it on Fallon, but my preference is to just start with material. The difference between late night and your own hour special is that the formalities of hello are kind of expected on late night. So it’s almost too jarring to a late night audience to dive right in like that. But the concept of starting with your material was something I saw Jay Z and Janet Jackson and Carlin also did that.
I don’t know if it was You’re All Diseased or Live in New York, but there was a special that George Carlin did where he said, “Thank you,” and then he opened with an abortion joke. Out the gate, first two sentences: Thank you. Comma. Do you ever notice the most of the people who are against abortion… “
“…are people you wouldn’t even want to fuck in the first place?”
Yeah. I was like, that’s jarring but it instantly brings people into your world and what you’re trying to do. That was the reason why I just dove right in.
You saw Carlin live?
I wish. He came through Birmingham years ago, before he died, and I saw him in the comedy club but I was too pussy to speak to him. Even now, when I see the gods of comedy, I don’t speak to them. I’ll give them a nod, an acknowledgement, like when Alfred looked at Batman at the end of The Dark Knight Rises from across the coffee shop. That’s it. I don’t speak to really important people.
Who are the gods of comedy right now? Who are the comics you don’t talk to?
You never know what they’re discussing or dealing with. I respect the fact that comics that are higher on the totem pole than me have a totally different set of circumstances of what they’re dealing with. I’ve seen Chris Rock out, and I’m like, “No fucking way I’m speaking to Chris Rock.” I’ve seen Louis C.K., even Chappelle. I’ve been backstage and Chappelle has spoken to me—he’s been cordial—but I don’t feel it’s my place to go strike up conversation with any of these people.
I’m good friends with George Wallace. One time I was at the Comedy Cellar and George Wallace is sitting at the table with straight up comedy history — Seinfeld, Romano — just all these people. There’s like eight dudes at the table and they’re all legends. I was mad at George Wallace for calling me over. I’m like, why the fuck would you call me over knowing I can’t speak to these people. Don’t do that, Mr. Wallace!
In the totem pole of comedy, everyone is above somebody, basically. You’re nobody new. You’re 19, 20 years in. You realize there are plenty of people who have the same reverence towards you, right?
Yeah, there’s always this feeling like there’s someone who’s been doing it 10 who don’t wanna come over and talk to me. I try my best, as a comedian, to be approachable and to be friendly with everybody. I don’t have many enemies, if any, in this business. I’ve worked hard to be very respectful to most people. There are a lot of comics who helped me who didn’t have to, so I try to do the same thing for the younger guys. Especially guys who ask, because to me if you care enough to ask somebody, you give enough of a shit about your career to recognize that you need some help. To me it shows drive and initiative. That’s something you can’t teach. No comedy class can give you drive.
You can teach all of the other cstuff: how to structure a joke, how to have good posture, all of that. But you cannot teach drive and initiative. More often than not, they’re not asking for blood. It’s just, ‘Hey, who books that thing?’ or ‘Hey, when you did this thing, how did you approach it?’ I talk to comics a lot who are doing the college showcases with NACA. I had a really good stretch of booking colleges with NACA. So I’ll get an inbox from a motherfucker I never even met saying, ‘Hey, how do I do the thing with the thing?’ I just think of all the times with all the older comics when I was featuring who helped me. When I first moved to Los Angeles in 2007, I was taking acting classes and I caught wind that Aisha Tyler had gone to that same acting class. For no fucking reason, I sent Aisha Tyler a nine-paragraph Facebook inbox with detailed questions about her approach.
With no ties to her?
I do not fucking know Aisha Tyler. I’ve only met her once since 2007. And she replied. She replied and gave me some great answers and some great guidance for what I needed at the time. She could have just not replied and that would have been fine. I try my best to never be one of the guys who doesn’t reply. [Editor’s Note: that’s not necessarily an invitation for everyone to send Roy a nine-paragraph Facebook message tonight.] That comes as a detriment at times because you can be up all night talking to somebody. But if it’s somebody who seems like they’re going to halfway apply themselves and try to be someone decent, it’s like, I can fuck with you. And why not kick it with all comics?
The other thing I’ve learned about this career is that it’s cyclical. You will have your run and then, if it’s not done properly, you will need a second run. You will need a second wind. Whatever it is you think you’re above, you’re not above it. You’re just at a different part of the circle. You could revolve right back around to that same point.
You might be begging for that thing you think you’re above a few years from now.
There’s guys that I know that I used to open for who were on top of the world back in ’98, ’99. They’re calling me asking if I can get them in rooms.
How’s that feel?
It’s humbling and horrifying. It tells me that whatever I’m doing now, if I don’t work hard at it and continue to bust my ass, it could all change. This whole thing could change. Everything about stand-up is about finding your audience so that when Hollywood is done with me, I can still go out on the road and tour and tell my jokes to the people who were on the ride with me the whole time. This whole thing, to me, is about finding my audience so I can have something to do when I’m 65. Everything else in between is about building that. There’s going to be great opportunities in there and there’s going to be so-so opportunities, but you’ve got to continue to cultivate it.
To me, everyone I see as a comic, they’re just potential future co-workers. They’re not below me. I remember when Hannibal Buress was featuring and I was headlining. And [when he started to headline] I’d call Hannibal and go, ‘Who books that?’ I’ve already been through that circle. There’s no curve to this. Some people grow when they grow. There’s no science to this. I’m 19 years in and I’m asking comics that’ve been doing it half the time for advice on how to approach my one-hour special. For marketing advice. But I’ve been doing comedy longer than them.
Right, like maybe they’ve been doing Instagram longer than you.
Yeah. It proves there aren’t levels to comedy. It’s just a carousel. Some people fall off. Some people stay on. Some people get back on at different parts. They can be ahead of you. They can be behind you. They can leapfrog you or you can leapfrog them. So being disrespectful or dismissive of anyone — above or beneath you — is a bad longterm career tactic. Plus, I like talking to the young guys because they keep me humble. I love talking to new comics. I fucking bathe in that shit. I don’t want to come to the Cellar and just sit at the comics table. Let me go sit out in Long Island City and stand on the curb. Even if I don’t know the guys, there’s still a mutual comedic code of respect. We’ll chop it up. That’s how you learn. I learn more from the younger comics than I do from the comics ahead of me.
What’s the biggest thing you think you’ve learned from a newer comic?
Maintaining that tenacity, in terms of following up with club bookers, keeping a fresh Web presence and social media interaction. That type of stuff is where some older comics can slack, or if you’re already successful and doing things, you can slack. It’s like if you’re running a race and you look over your shoulder and you see someone running their ass off to catch you, it’s going to make you run a little faster, too. Because if you’re not careful, these people will replace you. It’s best to try to learn from everyone at all levels of the game because we all have something to offer. It would be naiëve to think that someone who’s been doing it less than you has nothing to offer when there’s been so many people who have achieved something on some level in less time. That doesn’t hold true for everybody—some young comics are fucking dumb. But you’ll meet a couple who have some ideas about podcasts and how to market themselves.
There’s this comedian and poet who goes by the name of Spoken Reasons. Spoken Reasons took over YouTube with his vlogs. Spoke was one of those guys that started out trying to do it in the traditional way: go to open mics, stand in the back of the room, hope that Jesus likes you and gives you three minutes. Through the frustration of the local comedy scene in Florida, that’s what birthed his ingenuity to become this creator. There’s a science to YouTube and Instagram. The next thing you know, this guy, without a major television credit, is cast as a co-star with Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in The Heat. A role I’m willing to bet you fucking money plenty of fucking stand-ups went out for.
Youngins know how to create their own doors. A lot of the youth are rejected by the mainstream. What I get from the youngins that I don’t get from the old heads is that tenacity and drive to find the glitches in the matrix where you can make a way for yourself. If I can make a way for myself and already have what I have now, then I’m twice as good, twice as well off. So, you can learn from anybody in this game. This shit ain’t reserved for people that’s in the union or that are already SAG or already have TV credits. There’s no right way to do this. Everybody who started this shit started at some different process. Comedy is not a linear career. It’s not medical school where you do this and you do your residency and now you’re a comedian. No. You do this; someone says, “No.” You say, “Fuck you,” and get on YouTube. You become a draw and then you start selling out your own shows in independent rooms because comedy clubs wouldn’t book you. And then you get on TV.
There are so many different ways. I was a road guy. I was sold the pipe dream from the old heads down South in ’98 because their path is what I thought was going to be my path. I almost missed my opportunity. I almost missed the Internet because I worked with so many older comics who didn’t come up with the Internet. If you just do what the old heads tell you, then you believe that the path is to get funny and maybe one day you’ll get a showcase and Jay Leno will like you and put you on TV for five minutes. That’s part of it. But it’s also about figuring out a way to find your following in the digital sphere, figuring out what’s next, what’s around the curve.
No sooner than Vine dies, Snapchat grows. And now Snapchat may even be on the way out because of what Instagram and Facebook are doing. So what’s the next thing? What’s the next way to reach people? Ingenuity only comes from being denied and being told, “No.” You gotta be around motherfuckers that are struggling and that’ll keep that fire. I just feel like any comic that thinks they can only learn some shit from someone that’s been doing it longer is a fool. A straight-up fool who’s leaving so many opportunities on the table.
And you found a path through radio, right?
Radio was fine. Radio helped me creatively because thankfully I was at a station that allowed me to try a lot of weird sketches and oddball shit. But I officially cut ties with radio in 2012 when I got fired from my morning show in Birmingham. I booked Sullivan & Son on TBS and we couldn’t work it out for me to do the show remotely. Basically, they didn’t want to fork over the money for me to do the show from Los Angeles. I didn’t agree with it, but it’s your radio station. Do what you want.
But radio was always something I did to accompany comedy. From ’98, my junior year in college, it was always stand-up. But I noticed that if you were funny on the radio, it gave you an opportunity to have your own comedy room. The main thing I did was create relationships with other comedians that came through the station. I co-hosted a show for about eight years and then I hosted my own show from 2010-2012. When I hosted my own show, any comic that came into town — even if they weren’t performing — I’d say, “Come on my show, man. Whatever you got to promote, come on my show. Promote the shit.” I was just trying to build relationships. When I got to Los Angeles, these guys remembered favors. “The best way you can help yourself is by trying to help other people.” I forget who said that. Try to add value to someone else’s existence. And more often than not, there’s reciprocity in that. Instead of just trying to take, take, take from people, add value.
Where do you see radio going now?
I think terrestrial radio will go back to allowing the talkers to talk. I think terrestrial radio is getting kicked in the dick right now. Part of it is because five or six companies own like 80 percent of all the radio stations. Most radio stations are cutting down on the amount of time that jocks can talk. What corporate doesn’t realize is that jocks are the only thing you offer different from Spotify, Pandora, Tidal, and Apple Music. Half these cars have Internet now and they can stream music, so why the fuck would I listen to terrestrial radio where you’re going to shove commercials down my throat? The only possible reason to listen to terrestrial radio now is because of the personalities. I believe that for terrestrial radio to survive, stations will realize they’ll need personalities who they allow to talk. Right now, they shorten the breaks. It’s just, ‘Shut up. Play the music. Play the music.’ Music ain’t why the people are here anymore. The problem is radio is run by a lot of old school guys who are too pussy to try to change it up.
There’s a reason why The Breakfast Club goes viral with interviews that never air on the station. That’s because good interviews and personalities still matter. The Breakfast Club will interview a motherfucker for probably five or six minutes on air. And then they’ll do a 30-minute longform interview that they’ll put on the Web and that bitch’ll do half a million views in a day. That’s the power of personality. There’s still an audience for terrestrial radio, but the audience is for the personalities, not the music. Go back 10 or 15 years ago before streaming, yeah, play more music. That’s what people want to hear. But now people can get the music anywhere.
What prevents those guys from just starting a podcast?
I believe some of them are. I believe some of them are slowly getting to that place. Terrestrial radio’s got too much money to just go out quietly though. People think podcasts are going to instantly be the new whatever-the-fuck. Terrestrial radio ain’t the DVD player. It’s not going extinct. It’s just going to have to evolve.
Ultimately, radio is already competing with the Internet for advertising. They’ve done studies where advertisers are better off with certain markets advertising on Facebook than the radio. That $100 will get you more eyeballs, it’ll get you more people. Radio’s got to change how they do stuff if they want to survive. And I think the best solution will be allowing the personalities to shine and stop turning everybody into a fucking replaceable robot. That’s why there’s so much syndication. You can syndicate some shit because the jock is only allowed to talk for 30 seconds, so there ain’t enough time to be unique. Anyone who can be unique in 30 or 40 seconds, God bless ‘em! Those are the guys who still have a future because they know how to be funny in bite-sized portions. It’s a short list.
You started when you were 19. What do you think of starting comedy young versus starting when you have some life under you?
Start early. The quicker you learn the performance side of it, when you finally learn the creative side of it you’ll be sharper quicker. I look back on my first five to eight years of comedy, and all I was doing was learning the performance. I was learning to perform on television; I was learning how to perform at certain clubs; I was learning how to do 10-minute sets, versus 30s, versus 45s, and learning how to block out the set. The material was mediocre— it was C- at best. But when I finally found my voice and started figuring out stylistically what kind of comic I wanted to be, that’s when everything fucking took off. I already knew how to stack a set and knew how to where to put a punch line. I could recognize when a joke was good, but incomplete. Why wait? Why the fuck wait? I would never talk anybody into waiting to start comedy.
Just talk what you know. And if you’re young, it won’t be as deep as somebody that’s 30. You just haven’t lived enough. That’s not your fault, but that doesn’t mean you can’t talk about the things that matter to you and make them important to the audience. It’s up to you to set the stakes and really dictate what it is people should give a shit about. I feel like as a comic, we still have that domain. We still have the ability to show you why this is important and why you should give a shit about this thing. When I was 20, I was doing jokes about book buybacks, but I was doing them in rooms where the median age was 40. They didn’t really wanna hear about that. But you figure out ways to craft the bit. What I always tried to do early on was, instead of talking about myself, I’d make the audience reflect on when you were my age. Then the joke becomes something more introspective for you. Now I can do the college material.
One of my first jokes was about my roommate drinking all of my soda—and the joke is so shitty. “My roommate eats my food when I’m gone. I had a bottle of 7-Up. He drank 6 of ‘em.” Just because you feel like you’re not relatable, the crowd doesn’t get to dictate that. Talk what you know.
And now you’re talking President Trump on The Daily Show. How’s that been?
Our election night episode was one of the highest-rated of the entire run of the show. You’d have to find the numbers on that, don’t quote me. [Ed. note: The Daily Show with Trevor Noah recorded its most-watched month in October leading up to its election night coverage.] Something’s definitely different. Before that night, when someone recognized me from the show it was a quick hi-bye conversation. But now, when someone sees me and recognizes me from The Daily Show, they say, ‘Thank you.’ It’s weird. I’ve never heard that. It’s people going, ‘Thank you. This is what we need.’ Even from the other side, people who didn’t really care about some of the stuff we would do or say, even the Fuck Yous are a little stronger. People are definitely charged up more about things.
Do you think comedy gets more political when Republicans are in office?
Comedy is one of the tools of the oppressed. When there’s more things to be upset or indignant about, then comedy becomes more prominent. It’s a coping tool and an educational tool. It’s a tool of activism to try to invoke change. When there’s more things to be in an uproar about, I think political comedy bubbles to the surface more.
What was that first show after the election night like? What was that Wednesday like in the writer’s room, on set?
I said on air on election night, ‘It feels like I’m at the funeral for America.’ Everybody came in and took a deep breath. It was a very somber mood—definitely downbeat. But people came in, took their breath, and started pitching stories. The day after the election, everybody was looking for Hillary. ‘Where’s Hillary? That was the big thing. I think what the election also gave us was an opportunity for both sides to reflect on themselves. There was definitely some liberal arrogance. You got to point the light over on that side, too. I don’t think it just becomes The Anti-Trump show with Trevor Noah. I think it still has to be a very fair television program that finds the bullshit on both sides of the aisle. And I think this election revealed that there was a lot more bullshit in the Democrats’ backyard than people originally thought. But it’s so hard to even get to that stuff when you have a president who does 10 things that are newsworthy every day.
There’s so much Trump material now, I almost wish all the late night shows could just form a pact. I feel like all the late night shows should meet and Samantha Bee goes, ‘Alright, we’ll cover press conference jokes. Seth Meyers, you do international relations jokes. Trevor Noah, you handle anything about the Democrats vs. the Republicans in the Senate.’ There’s so much material, we literally could divide it up amongst the shows.
But who would be left to make fun of Kim Kardashian?
I think John Oliver would pull his weight.
Watch Father Figure online at cc.com and in the Comedy Central app. The extended and uncensored album is available for purchase on iTunes on Tuesday, Feb. 21.