Comic Roy Wood Jr. Taps Into America's Psyche On 'The Daily Show'
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's first guest, comic Roy Wood Jr., is a correspondent for "The Daily Show." His first appearance on that show was the same day Trevor Noah took over as host. Wood also is the current host of the network's "This Is Not Happening" series and stars in his own standup comedy specials. The new one premiering tonight on Comedy Central is called "No One Loves You" and tackles such controversial subjects as standing at sporting events for the national anthem. The New York Times just said of Wood that he might be the closest thing we have now to Dick Gregory.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "NO ONE LOVES YOU")
ROY WOOD JR: If you want more people to stand for the anthem, change the song.
WOOD JR: That's half the problem right there. It's just the lyrics to the anthem - we can stand to any song. Patriotism is a feeling. Let's not forget that. Patriotism ain't no one song. For as long as we stand and agree that people died for us to kick it, we can do that to any song. You can do that to Bruno Mars. What's more American than Bruno Mars?
WOOD JR: They say America is a melting pot. Well, damn it, I want to stand to Bruno Mars. He literally looks like every race at the same time.
WOOD JR: What's better than that? What's more American than us standing with the Hawaiian, Mexican, white, lesbian, Jewish man...
WOOD JR: ...To honor the troops?
WOOD JR: You're mad about the damn anthem. Man, please, let's be real about the anthem. First and foremost, the beat is whack. It don't go hard.
WOOD JR: You love America, but you ain't downloaded the national anthem to your phone.
WOOD JR: If you was at the club and the DJ started playing the national anthem, you'd be like, what the [expletive] is wrong with this DJ?
WOOD JR: You ain't at the DJ booth, hey, man, play some of that patriotism [expletive]; that's what I like; that's the jam.
BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke with Roy Wood Jr. last year and started by playing a clip from the year before, a segment from Wood's 2017 Comedy Central special "Father Figure." In that one, Wood, who is Southern and African-American, kicked things off by walking to the mic and instantly approaching yet another sensitive topic - the Confederate flag.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "FATHER FIGURE")
WOOD JR: But if we get rid of the Confederate flag...
WOOD JR: ...How am I going to know who the dangerous white people are?
WOOD JR: I'm just saying the flag had a couple of upsides. Let's just be real about it.
WOOD JR: I ain't saying keep it around, but I grew up in the South. I can't tell you how many times the Confederate flag came in handy.
WOOD JR: You're stopping for gas at a strange place at 2 in the morning. You see that flag hanging from the window. You know this is not the place to get gas.
WOOD JR: And you keep it moving.
WOOD JR: What's the rush to get rid of the flag, especially if you're white? If you're white, you should want to keep the flag for a little while longer so at least black folks will know you're cool.
WOOD JR: Because if you're white and you're not an [expletive], that's the one thing that helps us identify you. You get rid of that flag, we'll be (vocalizing).
WOOD JR: We've got to figure out a way to know who the cool white people - cool white people, we just got to start giving y'all wristbands or handstamps.
WOOD JR: Just something you can show in a dark alley. Let us know you're down with the struggle. That'd be cool.
WOOD JR: Give me your money, white dude - like, whoa, ah-ah-ah (ph).
WOOD JR: I'm so sorry. Come on through. Come on through. No, they got the wristbands. They good. Listen, put this wristband on - this one over here now. In case it go down, you're going to have that wristband on.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Roy Wood Jr., welcome to FRESH AIR. So that bit sounds like it has a lot of truth behind it. Did you feel, when you were growing up in Alabama, like Confederate flags warned you away from places and people that spell trouble?
WOOD JR: Yeah. I think the difference between Southern racism and Northern racism is that in the South, you know where you stand. And there's - I don't want to say a freedom in that. But when you know where the boundaries are, then you kind of know how to play the game a little bit more. So if someone's going to openly say, I don't like you people, and I'm going to hang a flag over my door to remind you I don't like you people, then I know not to eat at that business. How much cleaner is that than me sitting there and getting bad service for an hour and a half, complaining to the manager and nothing happening? Which one is more tormenting? It's more - the Confederate flag is literally more convenient. You saved me 90 minutes.
GROSS: You say you performed at strange places. Did you ever perform at a bar or a club that had a Confederate flag?
WOOD JR: Absolutely. I've been called the N-word from the stage by somebody in the crowd, and the club owner did nothing to defend me. So there's definitely been questionable situations. But at the end of the day, give me my $50 that I drove nine hours to get paid (laughter), so I can be on my way back to Birmingham. Cities like that - traditionally, my protocol was to never stay at the hotel that the venue provided. So I'd either sleep in my car, or I would stay at a - you know, I would drive three or four hours out of town. Like, I would split the drive that night and just drive halfway back to Birmingham and then sleep somewhere else because I just felt like in those towns - if I'm one of the few black people, and I'm here telling the jokes and, you know, ha-ha-ha (ph), it's all fun and games. But to some people there, it isn't a game.
You know, there's a level of respect you have to have for someone who's bold enough to say that they don't like you and that they'll call you one of the most hated words in the history of this country. Somebody like that might be motivated to come find you after the show. And I'm the only person in town with Alabama plates. So yeah, get the hell out of there. And, you know, thankfully, every gig wasn't like that. But I'm thankful for those gigs. So, you know, it's - if nothing more, my first nine, 10 years of comedy were just a very, very bitter education on the psyche of the middle of the country.
GROSS: Why were you even booked in places that had such a kind of racist audience?
WOOD JR: 'Cause they had a microphone. I didn't care. Why should I care? Nine times out of...
GROSS: Did they know that you were African-American when they booked you?
WOOD JR: Yeah, yeah, but they figured black people are funny. But you just better not date my daughter (laughter) or hang around town too late. Like, I did a show in Johnson City, Tenn., which is a eastern Tennessee mountain town. And people would come up after the show. And there's some town - there's some neighboring town over. And supposedly, there's a sign that says, don't let the sun set on your black ass here in this town, where you basically had sundown warnings where you had to leave by the time lights were out. And this is 2002, 2003. This is recent.
So when you're booked in a weird city and the booker calls you and goes, hey, man, I need you to go do blah, blah, blah, Arkansas and you look at it on a map and you can see that it's - I call it the blue line. It's the freeway. You know, the freeways on, like, the atlases are blue. They're denoted by the color blue. So I could look into about how far off the blue line a city was whether or not I was going to have problems. And it looks like a problem city. OK, I'm going to go into town late. I'm going to pull up right to the venue. I'm going to do my gig, get my money. And then I'm leaving.
GROSS: So I want to play another clip from your comedy special "Father Figure." And in this, you know, you're talking about how we live in two different Americas and that when white people don't understand what African-Americans experience, it doesn't necessarily mean that the white people are racist. Sometimes it's just that the white people are uninformed. And then as an example, you talk about going to a Best Buy where you had to educate a white salesclerk. You had just bought a cellphone case.
WOOD JR: Correct.
GROSS: And the salesclerk told you that you didn't need a bag for it, so you had to explain why you needed the bag.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "FATHER FIGURE")
WOOD JR: Dude at Best Buy going to decide I don't need a bag with my purchase.
WOOD JR: You just have an iPhone case. I figured you could just pop that open. No, I ain't popping [expletive]. You put it in the bag.
WOOD JR: I need that in a bag. What do you need a bag for? I don't understand why you need a bag. It's wasteful. Recycle. Don't you care about the Earth? I go, sir, this has nothing to do with the Earth. I'm a black man in America. I've got to leave this store with a bag, bro.
WOOD JR: It's about safety. I'm black. I don't get the luxury of just walking out with [expletive] in my hand. That is a roll of the dice. That is a horrifying day if I - no, not only do I need that bag. I need that receipt.
WOOD JR: And staple it to the outside. I don't want a receipt in my hand. You staple my receipt to the outside like Chinese carryout. And I'll hold it up in the air. I'll "Lion King" - I'll hukana matata an iPhone case out of Best Buy. And it's not his fault. He just didn't understand. He thought he was saving the Earth, but he was saving a life. That's what was doing.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: That's my guest Roy Wood Jr...
WOOD JR: (Laughter).
GROSS: ...On his recent comedy special "Father Figure." So is that a true story? Did that really happen to you?
WOOD JR: Yeah, that happened in Seattle. And it wasn't as flagrant as I made the salesclerk out to be in the joke. But it was me very politely explaining to this guy, I don't want to walk out of here without a bag. I just don't. Like, you're cool, but the yellow shirt up there at the door - he doesn't know, or he's not going to assume. I have no bag, no receipt. I'm just walking out with something in my hand. That concept is so foreign to me as a minority and having been harassed and followed around stores before and suspected of shoplifting. Why would I give someone invitation to question whether or not I'm operating within the boundaries of the law?
GROSS: I thought it was so interesting that you chose somebody to tell a story about who perceives himself as doing the right thing, as being very environmental-minded and therefore trying to not give you a plastic bag but not getting what it would mean for you to walk out without the bag and the receipt.
WOOD JR: Yeah. And in that regard...
GROSS: I mean, you have the receipt, but it would probably be in your pocket. And then if you reach for it, who knows how that would be interpreted?
WOOD JR: Yeah, it's just - no, it's - if - I don't care if I bought a Tic Tac. I want a bag.
WOOD JR: I want the biggest bag you have just to make sure. And you know - and that's where when it comes to educating people about issues of race and just - here's a snippet of black life you might not have considered, something as simple about a bag. Like, for me, I enjoy being able to find material that specific in that regard because it gives me an opportunity to just show a little bit more of my world and what I believe African-Americans go through. And it's not to vilify this man because I can't say that he's racist because he didn't know that a bag could get me harassed. If he doesn't have a black friend that's ever explained that to him, when was he ever going to learn it? Here's a joke for me to explain it to all of y'all.
BIANCULLI: Roy Wood Jr. speaking to Terry Gross in 2018. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS SONG, "TOOT, TOOT, TOOTSIE")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2018 interview with comic Roy Wood Jr. "The Daily Show" correspondent's latest comedy special, "No One Loves You," premieres tonight.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Can I ask you about the neighborhood you grew up in and if your parents worked, what they did for a living?
WOOD JR: So I grew up in Birmingham, Ala., on the west side. The neighborhood is called West End, ZIP code 35211, one of the worst ZIP codes in the city in terms of crime statistics at the time. I haven't checked the crime census data (laughter) since I left in '96 for college, but - pretty rough neighborhood on the backside of the crack era, backside of - we moved into West End on the back end of white flight. So in the '80s, we had a couple of white neighbors.
But you know, by the early '90s and, you know - crack had really taken over. It was pretty much an all-black neighborhood. The one thing that I've kind of joked about sometimes - but it's actually true - is that if you're going to live in gang territory, it behooves you to live deep in gang territory because where I lived in Birmingham, most of the shootings were happening where territories met - like on border lines, almost, if you will. So there were a lot of bad people, but a lot of the bad stuff that happened in the hood happened more so on the outskirt areas of - in relation to where I lived.
The saving grace for me and my neighborhood was that my parents bought me a really nice basketball goal. And there was a park up the street from my house called Powderly Park. And Powderly Park had all the - you know, it was a municipal city park, and they had all the hoops. And you know, it would be bangers out there. And Powderly Park sat on the edge of Gangster Disciple and Vice Lord territory, so sometimes it would go down at Powderly Park. So my mom didn't really want me around that element. So I - and I've never talked with her about this, but my guess is that her ideology was if the boy likes shooting basketball, let's put a basketball hoop in the yard, and that way, he won't be at Powderly Park if something goes down.
And we had - it's just - I don't know if it's fate or what, man. But we had a house, one of the few houses in the neighborhood with a two-car garage - a very wide two-car garage - which meant the way the goal was set up, you could play almost half court if you played off into the dirt off of the driveway. So we basically had half court, and we had the best basketball goal with a breakaway rim because the city park - the goals always break because they're rusted and crusty, and they replace them with other rusty and crusty rims. So all the gang bangers came to our house to shoot hoops, so I met everybody in the hood.
GROSS: All the gangbangers came.
WOOD JR: Yeah. Bangers would come. Regular kids would come.
GROSS: But the goal was to keep you out of trouble, and all the...
WOOD JR: Yeah, but...
GROSS: ...Troublemakers are coming to play basketball.
WOOD JR: But - so then you asked me what my father did, and here's how it ties in.
WOOD JR: My father was a radio personality in the city.
WOOD JR: And he was highly respected. My dad was a civil rights journalist back in the '60s and '70s. He was embedded - any march you can find any footage of, I'm sure my dad is no more than two or three steps behind Dr. King covering the march. And so when it comes to black political talk and when it comes to black political commentary and playing the blues and - my dad did morning news on the radio. My father was the voice of the city of Birmingham for a very long time. His name rang out. And out of respect to my father, guys would leave guns around the corner. They would leave their liquor up the street. And when they came to our house, it was Switzerland. So you might see a Vice Lord and a Gangster Disciple. It's plausible right there in our driveway.
And there's no drama out of respect to my father and my mom because my mom also didn't take no smack off of anybody. And I think there's something to that, you know, it takes a village mindset of showing kids, you know? And my mom would bring ice water out. Like, she was nice. So I grew up in a bad neighborhood, but I had a lot of good - I had a lot of circumstances in my favor that kept me on the good side of the wrong people.
GROSS: What kind of show did your father do?
WOOD JR: My father did - he did a jazz show. He did a political commentary show. But he also did morning news as well. So he was - like, on your way to work - and in these days in the '80s, you have to remember that black radio was very consolidated. So a black station in the '80s and '90s, before the, you know, corporate split of the genres of music - you would get R&B and upbeat '70s black music during the day. You would get current pop hits - black pop hits in the middle of the day. And then at night was rap, so all black people listened to the same black station at a different time of day to hear their favorite genre of music. So no matter your age, you knew who my father was.
GROSS: Wow, that's (laughter) - that must've been amazing. Now, you started out as a journalism student in college. Did your father inspire you to head in a journalism...
WOOD JR: (Laughter).
GROSS: ...To a journalism career? - a goal that you did not (laughter) exactly fulfill. But...
WOOD JR: No, not really.
GROSS: ...Kind of close - I mean, you're doing "The Daily Show." So there's a lot of news in that. It's just a comedy take on real news.
WOOD JR: I did everything in my power to not be like my father...
WOOD JR: ...You know? And - because it's all journalism and radio. And it was cool. But I was an adrenaline junkie. I wanted to be a firefighter. And up until my father's death in my senior year of high school, that - when my father died, I was still hanging onto being a firefighter. And coming around into the spring of my high school senior year, I started noticing this guy Stuart Scott on ESPN. And Stuart Scott spoke like me but talked about sports. And he'd crack jokes. And I go, hell, that's the same thing we do every day at baseball practice. I talk about sports. I crack jokes. I could do that.
And it wasn't out of disrespect to Stuart Scott. It was just he does it so effortless. I thought, hell, so do I. If - and that was the first time I saw a version of myself doing something. And so I go, what does Stuart - what do I need to major in to do that? Journalism - cool, sign me up. And that's how I found the path to journalism. And then ironically, here we are 20 years later. And I'm a black man giving commentary to people about the state of the black condition, which is exactly what my father did only with no punch lines.
GROSS: So you carry his name. You're Roy Wood Jr. And in Birmingham, where you grew up, your father's name really meant something. After he died, what was the significance of the name? Did people remember him for a long time? Were you still seen as his son for a long time while you lived in Birmingham?
WOOD JR: In Birmingham, I'll always be my father's son. That's just what it is. And there's nothing I can do to change that. You know, he was first. He was first, and he was impactful. And to be fair, he said a hell of a lot more things that mattered than I did. You know, and even when I came back to Birmingham after college - I came back in '01. And I ended up hosting a morning show at the same station that my father used to work. At this point, the station was dedicated hip-hop. And there had been a split in the genres and all of that. But, you know, there were a lot of people in the building, a lot of the engineers. And, you know, some of the people in sales who worked with my father. There are people in radio in Birmingham to this day as we speak, who - the only reason they have a job is because my father gave them an internship back in the '90s.
GROSS: It's really been such a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much for joining us.
WOOD JR: Oh, thank you.
BIANCULLI: Roy Wood Jr. speaking to Terry Gross last year. His latest Comedy Central special "No One Loves You" premieres tonight.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE'S "WHO'S MAKING LOVE")
BIANCULLI: After a break, we hear from actor Alan Alda. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a reissue of studio sessions from 1963 by Eric Dolphy. And I review the new TNT mini series "I Am The Night." I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE'S "WHO'S MAKING LOVE")
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