Roy Wood Jr. Is Writing Jokes for Everyone
The Daily Show correspondent has been touring the country and telling political jokes—but not just for Daily Show crowds.
As a comedian, Roy Wood Jr. is, essentially, perfectly positioned right now. That’s a curse to some, but not for him. Born and raised in Alabama, Wood knows what it’s like to advocate for an area of the country with a complicated, active legacy. “People from Alabama living outside the state have an unofficial job as PR rep for it,” he wrote in The New York Times in September.
But Wood is also a central feature of what is arguably television’s most liberal institution. Since 2015, he has established a reputation as one of The Daily Show’s keenest correspondents, and as a cool, collected arbiter when it comes to the state of a fractured country.
He’ll be leaning into this status early next year, when Comedy Central will air No One Loves You, a carefully articulated snap-out-of-it special that wastes no time, starting with a razor-sharp punchline about kneeling during the national anthem, suggesting that if they don’t want us to take a knee during it, they should probably make it a more exciting song. Perhaps, he posits, by letting Bruno Mars write the anthem, and saluting that instead (“remove your hats, and put your pinky rings up to the moon at this time”). “The quicker you can break the seal on [controversial topics], the quicker you have everyone,” says Wood. “You only get one shot at that, as a performer. To really jar people into paying attention. And I think the quicker, the better.” It’s a different tactic, one that comics who prefer a healthy amount of misdirection before a real “gotcha” wouldn’t think to use. As for misdirection, Wood will tell you: “That’s just never been my cup of tea.”
But that’s not what predominately separates Wood from other comics working and touring today. This material has reportedly played well all over the country. “All of my jokes go through a bit of a hazing process,” says Wood. “The night before we taped in Chicago, I did my entire set in Peoria, Illinois… I needed to know [how the material worked] in the heart of Trump country. I like to see the reactions from different demographics, so the joke is as well-rounded as it possibly can be.”
By that, one would assume he means a safe joke. But in reality, Wood is applying himself to the principle that telling a joke for everyone doesn’t mean telling a joke that everyone can agree on.
“My own personal protocol, to a degree,” says Wood, “is to start with a point that seems a little weird and then start deconstructing it. Or, construct my way to a point.” He is a tell-it-like-is comic who interprets that cliché productively, instead of using it as a bullying tool. What he doesn’t want to do is “[stand] there with my chest out going, ‘What? I’m just saying…’ That doesn’t do anything.”
“Something I always respected about George Carlin was he always got people to laugh even if they didn’t agree with him. And I think that’s extremely important. I’m not out to offend anybody—I’m just out to analyze.”
In No One Loves You, Wood’s arguments are presented with extreme deliberation—he doesn’t want you to miss anything, but he doesn’t feel the need to condescend to you either. Whether it’s dealing with police accountability (“If you’re black, the safest thing you can do every day is call the police on yourself”), the language of a #MeToo non-apology (if they use the word “recollect,” then “some shit went down—that ain’t no regular-ass verb”), or the prerogatives of black superheroes (who don’t have the time to battle cosmic beings when they’ve got their own stuff to take care of in black communities), it’s a comedy special that treats you like an adult, which Wood seems to take as a personal responsibility.
“For me,” he says, “it’s a lot easier to get away with saying something people might not always agree with if you can show your work… My opinions are no different than a math equation—you can’t just show the answer.” This isn’t a new invention, but it’s one that’s fallen by the wayside as comedians have begun to rely on the assumed support of their audience. This kind of “clapter” is something that no one—not, say, Norm Macdonald and certainly not The Daily Show—can say they haven’t cultivated at one point or another.
“If I can get those people onboard,” says Wood, “it’s a much better joke. Something I always respected about George Carlin was he always got people to laugh even if they didn’t agree with him. And I think that’s extremely important. I’m not out to offend anybody—I’m just out to analyze.”
Wood stands by his opinions as firmly as anyone, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t see the world as being more complicated than the us vs. them bloodbath it can feel like these days. That, he says, is very important given the climate surrounding the midterms. Because despite, or perhaps in keeping with, his unofficial job as a PR rep: the whole country isn’t Alabama, a state that, he wrote, “has been the site of so many losses that it’s a place where you count the victories, no matter how small.”
Complacency is the ultimate evil in No One Loves You—it’s a force that shuts down your critical thinking. “You know how whenever a team wins a championship, you notice in the room where they’re spraying all the champagne and celebrating, there’s always one person in the corner who’s just thinking about the next game?” Wood asks. “Not quite as happy as the rest of the guys? Every team needs that person.” As America gets more and more burnt out on fighting, even as the fight becomes more and more important, that’s what Wood would urge us to avoid. “You don’t want 2018 to come across as a ‘yay, we did it, hip-hip-hooray…’ 2018 is the midpoint in the movie, where, you know, you get a small victory,” he says. “But it’s not the climax, where you kill the monster. That’s in two years.” FL