Roy Wood Jr. talks 'The Daily Show,' Trump on 'Fallon' and balancing comedy and issues
Those who have been following the Trevor Noah-hosted Daily Show since its inception likely saw the first of many segments from correspondent Roy Wood Jr. back in September. Said segment explored the possibility of humans colonizing Mars. But, as Wood explained, this isn't revelatory (or important) for someone who's black.
"Brother can't catch a cab, you think he can catch a spaceship?" Wood posited to an amused Noah.
It set the tone for Wood's most important pieces on the show: going through police bias training with fellow correspondent Jordan Klepper; attending the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March in Washington, D.C.; talking with Republicans at the 2016 Republican National Convention about when America was great; and discussing Donald Trump's facile attempts to woo black voters with Noah.
All of these segments are in the guise of comedy — and yes, they're funny — but they also carry a resonant message that Wood uniquely provides as the show's only black correspondent. In the late night TV scene (within which Noah is now the only host of color after Larry Wilmore's show's cancellation), this perspective is all the more important.
In an interview with Mic, Wood discussed his approach to comedy on The Daily Show, late night's responsibility in covering serious issues in the news and using the platform as a person of color.
Mic: You've been with The Daily Show for a little over a year now since coming along with Trevor. How has your approach to comedy changed on The Daily Show compared to doing stand-up shows and comedy on the radio?
Roy Wood Jr.: The biggest difference with my comedy now is that I find myself trying to come from a place to make a point, or figuring out what I'm trying to say. It's giving my comedy more of a narrative and more of a voice, which I feel like has made me a better comedian since joining the show, because the nature of the show as the way the writing is structured here — you have to be saying something. You're trying not just to make the joke, there has to be an opinion, a perspective, something to be pointed out. There has to be an observation at the core of the material.
I think, as an early comedian, you're just hellbent on being funny, because you want to get rebooked and then as you matriculate through the ranks. I'm 18 years as a stand-up now, so at this point, being funny is cute, but you need to have something behind it.
You guys have covered serious issues related to the presidential election, including some of Donald Trump's racially charged rhetoric, as well as the segment you did on police bias with Jordan Klepper. What are the challenges in balancing comedy with tackling heavier topics on the show?
RW: The biggest challenge at this show, with anything, is telling the story with all of the facts. The police bias segment is probably a very good example of that, because we're talking about people that have lost their lives and we're trying to figure out ways to make sure that we honor the fact that these people died in very questionable circumstances. But we're trying to find a solution.
You learn to make sure that you're more sensitive to the people that are victims, because with a lot of these stories, there are people that are getting the short end of the stick and there's nothing funny about that. But if you can find humor in trying to find a solution — or the people who aren't concerned with finding a solution — then that's the direction you go.
What, to you, is a successful episode of The Daily Show? What qualities does a successful episode have?
RW: The best ones will make you feel something. Whether it's anger, whether it's hurt, whether it's happiness, you know? Laughter is one thing, but you never forget how somebody makes you feel, and to me the best episodes of The Daily Show are the ones that connect to feelings in your sensory range other than just happiness.
I think one of the best episodes we did was one where Trevor came on and talked about the police shootings that had just occurred at the time in Minnesota — I believe with Alton Sterling — and I think the other one was Oklahoma or Florida. There's so many now. But there wasn't a joke in that run, for probably five or six minutes. It was just a very honest conversation — and there were a couple of jokes peppered in there — but that was an honest, opinionated look and analysis at the state of policing in America. And it was very fair and it was balanced in terms of not vilifying good cops.
To me, the best episodes of The Daily Show are the ones where I feel like we leave the people feeling a genuine emotion, because through that emotion, [they find] the desire to be a little more happy and learn more. If you think about the things that you really care about, it's because they make you feel something. It's not different than good music, a really good song; the ones that stand out, the ones that stand the test of time. They bring something out of you.
If you think about the things that you really care about, it's because they make you feel something. ... They bring something out of you.
You hit the ground running in The Daily Show's first Trevor-hosted episode last year with your segment on the possibility of black people living on Mars. What are some of your favorite segments you've done on the show?
RW: One of the ones I really enjoyed doing was the Justice or Else march, where I covered the Million Man March and we went down to D.C. for the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March, and I was really proud of that piece because there wasn't a lot of mainstream media there in the crowd, talking to people and getting their opinions on everything that is going on.
It was definitely an honor, because the gist of that story was showing how there's a legitimate fear in the terms of the slogan, and it's about how two races can perceive the same slogan: Justice Or Else. For black people, this is about being emotionally and physically and and politically exasperated at what's going on in the country, where on the other side of the coin there were people that were legitimately fearful that there was that many black people gathered. So being able to go in and search for a voice of reason and try to show that your fears are unfounded and stupid and petty — to me, that was something that was funny and mattered. It really, really mattered.
There's been a lot of discussion about the role of late-night and comedy with politics and important social issues, especially after Jimmy Fallon's heavily criticized interview with Trump, in which he ruffled the presidential candidate's hair. Do you believe late-night shows — and The Daily Show in particular — have a responsibility to cover these issues seriously?
RW: I think the goal is to be funny first, above all, on every last one of these shows. Any of these shows that go for jokes, whether it's Sam Bee or [John] Oliver or [Jimmy] Kimmel or whoever the hell, the objective is to be funny first.
Now, the depth with which you choose to be serious, you know, that varies. I don't think we have a responsibility to dig deep and find all the facts. We have a responsibility to be funny, while doing it. If you just want to dig deep and find facts then go make a documentary. That's digging deep.
Speaking freely, I feel like Jimmy Fallon got a raw deal, cause that ain't what he do, it's never what he's done. Don't come telling that man how to do his show. If that man wants to ruffle Donald Trump's hair — and there's a ton of TV shows that want to do it — let him do that. It's the nature of late night: Everybody puts funny at a different scale above informative. But I don't think any of these shows put informative above funny. If you can't make it funny, you can't say it.
You have a journalistic background, having graduated Florida A&M with a journalism degree. How would you compare your work and preparation on The Daily Show to that of a journalist?
RW: What I do is very similar to a journalist. I think the difference between what I do as a correspondent and standard television reports is that I believe the reporter goes out to get the most facts, and it's to figure out what's happening and they tell the people what happened. Whereas with The Daily Show, you go out with more of a particular point that you're trying to make, so a particular story you're trying to hunt down.
When we went to Cleveland and we did the "When Was America Great?" segment, and all of the correspondents of the group went out and talked to everyone, and we asked a bunch of the Trump supporters what year was America great. That piece — everyone went out just to ask that one question. It didn't matter if there was other stuff happening and other things, news breaking around you or following the story as it unfolds on the ground, I'm here to ask this one question and then we're going to go back to the edit and keep the funny ones.
There could be other stuff happening around you, but that's just not the goal to what you are out there, to get that thing. Everything else falls by the wayside.
Aside from the show tackling the big stories in the news cycle and the election, what are some topics you have — and want to — focus on, particularly after things open up post-election?
RW: I'll tell you what's on my board right now. I'm looking at my [correspondent] board. Without any explanation, I'll just give you these. I have clean urine, prison reform, credit card scammers, [a] racism cookoff, media: the great big fear factory and religious segregated swimming in Brooklyn.
That's a varied group.
RW: And that's the thing that's so cool about working with Trevor, is that there's such a litany and array of topics that you can pitch. Oh, put this one in for sure: Uber/Airbnb Racism. That's right in my crosshairs. Both of them.
It's definitely an array of topics that — I can't speak to what it was like when Jon Stewart was here — but I have never felt more heard in my career than with my time at The Daily Show, creatively heard. And for a talent, that's huge, because when I was an actor over at TBS on this sitcom, nobody really cares what you think. And when I working radio, you had five or six consultants with their own MOs of what they think you should be doing. So they don't care about you. Whereas here, you can pretty much pitch anything on Earth and someone will at least hear you.
When Larry Wilmore was a correspondent on the show, he facetiously, yet proudly, took the mantle as the show's "Senior Black Correspondent." You are also the only black correspondent on the show at the moment. Do you feel obligated, then, to address racial issues on the show — especially with all that's going on in America right now?
RW: Yeah, absolutely. To have a platform as large as The Daily Show and a view as uniquely black as my own, and to not do things that help, like on issues affecting the African-American community, would be a disservice. Period, point blank. So hell yeah.
I am many things; I am not only black, so there are other issues — of course, there's a litany. I've definitely done stories up until this point that I feel like touch on that black experience. As has Trevor, cause Trevor's a person of color. But I also feel like I definitely bring a different perspective because I am a black American.
I will wear that crown proudly, and it's something I'm definitely trying my best to uphold and honor by making sure that I seek out stories that are very specific to the black community. Because sometimes those stories, they might not get told otherwise. And I can't trust that there will be someone after me to do what I want to do; so it's up to me to do that now. I definitely am very cognizant of it, which is why I'm going after Uber and Airbnb for their idiotic racism. So we'll see what happens.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.