Now the host of the hit storytelling series This Is Not Happening on Comedy Central and a regular correspondent on The Daily Show, Roy Wood Jr. has finally found his place in the comedy world, with the network having premiered his first-ever one-hour stand-up special, titled Father Figure, last year. But it was a long road for the 39-year-old comic to get there.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism in 2001, he worked in radio for more than a decade, contributing classic prank calls and other hilarious content to morning shows in both his native Alabama and on nationally syndicated shows like The Bob and Tom Show.
Ahead of his return to Dr. Grins here in Grand Rapids this weekend, Revue talked with Roy about his style of comedy, his work on The Daily Show and how fatherhood has changed him as a comedian.
We’re so excited to have you back here in Grand Rapids.
I think with what Grand Rapids has turned into, I’m glad I invested a lot of time in it early on as a young comic. So now I can come and drink beer whenever I want.
Plus, you’ll be here when it’s finally warming up, and I know you’ve been here before when it’s been a little colder.
A little? There was one show I did in Grand Rapids where I got in by crawling through the trunk of my car, because the doors would not open.
You premiered your one-hour stand-up special, Father Figure, last year. How has being a father changed you as a comedian?
Having a kid is the closest thing to going back in time, in terms of like, ‘Oh, if I could back to when I was a child and tell myself…’ It’s like, ‘Well here he is.’ It’s the closest thing to re-raising yourself. It’s like with my son, because he looks like me and already has some of my personality tendencies — I might as well be in 1978 Birmingham, Ala., just talking to myself and raising myself from the past. So I feel like in a way parents are just time travelers who have come back to the past to help their kids get it right.
Do you feel like there’s a lot you need to prepare your son for already?
Father Figure, for me at least, was about presenting some of the problems that we have in the world, and how am I going to be able to navigate this world with my son. When you think about all the different perils that are out there now, both political and physical, it’s something that I want to make sure he’s raised for. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the next special is just a continuation of that same train of thought.
Yeah, when some comics have kids, they make a lot more jokes about just the experiences of being a parent, and your special seemed to take a different approach.
How am I going to educate this child? How am I going to pay for his college? How am I going to teach him about racism? How do I raise a child who needs to equally respect the police, but possibly have to be cautious and cognitive of how he behaves around the police? How do I teach this child that blue cheese is better than ranch dressing? It’s this pressure as a dad that I’ve got to get him through.
For all of the beauty of parenting that people talk about, no one talks about the stresses of it. For me, just talking about my family life, like my son swallowed a penny, and we have go get it X-rayed, that’s just not my style of comedy. My comedy has always been about the world in which we live, and for us to figure out ways for us to all get through it.
Do you hope your son uses comedy in the same way you have in your life?
Oh yeah, definitely. Comedy for me was definitely strategic in being able to do stuff. I got my comedy from playing sports, and for the most part just riding the bench when I played baseball, so it was definitely something that helped through a lot of stuff. You know, I live in my own head. I used to make these weird little audio tapes of like, I would basically talk to myself and do this little radio show, but I was doing it over a cassette, which now would just be doing a YouTube web series. So it’s interesting to look back on where my brain was going at the time, and realize, ‘Oh I was already on the right path. I just didn’t have the technology yet.’
One thing that helped you break out in the world of comedy was prank calls. What do you think will be the equivalent of prank calling when your son gets to be that age?
I don’t know, man. By the time my son is a teenager we’ll probably have holograms. You’ll just show up like Star Wars and scare the hell out of somebody like a ghost. That’s my guess. I feel like that’s the next evolution.
Near the end of your special, you talk about how a lot of what you do on The Daily Show now is making up for lost time. Do you hope that your comedy helps change things in some way?
If nothing else, The Daily Show lets other people know that they’re not alone in thinking the way they think, which sometimes can be enough to help you get through stuff. On the high end, we hope that The Daily Show can affect a little bit of change, and the show does from time to time. I don’t think we’ve ever had a show set out to go, ‘Oh, we must change the minds of people.’ It’s just like, no, here’s the news and here’s the joke. Usually that’s enough for someone to want to make a little sense of it all. But I feel like as a show, we also have to touch on both sides of an issue. It’s not enough to just be right, it also has to say, ‘This is wrong.’
How do you thinking being on The Daily Show has changed you as a comic?
The Daily Show alters your stand-up. It’s made me deeper as a comedian. If you look at the way The Daily Show is set up, you know what the issue is, so now we’re going to dig and dig and dig and find out all the different causes of this issue and how we got to this place. My comedy used to be a little more surface. My comedy was very much, ‘Hey, here’s the joke.’
Before The Daily Show, I would do a joke about a salad, and say I love salad and joke, joke, joke. If you look at The Daily Show, it’s, “I love salad. Where does lettuce come from? Why do we use those tomatoes on a salad? Why croutons and not stale bread? Do you put dressing on the side or the salad?’ It’s all of these extra questions that further analyze it. The Daily Show has taught me how to look at issues through multiple prisms, including sides of an issue that I might not agree with.
So I’m forced to analyze things from another’s party’s perspective. So I may have a joke to say I love salad, but if I’m working at The Daily Show, I can have a joke where I say I love salad, but I also have to be able to say, I understand why other people think salad is stupid. Why not have a smoothie? It’s easier to carry; it’s a salad with a straw. It’s the only salad you can put in a cup-holder.
That’s a great metaphor.
So in that regard, my analysis of the world has gone deeper and deeper, which is weird because I don’t really talk about a lot of politics onstage in my stand-up, ironically, but now I have some serious in-depth analysis of the movie theater from working at The Daily Show. So there’s the perfect example, I have this joke about how I love the ticket ripper at the movies, because he doesn’t talk. It’s just a lifeless transaction and I kind of appreciate that. But then the bigger question becomes, ‘How is ticket ripping still a thing? How has this not been automated? What kind of a racket is the movie industry running where you need us to believe that you need a man to rip a piece of paper? You could put in an automated turnstile and we would be just fine. The ticket ripper is not necessary. Where do the pieces of paper go after they’re ripped?’ So The Daily Show forces you to ask extra questions and try to figure out more answers to those.
Do you think comedy’s role in society has changed now?
I don’t think comedy has changed. I think the world has changed and now people need more comedy. We’ve always been here. Comedy has been one big restaurant that’s always been sitting right here for whenever you want to come in and have a seat. I think wanting to make sense of all this is important, and I think anything that helps with that, people are going to turn to. So I think that people are using comedy to cope just as much as the comedians have used it in the past to cope. I think that comedy challenges the status quo, either as escapism or as a direct challenge. So I think that comedy is extremely important right now.
Do you feel like comedy is a good place to start difficult conversations that should be happening in this country more often?
It’s something that I’m very, very proud of as a comic, to be able to spearhead and helping to create dialogue on a lot of issues. I don’t think everything that I do can change something. I think that’s not the goal. The goal is to talk about it, let’s laugh at ourselves, and figure out where do we go from here? I think that’s my ultimate goal of what I do as a stand-up. It’s a very serious responsibility. If you have an opportunity and a platform as big as The Daily Show, man, you should say something that tries to touch people. And you should say something that tries to touch people in power as well.
Roy Wood Jr.
Dr. Grins at The B.O.B.
20 Monroe Ave. NW, Grand Rapids
April 26-28, 8 p.m. (Thurs), 8 p.m. & 10:30 p.m. (Fri & Sat), $10-20