Late-night TV shows used to be at the top of the food chain. It was a significant accomplishment for an entertainer or athlete to be invited to appear on a late-night show and be interviewed by greats like David Letterman, Arsenio Hall or today’s Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel. But has the rise of streaming lessened their relevance? How many people are tuning in at 11 p.m. to watch anything?
With Trevor Noah’s departure from “The Daily Show,” the ending of “Desus and Mero,” and the cancellation of HBO’s “Pause with Sam Jay” and Showtime’s “Ziwe,” comedian Roy Wood Jr.—who himself is in the running to be the next “Daily Show” host — is questioning how the remaining late shows will survive the current Writers Guild of America strike. (Salon’s unionized employees are represented by the WGA East.)
“I think late night needs innovation,” Wood told me on “Salon Talks.” “I don’t think that the way we’ve constructed late night will continue to be the way we see it post-strike. There’s going to be a lot of cuts, in my opinion, fiscally. I hate to talk like that, but I’m a realist, bro.”
He continued, “This idea of having a daily conversation about the things that have happened in this country and are happening and holding people in power accountable, that avenue still is viable. How you present that has to evolve into a way that I’m guessing needs to be cheaper and faster to be truly resonant with people.”
This spring, Wood threw zingers at Joe Biden, Clarence Thomas and Tucker Carlson while hosting the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Wood is most known for cracking us up as a correspondent on “The Daily Show” and his comedy specials including “Father Figure,” “No One Loves You” and “Imperfect Messenger.” He is currently on the road with his Happy to Be Here tour.
Watch my “Salon Talks” episode with Roy Wood Jr. here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to learn more about his take on cancel culture in comedy, how “The Daily Show” reframed his stand up act and why he enjoys watching comedy as much as he likes writing and performing it.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
I’m happy to see you, man. Over the pandemic, I was in the Twitter space listening to you talk about “The Wire” with our great friend, April Reign. I’m like, “Man, this guy knows his s**t.”
I’ve watched that series I think four times now, front to back. Three for sure, because to me, that’s like when you meet somebody new, you all start dating, “All right, first thing we got to do as a couple is watch ‘The Wire’ front to back.”
You got to vet her.
We got to understand our love language.
It’s a great show. Just being from Baltimore, I’m always just interested how people from different places react to it. You started your career in Alabama at 18, 19 years old, and now are crushing White House Correspondents’ Dinners.
That was crazy.
What was that moment like?
“There’s a book I need to write. There’s a stand-up special I need to shoot and there’s a late night show that I need to host.”
The Correspondents’ Dinner, to me, is an opportunity for the constituents to say something back to the elected officials. It was a dope opportunity. Whether they laugh or not, that’s really something you can’t worry about as a comedian. You just got to go up there and say what’s funny to you and what you think is fair and balanced and attacking both sides of an issue. Then just leave it at that, man. Either they love it, or they don’t. Ain’t nothing you can do about it.
Were you worried about Joe Biden rushing the stand?
No. I wasn’t worried about Joe. First off, if Joe Biden rushed the stage like Will Smith, you can see him coming. You get slapped by Joe Biden for talking crazy, you was waiting on that slap. But I think the material about Kamala [Harris], the vice president, you’re trying to thread needles that are moving. It’s not just threading a needle. It’s threading a moving needle because the political tones change every day, what people want to talk about. Half the jokes that I did that week, we wrote that week, because the Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon stuff happened that week. The Clarence Thomas stuff was only two weeks old because a lot of that Harlan Crow stuff, more information was still dropping.
You took me out with that Clarence Thomas as an Instagram model joke.
Is he not? Calling the man a NFT, that might have been too far, but it felt right and funny at the time.
Now we know what an NFT is. You’ve been telling the hard truth for a long time. Do you feel like we’re at a space where people are finally starting to pay attention?
Yeah, but I think you’re always going to have people who just don’t care. You’re always going to have people because now, in a weird way, the truth has become something that you can outsource to fit what you believe in. The question now is, what is truth? Is truth the truth, or is the truth what you choose to accept? A lot of people choose to deny truth. They live in that denial. When you look at what’s happening with [critical race theory] and people just going, “Oh, well, slavery, that wasn’t that big of a deal,” if enough people say, “Slavery wasn’t that big of a deal,” then you have a part of the country that’s just straight up living in denial.
“I don’t feel like comedians are under attack. Every comedian that people say has been canceled is making good money.”
Now you have the advertisers and companies who have to decide how to get money, how to appeal to those people. You have politicians still having to decide how to get the vote of those people. The thing that sucks is that you can deny reality, but somehow your vote still matters. So if your vote still matters, then people have to figure out a way to appease you. To some degree, that means meeting you in the middle a little bit, even if it’s infuriating and crazy. When you take a company like Target putting Pride Month merch in the back of the store, that’s the middle ground. That’s because they’re trying to appease people who live in a totally different reality. They’re just trying to sell clothes. The truth is, most of these corporations probably don’t care about half the causes that they’re selling merch for. They just know we’ll buy it.
Juneteenth tank tops.
Definitely. Need to put that in the back of the store, unless it’s Black-owned. Then, of course, I’ll support the Juneteenth tank top.
I think what makes me upset is that you’re right. People, they will deny the truth, or they will put the need to make money over top of honesty, but then get offended when you call them out.
I just think that corporations are in a rock and a hard place because, in an effort to please one group, another group has all of a sudden, just out the blue, by the way, it’s not like Pride Month merch is a new thing, but now all of a sudden they’re mad. Now the corporations are having to choose. I think what the eventual regression would just be corporations not taking any political stances ever again.
Most of these stores will become issue-neutral. We can say we’re going to boycott the store, but if all the stores take the same stance, what you going to do? You going to make your own toilet tissue? You going to grow your own medicine?
Something big happens, and it shifts culture to move in certain ways. You can tell me I’m out of my mind, but I was shocked when I was watching TV during the pandemic and saw Mitt Romney at a Black Lives Matter march.
So the pendulum, it swings, right?
Yeah, but then the question becomes, “Should I ask what Mitt Romney’s ulterior motives are? Or should I just accept that Mitt Romney pulled up to the event and take that as the beginning of something hopefully genuine in terms of bipartisanship?” Don’t show me Mitt Romney at the march. Show me his voting record within Congress or within the Senate, rather. What are you doing? What’s happening? What are you voting on, bro? That, to me, is the real telltale. It’s like it’s progress, but you know as a Black person, we’re just like, “Is that progress, or is that symbolism?” There’s a difference.
If I’m being honest, I wasn’t moved. I was just shocked.
Yeah. Because he’s a Mormon. Ain’t Black people the devil or something?
We need you fixing the Nike sneakers app.
Yeah, the real issues. Freaky a** app giving everything to the resellers. I’ll talk s**t. I don’t care. It ain’t like I’m ever going to get a Nike endorsement deal. I hope they see this s**t. Fix your app.
I think about the joke you told at the dinner about school shootings. You got some groans, and you’re like, “Pass some policy.”
A lot of groans.
Then you’re like, “I’m Mitch McConnell. I have no soul.” Right?
Yeah. I ain’t got no soul. What are you going to do? You’re going to boo a joke about school shootings instead of passing policies that stop school shootings? Come on.
Do you ever feel like you have any ability to be able to just speak truth to power or is that under attack?
No. I don’t feel like comedians are under attack. Every comedian that people say has been canceled is making good money. They’re showing up to cities and people are still paying money to see them.
Just no camera crews and specials and all that.
“As a performer, I have to be prepared for groans and accept that as part of the game.”
Yeah, you may not get as many specials. You may not get the glitzy TV show. You may not get to host a thing. But at the end of the day, as a performer, if the public still wants to pay money to sit in that chair, you’re getting people in 2023 to come out in public and sit still. We’re in a TikTok attention span generation, so if you still have that level of pull, then no amount of outrage can take that away. If anything, it makes people more entrenched in liking you because you are attacking the thing I love. So I’m going to really show you how much I love it.
We live in a culture now where people’s opinions matter, and people’s opinions get to be heard, and people have more outlets to voice their opinions. I don’t think we’re in a situation that’s any different than Lenny Bruce and George Carlin getting arrested for saying whatever word society didn’t want them to say on stage at the time. But when you look at this idea that I can’t say something, no, I can say it.
As a performer, I have to be prepared for groans and accept that as part of the game. To me, that’s the issue. Some performers, in my opinion, are mad that people are mad. No, they have a right to be mad. Just shut up and do your job. The people who rock with it will show up and like you, but you can’t get mad that a corporation pulled you off of a show because of a tweet you made. The corporation trying to please everybody.
Corporation trying to speak truth to power. I’m trying to get people to watch my network, motherf**ker. Why are you talking crazy on Twitter? You gone. So hit the streets and find the people who like you and charge them $40 plus Ticketmaster fees.
Yo, Ticketmaster fee be like $150 on top of the $40.
Ticket be three dollars. Ticketmaster go, “That mean 180 extra dollars.” We live in a culture where people complain, and we are indignant that people would dare say something about how something makes them feel. But you’re not going to get people canceled. You can get people fired, but that’s only going to go so far.
You also made a joke about Tucker Carlson and about “Succession” and “Power.” I was looking at the audience, and I’m like, “Yo, I don’t really know white people that watch ‘Power’ like that.”
Yeah, I don’t know how much of an overlap [there is] because in the joke, and I got to give a shout-out to my writer, Felonious Munk, because he was the one who fought for that. We had a bunch of writers on the show, but this was Munk’s. Munk used to write for the “Nightly Show” for Larry Wilmore, just so people know how he’s built.
The original impetus for that joke was that I don’t watch “Vanderpump Rules.” Don’t know nothing about it, but apparently, in the white world, that s**t is like “Power.” It’s their “Power,” so that became the joke. I said this for real in the writer’s meeting. I said, “I thought ‘Billions’ was white people’s ‘Power.'” He goes, “No, that’s ‘Succession.'”
I go, “Well, then which one is ‘BMF’?” So then it just became this weird wordplay game of super Black show, super white. It’s not to say that there isn’t racial crossover, but what is the overlap of people who also watch “BMF” and “Vanderpump Rules”?
Yeah. You and me. So it was fun. That was a joke where it’s like the Cardi B joke. I know you’re not going to get this, but the people who get it really get it. It’s almost a joke that’s for the people watching. It’s not even for the people that’s there. We talked about Dominion winning the defamation lawsuit and how Cardi B had won a defamation suit. So I was like, “There’s two people you don’t want to see, Dominion and Cardi B.” Then somebody else on the writing team mentioned, “Oh, but what about Gwyneth Paltrow?” I was like, “Oh, you’re right.”
I know nothing about Gwyneth Paltrow’s lawsuit.
But if you know Gwyneth Paltrow, you automatically get Cardi B.
Wait. Do I live in a bubble?
Yeah. Look, but if you know Cardi B, you automatically get that Gwyneth Paltrow has done something similar in winning a major lawsuit against a person, even if you don’t know the details.
Was she at a ski resort or something?
I don’t remember. It was was super white. She won a dollar and gave it back to him or something. Told him, “Be well.” She sued him for a dollar.
Skiing, it’s all in the game, motherf**ker. Sometimes you get run over. It’s like at the roller rink. Sometimes motherf***kers are going to hit you.
Even on the bunny slopes?
I don’t know where they was. Wherever he was, the brother was laid up pretty bad. But the point was that you know Dominion, so who else in pop culture is whooping a** in court like Dominion?
Cardi B. Right.
Cardi B and Gwyneth Paltrow, so you cover both ends of the pop culture race spectrum, the same as we did with the “BMF” and the “Vanderpump.”
We sound like network execs right now. We got to get that market.
But for the Correspondents’, generally, though, it is a weird science because you’re trying to do jokes about people in the room, about the things they care about, with a level of nuance that they know about that the general public may not even care about, but also, as a comedian, my job is to represent the people, not the policymakers.
I got to still be able to crack a joke that comes through the camera to the people at the crib. That’s the tough part of it, but it can be done. It’s definitely not a normal comedy set. It’s a weird a** realm, bro.
You’ll be doing a joke, and just you’re down on your cards looking. You pop up to deliver the joke, and you look up, and it’s just Lester Holt, and you go, “Okay. That’s wild. I look up to him.” Then you look down, and you look up, and it’s Kellyanne Conway. You’re just like, “Wow. What is she doing here?” You look up, and then it’s Caitlyn Jenner. Then you look up again. It’s Chrissy Teigen. It’s just these weird distractions are happening while you’re trying to focus. It’s so weird. It’s a weird situation, man, but I’m happy I did it.
How’s the tour been going?
Happy to be here to tour. We getting out the gates this month, but we’re going everywhere from Sacramento down to Miami, up to Hartford, way over to Madison, Wisconsin, Minnesota, pretty much anywhere in there. I know people are asking me about Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. I got you. It’s coming.
“I take touring very seriously. We prepare. We tighten up the jokes. I might even iron my shirt. We’ll see.”
It takes time to book venues now because of the strike. This is what’s wild. Because of the writer’s strike, every stand-up comedian that was working on a television production is back out on the road, so now we’re competing for venues, which is a great thing for the general public, but it takes time to figure out who’s going to take what date and what venue and when and where and all of that.
You all should box for them.
That would be fun.
Who would you box?
Who could I beat is the question? If I had to fight another comedian for a venue . . .
I feel like Kevin Hart works out four times a day.
Yeah, Kevin Hart would whoop my a**. I got reach. I got reach on Kev, but I don’t have stamina.
I feel like he benched 750 pounds.
You already know what Kevin Hart’s boxing strategy is. Get in tight, work the body. Who was that boy that knocked somebody with the kidney shot? Little shot?
That’s Kevin Hart versus me. Ced the Entertainer, I bet you I could take him. I could clench. I could clench a couple times, keep my stamina. Me and Ced the Entertainer, we both only got four rounds in us, give or take.
“My stand-up is probably way more centrist than what it is on ‘The Daily Show.'”
The thing that sucks about going on tour, though, now is that I don’t get to see the people that I love watching work. To me, Ali Siddiq is one of the best stand-up comedians working today. I’d put that same tag on Sommore. I’d put that same tag on Adele Givens. I had been plotting earlier this year to go out more and watch more stand-up and just see what the young people are doing, what the vets are doing.
I got to give a shout-out to Rip Michaels. I went to his show at Barclays. They had 10-12 comics. I got to see Bill Bellamy do his thing. I got to see Adele Givens. Just so many solid comics on the lineup. I went to see Druski. Druski came to New York. Druski’s funny, but he also got this cat on his show, Navv Greene. That boy the truth. Navv Greene is funny. He does the craft and then flips into a co-host with Druski. But even with that, there’s a hosting skillset that you can’t teach. You cannot train. It’s either you got that, or you don’t. Navv has that. Same with them 85 South Boys. I want to go out and see Karlous Miller, Chico Bean, and DC Young Fly.
If it’s one thing that sucks about having to go out and tour, it’s that I don’t get to go out Fridays and Saturdays anymore and see people. This year was really going to be my year to study stand-up again because I’ve gotten away from it the last couple years with the shutdown. I did a very short prep tour for my third hour special in 2021. Other than that, I haven’t been on the road. I do my sets around town. I go to the gym. But as far as going out and doing 30-40 cities like we’re doing now, I’m thrilled to be back out on the road, man.
It is a blessing to be able to fly to a city and have strangers spend two hours of their evening with you. That’s a gift. People are gifting you their time. I take touring very seriously. We prepare. We tighten up the jokes. I might even iron my shirt. We’ll see. I’m very excited about the tour, man.
When you look at your whole career, everything you’ve accomplished, is “The Daily Show” your most perfect opportunity? Does it fit what aligns with your values the most as far as walking that line between comedy and journalism?
“The Daily Show” probably best represents my approach to stand-up, which is to find the alternate viewpoint on the issue. “The Daily Show” is a left-leaning show, of course, but my comedy is more centrist. It’s cool within “The Daily Show” to be able to find pieces that are a little bit more on the middle of the road, but my stand-up is probably way more centrist than what it is on “The Daily Show.”
I learned a lot in my approach to comedy, my approach to stand-up, from working with Trevor Noah. Just how Trevor Noah chooses to break down divisive issues, it gave me a little bit of the same feeling that I could do that with my stand-up. My stand-up started changing from 2015 until now.
I don’t know what’s going to happen with the strike. When the strike ends, if they bring “The Daily Show” back, am I a host? Am I assisting whoever they hired a host? Am I gone somewhere else to host my own thing? I don’t know. I do know that everything up until now represents, for me, from a career standpoint, it’s that Tom Brady New England run. Now it’s time to go to Tampa and see if I can keep the winning ways going.
What’s your dream? What’s the perfect scenario for you?
Man, I almost had one. Five or six years ago, I had a pilot called “Jefferson County Probation” with Comedy Central. I was on probation for three years for stealing credit cards when I was a teenager. The probation officer I had was so dope in helping to foster me into comedy. We talk about law and order in this country. We don’t talk about recidivism. We don’t talk about how much the revolving door of sending people back to jail is just based on who your PO was, who your lawyer was, who your judge was that day. You get judged by 12, but once you go through the system and you’re on probation, it is a single person who can decide whether or not you spend the rest of your life behind bars.
Yeah, and God willing, they’re not having a bad day on a Friday.
Catch a bad cop, they violate you instead of giving you a pass, instead of calling your PO and telling the PO to restrict your travel instead of sending you to prison. We got to show recidivism through that light of what it could be if people within the system cared. We were able to shoot the pilot in Birmingham with the end intention of making that show into a series that we shoot in Birmingham, and then use that show as a springboard to build film and television production as an industry in Alabama. Didn’t get to do that.
You might have been ahead of the conversation. It might be time to spin it back.
“I just need to host me a damn TV show.”
It’s time. It’s time once we get on the other side. Also, whether I like it or not, when you’re from a part of the country like Alabama, I think it is your duty to help show people a window into what’s really going on there. You can crack your jokes about the state. That’s fine. That’s all in the game. But it’s a lot of good folks here. It’s a lot of folks hustling. It’s a lot of people doing the right thing. Telling the story of Alabama through a scripted show, specifically the story of Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile, that would be the perfect project for me because I know that’s something that could ripple. You can create internships within that.
Man, we had everybody on board. The city was on board. The state was on board in terms of incentives and creating job training for crew. That’s industry. We’re talking about building industry. If I could use any idea that’s in my head to better the economic status of people in the State of Alabama, to me, that’s the ultimate win, some Tyler Perry buy up Fort McHenry, then shoot everything there and hire people. Becoming this vortex of economic growth, that’s the long game.
Now, in the short game, I just need to host me a damn TV show. If we’re talking next two years, there’s a one-man show I want to work on based on just the idea of fatherhood. But in the short term, man, I think there’s a book I need to write. There’s a stand-up special I need to shoot, and there’s a late night show that I need to host.
With everything changing with streaming, do you feel like late night is as strong as it used to be? Or do you feel like there’s some innovation that needs to be done?
I think late night needs innovation. I don’t think that the way we’ve constructed late night will continue to be the way we see it post-strike. There’s going to be a lot of cuts, in my opinion, fiscally. I hate to talk like that, but I’m a realist, bro.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you have to.
You just got to be real about if you stop doing James Corden, James Corden leaves, right? Then you replace him with a game show “@midnight,” which was a hit for Comedy Central. It’s a perfectly fine program, but it’s way cheaper to make than James Corden, so that tells me you all are trying to cut costs. If you’re trying to cut costs, then that means the way that all this glitz and the band and the desk and all of that, we might be looking at the Last of the Mohicans on this. I’m talking Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, Colbert. You know what I’m saying?
This idea of having a daily conversation about the things that have happened in this country and are happening and holding people in power accountable, that avenue still is viable. How you present that has to evolve into a way that I’m guessing needs to be cheaper and faster to be truly resonant with people. Our shows shoot at five, six o’clock in the evening to air at 11:30. News changes faster than that now, so you almost have to go like 9:00 or live.
A lot of the segments, you’re catching clips anyway.
When you’re catching the clips, you’re not catching them in full time.
If you’re making tomorrow’s internet today, which is what a lot of late night, in some regards, has become, then we have to figure out a way to do it in a way where the conversation truly resonates with people immediately. I don’t know what that looks like yet. I think that’s what I’m also trying to spend my time ideating.
We could come back from the strike, and Comedy Central can do “The Daily Show,” and it’ll be perfectly fine. It will work. But I just feel like after every strike, there is an creative molting that happens within the industry, especially on the unscripted side. You got to be ahead of the curve on that. You just got to, man. Something is changing. I don’t know if Amber Ruffin’s coming back. I know “Desus & Mero” is done. I know Ziwe is done. I know Sam Jay is done. If Amber Ruffin’s done, too, then that’s four.
“Desus & Mero” is different because . . .
Yeah, they were leaving anyway. They were breaking up.
They had their differences, but Showtime didn’t rush to replace them, either. So, to me, it’s about figuring out, well, if the industry didn’t want that, and even if it wasn’t ratings, whatever it is, what is the next thing? What is it going to look like? “The Daily Show” itself, as an institution, it will evolve. I don’t think “The Daily Show” is going anywhere. I think it’s too important of a piece of Comedy Central and Paramount. It still has a lot of worth. We get a lot of great guests.
But what will it look like? Because from Jon Stewart to Trevor, the major change in the way it think – the way it be thinking, we used sketch a lot more. We used the internet a lot more. Trevor’s younger. Trevor understood that. Trevor was plugged in. Jon Stewart wasn’t really. They had to drag him on the Twitter. I love him, but he knows that’s the truth.
Trevor came in and figured out, OK, this could be a four-minute to-camera segment of me just going or we can let Klepper, Roy and Dulcé do a sketch that says the exact same thing. Then that sketch is something that people digest more. I just think that with specifically new satire, in its visual inception, it is to parody the way you get the news.
When “The Daily Show” was created, the way we got the news collectively as a society was all the same. We all got our news from a motherf**ker at a desk with a suit and some whiskey under the table. We all got our news, 95% of us. So you could parody that, and it’d be a perfect one-to-one. We get our news from all over the place now. The way we get our news looks a million different ways. People don’t even care if you have a suit on or not. I can go on TikTok right now, and right there, I can’t think of his name. God bless you. But it’s a white dude with a beard. I know that’s not enough of a description.
That’s everybody in Brooklyn.
It’s a white dude. He be on it. He know his s**t. It’s a white dude with one of them IPA craft beards. Like he make beer in the basement.
Farm to table beer.
Yeah, I’ll be damned if I don’t watch him every day to see what he’s talking about with politics.
“Salon Talks” with D. Watkins
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