Roy Wood Jr. is somewhere en route to Moab, Utah, on a camping trip that’ll take him and his friends on a 100-mile boat tour south on down the Colorado River into Canyonlands and Glen Canyon toward the Grand Canyon.
But a couple of days ago, Wood was on the phone with The Comic’s Comic, shopping on Labor Day to prepare for his trip.
Have you gone camping before?
“No, I have not. Which is why I have to start from scratch. As a black person, this is what I have to do when I acquire friends of another race,” Wood joked. “I’m actually out on Labor Day Weekend at an outlet center because I hate myself. I literally hate myself. It’s the only reason you would do this to yourself is because you don’t like yourself, is go to an outlet on Labor Day. You can’t escape the noise. The pavilion, the traffic. Techno, whatever the fuck is playing.”
It’s not all bad news for Wood. He just finished another stand-up tour with his co-stars on the TBS sitcom, Sullivan & Son — the show’s third-season finale airs Sept. 9.
What’s it like touring for three summers in a row with Steve Byrne, Owen Benjamin and Ahmed Ahmed as a quartet?
“It’s really good,” Wood said. “Every summer we go out and we tour. There’s a purpose behind it. To get out and be more aggressive and hands-on with fans with the show…of course, we get to do press, too.”
“It’s been a long time since there’s been four comics in one place (on TV). I think 30 rock came close. When we started, a lot of improv guys and straight-up real actors in comedy, that stuff fell by the wayside. I feel great because stand-ups are making a comeback. I’m rooting for Undateable, and Mulaney comes on in a few weeks…The League as well. I think it’s an ebb and flow and it’s a good thing.”
At any rate, Wood is happy to be busy on the road and on TV. “That’s what you bust your ass for, anyway, to be able to work and to go out for eight weeks straight and meet people,” he said. “It’s an amazing thing.”
Whether that Sullivan & Son work onscreen and on tour continues into 2015 is anyone’s guess. It averaged 2 million viewers for TBS in its first season, dropping down to about 1.5 million per episode this third season.
“The ratings have been pretty solid this year. We probably won’t know much about renewal for season four for a couple of weeks. But as far as the numbers are concerned: The numbers are on our side. But hell, they promised Arsenio six seasons. There’s a hundred and one things that go into calculating a show,” he said. “But we’ve gone out and promoted the show. We all hang our hat on what we’ve done so far.”
Do you have a handle on whether your show has buzz or loyal fans? Outside of HBO, and maybe Comedy Central — maybe, if that — I don’t necessarily hear a groundswell of love or hate for lots of cable shows. And yet some of them stay with us on the air for many years. Do you have a better grip on it being on a show?
“We pretty much know in real time what people think of the show,” Wood said (pictured at left with co-stars Steve Byrne and Owen Benjamin on a recent episode of the Comedy Central game show @midnight). “I think 98 percent of the time people who take the time to type out 140 characters about Sullivan & Son, it’s positive. The critics will always have their opinions. But if you look at the shows that won Emmys, their numbers were middle of the road. Except Modern Family. I’m talking about from a comedy standpoint.”
“If they don’t like us (at TBS), they do a good job of faking.”
Of course, the landscape of TV has changed dramatically in the past decade. Wood said: “There’s so much more content now than 10 years ago, when Chappelle came out (Chappelle’s Show). It’s such a different atmosphere. Part of me feels like that’s why a lot of networks try to track stuff online now first. That seems to be what Comedy Central’s mantra now is. They put stuff online now before the series comes out. It’s definitely a different atmosphere now in terms of finding out who likes you.” He thinks Twitter and social media chatter about a TV series is, “next to Nielsen data, it’s probably the only legitimate statistic.”
When it comes to stats, though, at least sports numbers make more sense.
Wood’s a football fan, and this season, he says: “I’m actually doing a couple of videos in conjunction with the syndicated sports talk show…Steve Czaban for Yahoo Sports Radio. I just did SportsNation on ESPN about a month ago.” And he’s working with Cover5.com, producing weekly NFL picks. “It’s nonsensical,” Wood says of his picks, which aim for comedy over accuracy. “Like if Seattle plays Atlanta, I pick Atlanta, because Seattle makes coffee while Atlanta has strippers named after coffee.”
Here’s his Week One NFL picks video. Roll the clip!
It’s all about keeping busy, Wood said.
“That’s what’s weird about Sullivan & Son. Once the tour ends, production goes three or four months, when production concludes, you’re in this weird, oh, wait, I have my own career, I have stuff to do. I can make other videos and stuff,” he said. “I’ll be on (Late Night with) Seth Meyers Sept 25. I’ll do a couple of things to cross-promote…but I feel I’m at a crossroads career-wise…Comedy Central has turned me down more times than I can count for a half hour.”
“When is it time to stop asking for permission to eat at someone’s table and just build your own restaurant. So that’s what I’m trying to do is build my own restaurant,” he said.
“At the core, the road is going to pay you. You’ll always have your stand-up,” he said. But what more can he do to further his comedy career? That’s the question. The answer, he’s finding, is that he has to make his own opportunities. Such as these NFL videos. “I’ve gotten some pops in this business. But some of us, we’re going to have to work a little bit harder to gain exposure. Because the traditional channels, the traditional gatekeepers aren’t always going to be able to, or the line is too long. I’m very fortunate to be able to get on Conan four years in a row. And hopefully I can cultivate a good relationship with Seth Meyers.”
“But I have to do more. I have to create more. If people aren’t giving me anything, I have to make it myself.”
Wood said he has learned a lot from watching Vince Vaughn and Peter Billingsley work behind the scenes of Sullivan & Son.
The new paradigm, Wood thinks, is this: “It’s important to constantly reach new people and find your fan base and build from that. There seems to be some level, if you have an audience, then people will come find you. If you look at half of these YouTubers and Vine stars and how they get development deals. I’m not hating on them. If you’ve got heat, capitalize on it. I just want to get in on it, too.”
Wood, a finalist four years ago on the last season of Last Comic Standing, is happy NBC revived it so others could benefit.
“God bless Last Comic Standing for coming back,” he said. “At least it’s breathing new life into the craft. Because other than Live at Gotham (or its newly revived form for AXS), I cannot think of another show that’s showcasing new comics.”
“I mean, Comedy Central gives out half-hours. Some guys you’ve heard of, some you haven’t. Live at Gotham gives you 12 in two weeks,” he said. “Last Comic…gives some people an opportunity to step up to the next level. But those opportunities are few and far between. And now it’s invite-only. And if you’re not one of the cool kids, you’re fucked. Or if you don’t know any cool kids, you’re fucked.”
“I just think you’re better off as an entertainer if you can find your audience first. It used to be, ‘Hey, I think you’re funny, let me help you find an audience.’ Now it’s, ‘Hey, you’re funny, where’s your audience?'”
For a while, Wood had a steady audience in morning radio in his native Birmingham, Ala., where his prank phone calls have been fruitful enough for multiple albums.
“Birmingham fired me after I got Sullivan & Son, on the grounds that I had to choose one. Which, as much as I love my hometown, what sense does that make? Steve Harvey has six shows! Rickey Smiley does 85 different things? Don’t get me started on fucking Dish Nation. But I can’t do a TBS show for three months?” he said.
Seems like a no-brainer, considering how your TV gig would bring in more listeners.
“I thought it’d be a great way to cross-promote,” he said. “But I stopped short of criticizing Birmingham because they gave me more creative freedom than I’ve found in radio.”
He’s also started animating some of his prank calls. “It’s nothing I’m trying to be famous for,” he said. “But the problem I had with that is people thought of me as a prank caller and didn’t know that I had 10 years of TV credits as a stand-up comedian.”
He’ll make one more prank call album, he said, but only because it’ll help push new fans back toward his stand-up. He draws inspiration from a Chris Rock quote about how everything he does in his career is about selling more tickets to his stand-up comedy shows.
Wood thinks there are so many opportunities to break out in comedy now. Perhaps too many?
“It’s definitely a weird time to be a comedian, because there’s no linear path anymore. There used to be a path. It was easy in the ’80s and the ’90s, because there were only two checkout lanes, Leno and Letterman. You stand in line and you wait and wait. All of a sudden, 12 different registers opened. And you don’t know which line to wait in. You’ve been in the Comedy Central line for so long you don’t know if you should jump in the YouTube line or the sketch line or the Fallon line or the webseries line,” he said. “If you’re a new guy starting out, what should you focus on? Should you try to get on TV or hop online?”
So what would you tell a new comedian? You had a track on your 2013 stand-up album, “Things I Think, I Think,” called “Kicked Out of Career Day.”
What would you say today?
“Shit, man. Comedy is the only job where the entry-level qualifications change every three to four years,” Wood said. “I think if I’m a new comic, you write truthful, stay way from the hack bullshit premises, you go to Home Depot or Walmart.” You get to work. “You understand it’s going to take some time.”
Wood said having YouTube and the web is great for showcasing your comedy to people who haven’t seen it. “But if your stand-up isn’t strong, you missed your chance,” he said. “The industry knows pretty fast.” So, then: “Put your eggs in multiple baskets, is what I would tell new comics.”
“No one’s interested in creating a star. I think those days are gone.”
Check out Roy Wood Jr.’s tour dates of clubs and colleges here. The third-season finale of Sullivan & Son airs on TBS on Sept. 9, 2014.