Hard work, determination and an honestly funny outlook on life pays off.
Just ask Roy Wood Jr., or rather, watch Wood’s first stand-up hour special, Father Figure, on Comedy Central. After a two-decade climb through comedy clubs and radio stations across the South and later, across America, through a finalist finish on Last Comic Standing and now emerging as a must-see correspondent on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Wood is ready to be seen and heard by an even wider audience.
And yet, at this point, the 38-year-old comedian feels like he has to make up for lost time. He says at much at the end of Father Figure: “I try my best to be socially active. I try my best to do stuff on The Daily Show that affects change. I try. But a lot of what I do now is just making up for lost time, cause I wasn’t always like that. And it’s something I’m ashamed about.”
And yet. All of his observations and comedy nuggets about fast-food chicken, dieting, grocery stores, customer service, and the movies have given Wood enough perspective to draw the lines back to our still very current struggle for civil rights in America.
The Birmingham native goes back to the South to film his debut hour in Atlanta, with only a wall of LED lights set at different wattages, lending an almost sepia tone to the background that draws your focus front and center to Wood himself. Where Wood launches immediately with a punchline about the symbolic value of the Confederate flag, then stepping backward into his premise. “I grew up in the South. I can’t tell you how many times the Confederate flag came in handy.”
He dreams of a world in which we can identify the cool white people from the bad eggs. Similarly, Wood jokes about how clothes not only make the man, but also make gang members jump to conclusions.
So here we are in 2017.
The struggle continues anew. While plenty of comedians have made their material even more political and topical and specific, Wood takes a step back to look at the bigger picture — whether it’s how to most effectively eliminate the N-word from our dialogues, or the choice you should make when a protest march walks past you. Another comedian might use the protests of 2015-2016 to mention Colin Kaepernick or Ferguson, while Wood uses a clever of turn of phrase that makes his punchline timeless. Relevant anywhere in black history, even.
Wood draws humorous parallels, too, between white and black music in a way that doesn’t feel like white people make this music and black people make this music. Instead, he asks us to look back upon the history of black music, from Negro spirituals through the blues to even the very context of the only patriotic song his uncle can name, James Brown’s “Living in America.” Compare that to any African music you can think of.
Wood consistently brings up everyday experiences that remind us why and how it’s different to survive and thrive in America as a black man. At the same time, he also reminds us why at least 2 percent of the time, the otherwise justified anger and frustration is not based in racism but just plain crazy.
Which allows Wood to dip into the shallower end of the comedy pool for lighter topics, such as overly friendly customer service, the different attitudes of pilots and cruise ship captains, rethinking the movie Titanic, and why smoothies are too expensive and overcomplicated.
Wood never explicitly mentions Black Lives Matter, but he doesn’t have to. Rather, by joking about how his struggles compare to those of his father’s or grandfather’s generation, he allows himself to look forward to what America his son will find when he grows up. There’s a reason black parents have to explain to their children extra things such as how to interact with police officers or the need to have a bag and a receipt at Best Buy. Black children need to know these things if they want to survive and thrive long enough to be the old guy at the history museum or the grocery store.
Which explains why Wood opens his hour backstage with his own newborn son, trying and failing to get his points across.
“This is serious stuff, man. I’m going to put this on video for you, and when you’re old enough, we’ll come back and watch it. Deal?”
DEAL. I hope for all of our sakes, there aren’t different Americas for different people then.
Roy Wood Jr.: Father Figure premieres tonight on Comedy Central. It’ll become available on the app this week and as a digital download via iTunes and Amazon.