It may have taken Trevor Noah a while to make his mark on “The Daily Show,” but his team of correspondents seemed right at home from the get-go, so much so that Jordan Klepper has already left to prep for his own late-night show.
Roy Wood Jr. probably won’t be far behind. The 38-year-old comic, who specializes in sweating and stammering in the face of injustice, made his mark on Noah’s very first night in 2015, putting his boss in his place when he started to giggle behind the anchor desk.
“You’ve only had the ‘Daily Show’ for one commercial break,” Wood lectured. “These white folks ain’t decided if they like you yet!”
Wood spoke during a recent phone interview, conducted while he ran errands in New York City.
Q: That joke you made on Noah’s first show really worked. Were you worried about making fun of the new boss right off the bat?
A: That was the first joke I pitched, and it was nerve-wracking. But I felt you had to do something real. Let’s face it. The only reason you’re watching the premiere is to see if it sucks, so let’s speak to that. Thankfully, Trevor’s sensibilities are rooted in reality.
Q: Wait. That joke was scripted?
A: I try not to get into a place where I’m freestyling. That’s for morning meetings and rehearsals. There’s no reason to be going off the page when you’ve got a room full of Emmy-winning writers.
Q: Stand-up is such an individual sport. How did you adjust to working on a team?
A: There are so many ideas coming in. It’s like being a chef and the jokes are the meal. Your job is to bring the ingredients and together you all figure out what the meal is, you know? Let’s make a smoothie, let’s make a snack, let’s make salsa. The important thing is that you come up with something edible.
Q: Um, it sounds like you haven’t had lunch yet.
A: I meant to have some oatmeal at the office, but I didn’t get around to it.
Q: So why continue to do stand-up?
A: I’m a comedian first. The instant gratification of a live audience will always supersede television. Sooner or later, my ride in TV and movies will be over, and all I’ll have is comedy.
Q: A lot of your comedy is about race relations. Do you feel an obligation to tackle that subject because you’re black?
A: It’s where I tend to go from time to time. By no means am I going to be the “race comic.” In stand-up these days, I’m trying to focus on veterans’ rights and I definitely want to delve more into what the sugar industry is doing. I feel I have an obligation to speak for those who can’t, to speak about what’s right and wrong. Definitely racism falls into that morality stew.
Q: Does the makeup of the crowd affect your act?
A: I think when the audience is predominantly white, they’ll be absorbing certain truths for the first time and you have to pause a little more before coming back in with the punchline.
I do a joke about how conservation and recycling is dangerous for black people. If you’re white, and you leave with the bag you brought to the grocery store, you’re not going to get harassed. If you’re black, you’d better have the receipt. Black people will nod and go, “umm hmmm.” For white people, you may have to spell it out more slowly. God bless them for sticking with me.
Q: Your specialty seems to be frustration. Was that a theme throughout your career?
A: Frustration and confusion is just a better place to exist than anger. It took me a while to find that voice. I think it started when I did Letterman in 2006 and I was already eight or nine years in (his career). When I was in my 20s, I hadn’t lived long enough to be mad about anything. I mean, who believes that a 20-year-old has problems?
Q: Are there comics you admire who follow the same formula?
A: You could argue that Paul Mooney does the same thing, and Dick Gregory. They’re angry, but they don’t yell. You could say George Carlin was angry, but he offered fair analysis. I really enjoy Doug Stanhope’s view of the world. I’ve probably studied Dave Chappelle the most, along with Chris Rock.
Q: Your first big break was doing prank calls on the radio, and you’ve had three albums of those bits. That form of comedy is kind of a dying art form.
A: A big problem with prank calls is that only the audio goes viral and that’s not enough these days with YouTube. The bigger issue was legality. We were getting inundated with complaints. I respect the people that like prank calls. Selling those CDs kept a roof over my head and gas in my car, but don’t expect a fourth album.
Q: You should get something to eat.
A: Huh? Oh, yeah. I shouldn’t have mentioned morality stew.