For its first 19 years on the air, The Daily Show attempted to capture the gravitas of a traditional newsmagazine show like 60 Minutes and 20/20, and the correspondents that they hired reflected this ideal. They were satirizing TV journalists by hiring people that, had they not devoted their lives to being funny, could be news people in another life.
In the new regime, and with the program’s place in the cultural conversation secured, the show has shifted gears, hiring correspondents who could never be mistaken for Stone Phillips or Jane Pauley. They’re still speaking truth to power, but they’re squarely putting the laughs first.
No one exemplifies this better than Roy Wood, Jr. The veteran standup and former radio personality appeared on The Daily Show the same night that Trevor Noah debuted, and it could be argued that the comic made the stronger impression. He was the cantankerous Southerner who couldn’t care less that NASA was planning on colonizing Mars. “Black people ain’t goin’ to Mars! Brother can’t catch a cab, you think he can catch a spaceship?”
Wood’s legend on the show has only grown since then, especially in his field pieces where he reflected the confusion and terror of the 2016 election, dug into the bureaucracy of bullshit fueling many Army Corps of Engineers projects, and explored potential racial biases in policemen. To every situation, he brings a rumpled frustration and a complete indifference to decorum.
“The producers are so good about letting you be yourself,” Wood says, speaking from his home in New York City as his eight-month-old son squeals in the background. “All the correspondents have been pretty consistent about letting some part of their actual personality come across. They allowed me to do some stuff early on that fit me. Nothing that’s delivered in the same style that a traditional news reporter would do. But I’m still able to convey the information. At the end of the day, that’s more important.”
The 38-year-old comic is somewhat tempered by the strictures of the short form pieces that he does for The Daily Show, which is why it is especially great to see him stretch out within the borders of his first hour-long standup special. Father Figure, premiered last night on Comedy Central and is available on demand on the Comedy Central website if you log in with your cable provider info, features the same pointed social commentary and interest in racial politics but with the threads wound more tightly around observations from his own experience. It’s such a tightly-constructed hour that it feels strange to point out that it is his first stand-up special and to hear that Wood feels like he found his comedic voice in 2006, almost a decade after he started.
“When I was young, people would tell me, ‘Talk about your life experiences. That’s what people wanna hear,’” he remembers. “I was 19! Nobody gave a shit about my life. Trying to be relatable and doing jokes about book buybacks means you’re going to have a very limited audience. Once I realized those aren’t the types of jokes I needed to continue telling and started talking about the world, then I have a common denominator with the world. They cared more about how the police are when you get pulled over and why Waffle House is the best place to eat. I was eight years in before I became more of what I am today: observational to the point of being more annoyed with stuff.”
The story of an entertainer grinding away until well in their thirties (or older) before finally breaking through into wider recognition and acclaim has become a familiar tale. Wood’s journey does have some particularly interesting pathways and detours, though. Inspired by the onscreen style of folks like Stuart Scott and Fred Hickman, his first notion was to go into sports journalism. He was headed that way as a student at Florida A&M before he slipped into doing comedic bits for a radio station. That led to his first breakthrough, working on a morning radio show in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, but with the proviso that he would do prank phone calls for broadcast.
“I didn’t want to do them,” Wood says. “I wanted to do weird sketches, but they said, ‘You can do all that but you have to do the prank phone calls as well.’ As luck would have it, they caught fire and I started to use them as collateral to get me booked in other cities. I would argue that the same prank phone calls that I didn’t want to do have been just as pivotal for me as being on Letterman or doing Def Comedy Jam.”
He started marking off milestones like that soon after, including surviving the gauntlet of Last Comic Standing and spending a few years on the short-lived sitcom Sullivan & Son. Wood has also found himself jumping back into the world of sports as a contributor for ESPN’s Sportsnation. All great gigs and moments, to be sure, but his current home at The Daily Show is where he has found the perfect platform to grow even more as a writer and performer.
“More than ever what we do is important,” Wood says. “So being here and having an opportunity to do that is cool. It’s one thing to try and affect change with your jokes. It’s another to have the full strength of a half-hour news show behind your opinions. I’m not in any rush to run away from that. I still feel like I have a lot to accomplish. It’s a new America and we’re a new show for all intents and purposes. There’s a lot of meat on the bone and I’m still hungry.”
Robert Ham is an arts and culture journalist based in Portland, OR. Read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.