The Daily Show’s Roy Wood Jr. is known for his fearless and hilarious takes on hot-button issues. From his famous segment on police racism to his anti-LGBT food truck bit, he knows how to make people laugh while confronting the ugliest aspects of American culture. It’s not always easy to thread the needle between humor and politics to discuss dark, serious topics in a comedic way. Though there’s plenty of fodder for comedy in 2017, it can be difficult to joke about some of the country’s more unsettling issues. “The problem now is that there’s a lot of things in Donald Trump’s presidency that aren’t laughing matters and are very serious,” Wood says. “Look at the AHCA. If this healthcare bill gets through the Senate, it’s plausible that people are going to die. It’s hard to find the joke in that. But you better, before it gets to the point of no return. This is scary stuff.” Wood says that as a black comedian in America, he must find an even more precarious balance between political outrage and humor, or he’ll risk alienating many Americans, he says. This is the tightrope Wood walks every time he films a Daily Show segment.
As a black comedian who discusses political issues, Wood feels as though he must suppress some of his outrage towards the injustices he sees in the world. He “repurposes” these emotions, conveying his disgust in a way that’s palatable for The Daily Show’s mass audience. “The biggest thing that I struggle with in my humor is masking my anger. Only in very rare instances will America listen to an angry black man. They’ll listen to a funny one, or a clever one, or a witty one before they listen to an angry one. If you’re black and angry, you’re probably going to reach more people doing music than you would doing comedy.”
At The Daily Show, Roy Wood Jr.’s voice is heard loud and clear. In his career on morning radio, producers dictated the topics he could discuss, usually avoiding anything controversial. Now, Wood makes the most of his platform. He has the freedom to delve into the contentious issues that he has deep emotional connections to. He appreciates walking into work at 9 AM and, with undivided attention, telling the writers’ room what issues matter to him that day. Racial injustice is frequently top-of-mind for him. “I’m from the South, so I grew up in a very different racial climate than someone off the coasts. I look at the shootings that plague the black community, and it’s hard to find the jokes in that. It’s hard to turn on the TV and see shit like the Dallas police shooting and think, ‘How can I deliver this information while trying to find the joke.’”
Wood sees The Daily Show as the ideal place to discuss these unpleasant issues, and acknowledge the talent that the show’s host, Trevor Noah, has at delivering these sobering messages in a comedic way. “That’s where it’s really beneficial to have Trevor Noah. I don’t know what kind of yoga he does—I don’t know what the boy do—but things don’t shake him. He’s able to stay on task and make sure the information gets touched on in the right way and that the issues get addressed. What we won’t do is ignore these things that are happening in the world.”
A big realization after the presidential election was that the mainstream media might not be fully in touch with Middle America. And though The Daily Show is often the poster child for coastal elite political comedy, Roy Wood Jr. seeks to bridge that divide, speaking to the whole country. “I think the media and everybody as a whole is out of touch with Middle America. That’s what happened with the election. You had a lot of people who were underrepresented and forgotten. I don’t always know how you can address those concerns in comedy, but I think it’s important that people know that they’re heard. That’s part of why we did Alabama Week on the show. We stepped into another world and another culture to make sure those concerns were addressed on the show. There are people in red states who are doing good, and there are people in blue states who are doing bad. I think that’s a problem a lot of people have with liberal late night shows—that they aren’t self-criticizing enough.”
The Daily Show faced some backlash last year when the conservative political commentator Tomi Lahren was invited on the show for an interview. Wood defends the controversial decision to book Lahren, arguing that he seeks to engage with people who disagree with him. Critics claimed that it was irresponsible to give a platform to someone many deem racist and incendiary. Lahren’s appearance on the show led to an outcry, criticism that Wood thinks this is unwarranted. “I know a lot of people had issues with us having Tomi Lahren on our show, but right after Tomi was on our show, she was on a couple of other shows. So clearly other shows are having polarizing people. Look at Milo Yiannopoulos on Bill Maher. I’m of the belief that if you can have a reasonable conversation with someone from the other side, that’s not a negative thing. To say that these people can’t be reasoned with and that their views are so radical that you shouldn’t give them the platform—that’s all relative, that’s a very relative perspective. People go, ‘Don’t talk to them, they disagree too much.’ I don’t buy that.”
Recently, Late Show host Stephen Colbert faced backlash for a sexually explicit monologue joke involving Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Wood considers this backlash “inconsequential.” “People are mad, but I promise you they don’t care,” he says. “The people who were mad at Colbert are the same ones who were saying, ‘Stop drinking Budweiser’ for a fucking immigration commercial. And I bet they were saying ‘Fire Colbert!’ while sipping a Budweiser. I don’t respect any of these groups right now that talk about boycotting. Not as a black person who’s read up on the boycotts that really went down and lasted for long periods of time. People are just mad and want to call each other snowflakes, and it’s an online kerfuffle for a couple of days. Then it goes away. The amount of tenacity and dedication required to effectively fiscally boycott any institution is something that I’ve yet to see any group possess post-election. The election itself is probably the biggest form of protest that I’ve seen. Even on the left—hell, I know people are drinking Pepsi again. Whatever it is, people forget, and they go right back to their brand. The level of vigilance required to do a fiscal boycott—nah, man. I haven’t seen it. It’s out there, but I haven’t seen it.”
Late night TV has also gotten criticism for being a boys’ club, and after Jon Stewart announced his retirement from The Daily Show, many people hoped his replacement would be a woman. Amy Schumer was reportedly offered the The Daily Show by Comedy Central, but she turned down the role. As a black man born in South Africa, Trevor Noah did manage to add racial diversity to a late night comedy field that is overwhelmingly white. But with virtually all of the primetime and late night comedy talk shows hosted by white men (the Jimmys et al.), there remains a vast underrepresentation of women and minority voices. “I know at The Daily Show we have a nice balance of minorities in front of and behind the camera,” Wood says. “I think it would be nice to see more women in front of the camera. I can’t speak to the composition of writers rooms on any of the other shows, but right now there’s Samantha Bee, Chelsea Handler on Netflix, and Sarah Silverman has a Hulu show coming out. So that’s three out of, like, 10? Middle America was left out of the election and they did things to effect change, and I think the same thing will happen with women and the feminist movement to make sure they’re represented properly. Otherwise, companies will face the fiscal consequences for ignoring them.”
When real-life headlines about the ridiculousness of the Trump Administration give satire sites like The Onion a run for their money in terms of absurdity, it’s tough to assess the value of a satirical news show like The Daily Show. But Roy Wood Jr. feels that late night political comedy is stronger than ever. “There are so many different things to attack with Trump, and there are so many things wrong with his presidency that there isn’t much overlap of jokes with late night shows’ comedy about Trump. There are now more TV shows than ever doing that, so more dogs in the fight—the more the merrier. There will always be something worth joking about. I feel like now more than ever political comedy matters. It’s something that puts you at ease and makes the truth easier to digest. Political comedy is alive and kicking.”
Jake Lauer is a New York-based writer and copywriter with bylines in Complex, Maxim, Uproxx and Splitsider. You can check out more of his writing here.