Comedian Roy Wood Jr. on joking around in the era of Trump

It’s fitting that comedian Roy Wood Jr. is an avid player of Sudoku. “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” correspondent always seems to be a few steps ahead of the obvious.

It’s a necessary skill when you make jokes during a time of fake news and political division. “The problem with writing jokes now is that stuff evolves so damn fast,” he says, laughing.

Wood, a radio host for a dozen years, is the new host for Season 4 of Comedy Central’s “This is Not Happening,” a storytelling series in which performers offer real tales from their lives.

Some celebrities scheduled to take the stage this season are Louie Anderson, Sandra Bernhard, Drew Carey, Tommy Chong, Darrell Hammond, Tom Green, Talib Kweli, Howie Mandel, Kevin Smith and Rita Rudner.

The Associated Press recently talked to Wood about punchlines in the Donald Trump era, how comics seem crucial now and about how he honed his approach watching BET’s “ComicView.”

AP: We’ve seen comics from Conan O’Brien to Jimmy Kimmel turn more political of late, joining the likes of Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee and Seth Meyers. Do all comics have a responsibility to address politics?

Wood: I don’t know if we have a responsibility. As a comedian, I don’t think you give an oath to give a damn. But there are comedians who give a damn. I could name some comedy specials that have come out in the last two years and they didn’t address a single drop of anything that’s going on. And that worked for those guys because that’s their style of comedy. But there are definitely comedians out there who will take an issue head-on and run right into a brick wall and don’t care about being wrong.

AP: You were a journalist for many years before turning to comedy full-time. Do you see any connection between the two jobs?

Wood: I would argue that comedians and print reporters — specifically print reporters — are the white blood cells of a sickened democracy. They’re the only two that have the time and space to flush out an educated, measure response and an educated and measured analysis of what’s going on.

AP: Your comedy has always explored the larger issues and the absurdity of things. How do you describe it?

Wood: Ultimately what I wanted to do was not necessarily hit issues on the nose. I’m not as smart as a Chris Rock or a Dennis Miller. I’m not as well read as a Jon Stewart or a Lewis Black. I know that that specificity of political attack I can’t do. But what I can do is talk about the issues that are in that orbit. If someone could go, ‘Let’s talk about apples. Let’s talk about oranges,’ then my jokes are about the produce department.

AP: How did you train to not do the obvious jokes?

Wood: What I used to do when I first started, I would watch ‘ComicView’ every night and I would make a running tab of every topic that was discussed. So by the end of the season, I had four pages of topics and I put them into columns — sex, poverty, dating — and the types of jokes under each column. And the first thing I decided was ‘I’m just not going to do jokes about any of those things.’ So, at minimum, I’m different. Even if I’m not the funniest, maybe you’ll book me because maybe I’m just something you haven’t seen before.

AP: The stakes seem higher if you’re talking about serious issues rather than silly observational humour.

Wood: Comedians that chose to talk about social issues exist on a higher tightrope than the guys who only talk about themselves or who only talk about the mundane. We’re talking about the risk to your career.

AP: With every stand-up routine seemingly deconstructed these days, how are we meant to assess a comedian?

Wood: Somewhere in all of your favourite comedians is something that you like and something that you probably could have done without. But to get that, he had to give you this, too. And that’s part of the process. I’m not sitting here saying comedians should be able to just roll carte blanche because I’ll also say freedom of speech doesn’t give you freedom of consequence. That’s something everybody says and I believe that. But comedians are willing to take the hit. Don’t sit up here and tell us not to say it.

AP: But you have to say it right, right? There’s a danger if a comedian messes up.

Wood: Comedy is the only form of entertainment that’s still under construction when you’re consuming it. The model? The outfit is done. The singer? The song is done. The dancer? The routine was rehearsed. But this joke — this is a thought, bro. This might be the first time it’s coming out of my head and it might need some tempering. Or maybe there’s a word and a tweak that needs to be changed so that I’m more clear about the point I’m trying to make. That’s a trial and error that takes place over time.

AP: What happens to comedy after Trump? Does it just bounce back to pre-Trump topics? Or is it forever changed?

Wood: I don’t know if we can bounce back from that. What I do know is that regardless — after this administration runs its course — we won’t be the same. We won’t be the same country comedically. 9-11 is not a fair analogy but it’s the closest thing to something cataclysmic that completely altered who we were as a people. The difference between 9-11 and Trump is that 9-11 made us stronger and gave us more resolve and brought us together. Now there’s more division. So who knows if after Trump leaves office if we’ll be a nation that will still be divided.

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