Can Comedy Survive Quarantine?

Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood Jr. discusses writing jokes during a year of protest and pandemic.

In the inaugural episode of The Kids Are Asleep, Slate’s Care and Feeding columnist Jamilah Lemieux got on the line with comedian and Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood Jr. to discuss parenting during quarantine, writing with kids around all the time, and being funny in a very serious year. Part of their conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below. You can watch the rest on YouTube, and catch new episodes of TKAA Thursday evenings on Slate Live.

Jamilah Lemieux: I’m curious to know how it’s been for you writing jokes in the face of such great calamity. Because we’re not just living through COVID, we’re living through the same racism we’ve always been living through, but now we’re in this unique moment where people are pretending that it actually matters and that they care. There’s certainly a lot of material right now, but there’s also the sadness and the emotional reaction that you—as a dad, as a Black man, as a human being—are experiencing being a part of this. So how are you writing your funny stuff?

Roy Wood Jr.: I think that it’s about finding the common denominator in the emotion of the moment. For me, stand-up is about finding the opposite—the thing that we all see, but I try to show it to you from a different prism. Now it’s the thing that we all feel. And [so now comedy is about] acknowledging that and being heard and just letting an audience member know that they’re not alone in thinking a particular way.

That’s a lot of what’s going on with The Daily Show. We’re trying to find stories where there isn’t a lot of humor. I just had a segment that aired earlier this week, exploring the Georgia citizen’s arrest law, which was ultimately the law that cost Ahmaud Arbery his life. And so when you look at that law and you start examining the origins of the law and how it started back in the slave catching days .. there are jokes around the outer orbits of an issue, but at the core of the issue are things that a lot of people are upset about, and a desire to see those things change and see those wrongs be righted.

So then the jokes become the jokes I had with Georgia state Rep. Carl Gilliard, who’s fighting to get the citizen’s arrest law repealed and off the books in the state of Georgia. You find jokes on the outer perimeter of an issue that you shouldn’t be joking about. So that’s kind of been the baby steps, stepping around land mines, in a way, that we’ve been doing at The Daily Show.

As for my personal stand-up, I just jot down premises. I’ve just been cataloging a lot of new ideas and thoughts, but I haven’t put anything onstage because for me, it’s not time. Even if the comedy clubs were open and COVID was cured, I’m not in a rush to get back on stage just because the landscape is changing so fast.

That’s part of why I think what Chappelle did with 8:46 may become a new -tyle broadcast model for stand-up comedy. From the time it’s conceived .. from conception to air, the average stand-up special is usually on an eight-month production. You know, we shoot it, we edit it, then we wait patiently for the right time on the calendar to put it … ain’t no more right time. These jokes might not even be relevant in two months. So as soon as you do it—

Or completely inappropriate in two months.

There you go. So you need to put this shit out as quickly as possible. There’ve been some comedians that have had shorter turn times—I think that’s going to be the norm. Yvonne Orji just had an HBO special. She shot in February. It aired I think three or four months later, somewhere around Mother’s Day, if I’m not mistaken. So that’s a very short runway, but even that now might be too long of a runway.

I was going to say—

Three months is a long time. It’s crazy to think that. My two specials I shot with Comedy Central, there were like fucking eight to 10 months of lead time on it. I shot it, and then by the time it aired, I’d forgot I shot it. Thankfully the jokes still held up, but I just think that we’re in a society that’s changing too fast and moving too fast. And I just think that it’s a prime opportunity for comedians where they’re going to have to be comfortable with putting ideas onstage before they’re ready for them and just trust that the audience is with you.

You know, I was listening to Questlove’s podcast, Questlove Supreme. It was an older episode from a couple of years ago where they interviewed Chris Rock. And he talked about the fundamental difference between being a touring musician and a touring comedian, which is that you can perform the same song for years and years and years. And you can have one album—Lauryn Hill could tour for the rest of her life and never record another piece of music. She don’t have to be on time. And yet, she will continue to be able to sell tickets to shows from that one album. Even if she doesn’t do any other Fugees material, any of the guest appearances, just that album. But when you’re a comedian, people are expecting new and different jokes. You can’t just take Bigger & Blacker on tour. OK? Like, I’m going to tell all them jokes again. Remember how much you laughed the first time? We’re going to do that from city to city.

I’m thinking about how musical concerts are going to have to go online for musicians to continue to feed themselves. They’re going to have to figure out a way to sell merchandise, sell downloads, sell tickets, or work with partners that will sponsor online experiences where you can hear them perform their music. In theory, comedians are going to also have to [do the same]. [Already, some] have been using Zoom and Twitch and Instagram and various platforms to present comedic material that they would have otherwise been performing on a stage somewhere for a live audience. Do you think that we’re going to start seeing specials happen that way?

I don’t think stand-up comedy in the long run benefits from being showcased and developed in front of the world. It’s bad enough when people come in the comedy club with a camera phone. Comedy is the only art form that’s developed in front of the customer. Like it’s some Cold Stone Creamery shit, where you see a joke from the beginning. Or Subway sandwich, if you will, if you never been to Cold Stone. And you work it all the way down in front of the world. So once you put it out on Zoom one time and somebody pulls a snippet of that, that joke is burned. It’s done. And don’t let it be an edgy joke and you didn’t quite stick the landing. Because a lot of material that people think is pushing the envelope or it’s not PC, it probably started in a far uglier place before it got to the polished place where you could even argue the merits of the material. That type of material has to be incubated somewhere far less open and far less diverse than Zoom or Instagram Live, in my opinion.

So you can do something for now. But I think eventually the true spirit of comedy is going to have to go back to the clubs. The bigger question is, will motherfuckers be comfortable going back to the clubs when the clubs open? Because everybody talks about the world reopening. It’s going to be two reopenings. It’s going to be when they say it’s open, and then it’s going to be when motherfuckers feel comfortable actually showing up because it’s open.

Or when they should feel comfortable.

Yeah. I’ll keep it 100 with you. When the COVID vaccine hit, I ain’t fixing to be in the first wave of motherfuckers getting that first wave of corona vaccine. No.

No, I can’t do that shit.

You never do the first iPhone update. You wait for the second one. You wait for that 0.2. You don’t get the 0.1.

I didn’t even do the first iPhone. I was still using a Blackberry for a few years. I don’t know how that whole Apple making a phone is going to work out for you. Prove it.

Exactly. So I just don’t know when that’s going to be. But you do what you can in the meantime. And there are a lot of comedians that are seeing a lot of success doing stand-up online. Stylistically it doesn’t feel comfortable for me, but then you have comics that have figured out entirely new lanes. The homie Ziwe Fumudoh, like Ziwe is out here feeling the game right now with live interview shows that would have never happened had she not been in quarantine. This quarantine isn’t going to change how you think about reaching people, but if you are a comedian, then you will figure out what the parameters are of this new world that we’re in and figure out a way to still attack and still spread your comedy to the world.

[But without the traditional avenues of stand-up] it’s just not going to be feasible for everyone. Chappelle did his show in a park, but he’s also Chappelle. How many of you other people are [folks] going to go see in a park? And even if they do come to you, what’s going to happen when winter comes? Are people going to start coming outside after November? I don’t know. I’m just going to wait and see.

I think we’re going to have to learn to live this way. You know, I think we’re going to have to learn to live this way again, that even when there is a vaccine, even when enough time has passed that folks feel comfortable taking it, that we can prepare to be in a situation where we’re all indoors over and over again. Maybe hopefully for shorter periods of time.

What keeps me comfortable in all of this is that the world we’re living in is the world that evolved after the 1918 flu, which was far worse and far more deadly. So they still managed to have juke joints after that shit. The need for human touch will eventually supersede any other reservations that people have, no matter what your political leanings are. Certainly you’ve got to get outside and have a drink and watch Lauryn Hill not show up on time. It’s inevitable.