Comic Roy Wood Jr. is now a correspondent for The Daily Show, but he got his start performing in comedy clubs in the South and Midwest — sometimes in places where he felt unsafe as a black man.
"I did a lot of shows in a lot of strange places," he says. "I've been called the n-word from the stage by somebody in the crowd and the club owner did nothing to defend me."
After a show, Wood would sometimes drive three or four hours out of town rather than sleep in a place where he felt unsafe. But looking back now, Wood, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., is grateful for those early experiences.
"I'm thankful for those gigs because that's the type of stuff that now, with The Daily Show, it gives me an opportunity to tap into who some of the audience is," he says. "If nothing more, my first nine or 10 years of comedy were a very, very bitter education on the psyche of the middle of the country."
In addition to appearing on The Daily Show, Wood hosts the Comedy Central series This Is Not Happening, in which comics tell stories about things that happened to them in real life. He also starred in the 2017 Comedy Central special Father Figure.
On writing the Trump rap sketch for The Daily Show
We were just talking about how much Trump brags. He literally is like a rapper — he talks about his house, his boat, his properties — and I started talking about it with Jordan Klepper, who was a correspondent at the time (this was before he was hosting The Opposition). Klepper [and I] said, "I bet if we dug deep enough into his tweets we could find enough bars to put into stanzas to make a full-blown rap song."
The Microsoft Word document [we created] was font size 12, single-spaced and it was about 20 pages of just quotes and tweets and anything braggadocios and we neatly went through and found line by line and put it all together.
On experiencing racism in different parts of the country
I think the difference between Southern racism and Northern racism is that in the South you know where you stand and ... when you know where the boundaries are, then you kind of know how to play the game a little bit more. So if someone's going to openly say, "I don't like you people and I'm going to hang a [Confederate] flag over my door to remind you I don't like you people," then I know not to eat at that business. How much cleaner is that than me sitting there and getting bad service for an hour and a half, complaining to the manager and nothing happening? Which one is more tormenting? The Confederate flag is literally more convenient. You save me 90 minutes.
On growing up in Birmingham, Ala.
I grew up ... on the Westside, the neighborhood is called West End 35211, one of the worst zip codes in the city in terms of crime statistics at the time. ... Pretty rough neighborhood. On the back side of the crack era. ... We moved in on the back end of white flight, so in the '80s we had a couple of white neighbors but by the early '90s and crack had really taken over it was pretty much an all-black neighborhood.
The one thing I've kind of joked about sometimes — but it's actually true — is that if you're going to live in gang territory it behooves you to live deep in gang territory, because where I lived in Birmingham, most of the shootings were happening where territories met, on borderlines almost, if you will. So there were a lot of bad people, but a lot of the bad stuff that happened in the hood happened more so on the outskirt areas in relation to where I lived.
On how his basketball hoop growing up kept him safe from gang violence in the neighborhood
The saving grace for me in my neighborhood was that my parents bought me a really nice basketball goal. ... We had one of the few houses in the neighborhood with a two-car garage, a very wide two-car garage, which meant the way the goal was set up you could play almost half-court if you played off into the dirt off into the driveway. So we basically had half-court, and so all the gangbangers came to our house to shoot hoops, so I met everybody in the hood. ...
My father was a radio personality in the city and he was highly respected. My dad was a civil rights journalist back in the '60s and '70s. Any march you can find any footage of, I'm sure my dad is no more than two or three steps behind Dr. King, covering the march. And so when it comes to black political talk and when it comes to black political commentary and playing the blues and my dad did the morning news on the radio. My father was the voice of the city of Birmingham for a very long time. His name rang out. And out of respect to my father, guys would leave guns around the corner, they would leave their liquor up the street and when they came to our house it was Switzerland. So you might see a Vice Lord and a Gangster Disciple, it's plausible, right there in our driveway. And there's no drama, out of respect to my father and my mom.
On his parents' response to him sneaking Playboys
I found some Playboys in the attic that were my dad's from way back when, and I got the bright idea to stash them in the living room, because they'll never check there, they'll check my room, but you won't dare check the living room couch. And sure enough, they found them and the first thing my father did was sit me down and talk about objectifying women and why it's wrong and then he gave me a quiz on all the parts of the reproductive system, male and female.
My dad basically, by turning into this weird encyclopedia moment, he desexualized a woman's body, because now it's, "You better know the ovary, the fallopian tube. You better know everything about this if you're going to look at stuff." ...
That was kind of the first real bird-and-bees conversation. It made it so boring! You see a rap video and you're like, "That's a gluteus! That is not a big butt!" The moment your dad makes you call a butt a gluteus, it just does it.
On having a toddler son and being on the road a lot doing comedy
For me, [the toddler years] don't matter as much as the ones to come. If I had to pick a 10-year stretch to be physically present and there I would pick 10 to 20 versus 1 to 10. ... Because 10 to 20 is where you really get an opportunity to shape and really infuse the morality.
You lay the groundwork that first decade, but that second decade, you know, it's for me, raising a black man in this society, a 6-year-old can't understand the conversations that I need to have with him about consent and about how to deal with the police, about how to make sure he gets a bag when he leaves that store. A 13-year-old can, and those are the lessons that will maybe save his life. So if I have to be gone an extra weekend to make enough money so that I don't have to work later on, or that I can work smarter later on, then I'm going to be gone.
Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, comic Roy Wood Jr., is a correspondent for "The Daily Show." He made his debut on the show the same day that Trevor Noah took over as host. Wood also hosts the Comedy Central series "This Is Not Happening," in which comics tell stories about things that actually happened to them in real life. Late last year, he had a stand-up special on Comedy Central called "Father Figure," in which he riffs about being black in America, being Southern - he's from Birmingham, Ala. - and being the father of a toddler. On his special, he walks up to the mike and starts like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "FATHER FIGURE")
ROY WOOD JR.: But if we get rid of the Confederate flag...
WOOD JR.: ...How am I going to know who the dangerous white people are? I'm just saying, the flag had a couple upsides. Let's just be real about it. I ain't saying keep it around, but I grew up in the South. I can't tell you how many times the Confederate flag came in handy. Stopping for gas at a strange place at 2 in the morning, you see that flag hanging from the window, you know this is not the place to get gas...
WOOD JR.: ...And to keep it moving. What's the rush to get rid of the flag, especially if you white? If you white, you should want to keep the flag for a little while longer so at least black folks will know you cool 'cause if you white and you not an [expletive], that's the one thing that helps us identify you. You get rid of that flag, we'll be - hmm (ph).
We got to figure out a way to know who the cool white people - cool white people, we just got to start giving y'all wristbands or hand stamps, just something you can show in a dark alley, let us know you down with the struggle. That'd be cool. Give me your money white dude - like, whoa, ah, ah, ah (ph).
WOOD JR.: I'm so sorry. Come on through. Come on through. No, they got the wristbands. They good. Listen; put this wristband on this one over here. In case it go down, going to have that wristband on.
GROSS: Roy Wood Jr., welcome to FRESH AIR. So the bit we just heard - it kind of starts in the middle of a sentence. It starts with but (laughter). But it's the opening line of your comedy special. Why did you start in the middle of a thought like that, 'cause we all know where you're going?
WOOD JR.: I feel like once you hear the word Confederate flag, I've got your undivided attention.
GROSS: True (laughter).
WOOD JR.: And the first sentence of the special is, but if we get rid of the Confederate flag, which to me already positions me in an unpopular place of attempting to defend the flag, I just felt like that would be a more gripping way to start a comedy special versus the traditional, hey, how you doing, which I eventually got to it on the back end of that bit.
But it was just something that kind of happened in happenstance where the way - the bit wasn't originally done that way. It was done in a traditional - now let's talk about the Confederate flag. But I'd been in an argument with a comedian off to the side of the stage as I was being introduced. And I basically walked the argument onto the stage as if I was continuing a conversation, when in actuality, I really was.
GROSS: An national conversation, yes...
WOOD JR.: Yeah, an actual conversation.
GROSS: ...And a conversation between you and the other comic.
WOOD JR.: That first line as originally performed was to a comedian standing off to the side of the stage.
GROSS: That's great.
WOOD JR.: I wasn't even acknowledging the crowd. And it got a laugh, and I go, oh, maybe that's the first bit that I should walk on stage from now on because it instantly puts the audience in their seats. And you know, for me, I'm very anxious to get to the jokes. I'm not big on salutations. I'm not a crowd work guy. And it's not that I don't appreciate the audience. I do. But I'm just a performer that's anxious to get to his craft.
I kind of liken it to how the musicians - like, when you go see a rock concert and the band comes out and they don't say hello and they rock out for 10 minutes and then at the conclusion of that 10 minutes, they go Detroit, how you doing tonight? And it's like, woo (ph).
GROSS: So that bit sounds like it has a lot of truth behind it. Did you feel when you were growing up in Alabama, like, Confederate flags warned you away from places and people that spell trouble?
WOOD JR.: Yeah. I think the difference between Southern racism and Northern racism is that in the South, you know where you stand. And there's - I don't want to say a freedom in that, but when you know where the boundaries are, then you kind of know how to play the game a little bit more. So if someone's going to openly say, I don't like you people, and I'm going to hang a flag over my door to remind you I don't like you people, then I know not to eat at that business.
How much cleaner is that than me sitting there and getting bad service for an hour and a half, complaining to the manager and nothing happening? Which one is more tormenting? It's more - the Confederate flag is literally more convenient. You saved me 90 minutes.
GROSS: Did you see a lot of Confederate flags growing up in Alabama?
WOOD JR.: Yeah, but I also started - as a comedian, my first nine years of comedy from '98 until I moved to Los Angeles, you know, I was a Southern and Midwest act. So you know, I did a lot of shows in a lot of strange places, a lot of armpits of America...
WOOD JR.: ...If you will - beautiful places, sometimes questionable people. So I've seen Confederate flags, you know? And I don't want to say it doesn't bother me because, you know, it's troubling to think why someone has the flag, you know, but it doesn't scare me in that sense.
GROSS: You say performed at strange places. Did you ever perform at a bar or a club that had a Confederate flag?
WOOD JR.: Absolutely. I've been called the N-word from the stage by somebody in the crowd, and the club owner did nothing to defend me. So there's definitely been questionable situations. But at the end of the day, give me my $50 that I drove nine hours to get paid (laughter) so I can be on my way back to Birmingham.
Cities like that - traditionally my protocol was to never stay at the hotel that the venue provided. So I'd either sleep in my car, or I would stay at, you know - I would drive three or four hours out of town. Like, I would split the drive that night and just drive halfway back to Birmingham and then sleep somewhere else because I just felt like in those towns, if I'm one of the few black people and I'm here telling the jokes and, you know, ha, ha, ha, it's all fun and games. But to some people there, it isn't a game.
You know, there's a level of respect you have to have for someone who's bold enough to say that they don't like you and that they'll call you one of the most hated words in the history of this country. Somebody like that might be motivated to come find you after the show. And I'm the only person in town with Alabama plates. So yeah, get the hell out of there. And, you know, thankfully every gig wasn't like that. But I'm thankful for those gigs. So, you know, if nothing more, my first nine, 10 years of comedy were just a very, very bitter education on the psyche of the middle of the country.
GROSS: Why were you even booked in places that had such a kind of racist audience?
WOOD JR.: Because they had a microphone. I didn't care. Why should I care?
GROSS: Did they know that you were African-American when they booked you?
WOOD JR.: Yeah, yeah, but they figured black people are funny. But you just better not date my daughter (laughter) or hang around town too late. I did a show in Johnson City, Tenn., which is a eastern Tennessee mountain town, and people would come up after the show. And there's some town - there's some neighboring town over, and supposedly there's a sign that says, don't let the sun set on your black ass here in this town, where you basically had sundown warnings where you had to leave by the time lights were out. And this is 2002, 2003. This is recent.
So when you're booked in a weird city and the booker calls you and goes, hey, man, I need you to go do blah, blah, blah, Arkansas and you look at it on a map and you can see that it's - I call it the blue line. It's the freeway. You know, the freeways on, like, the atlases are blue. They're denoted by the color blue. So I could look into about how far off the blue line a city was whether or not I was going to have problems. And it looks like a problem city. OK, I'm going to go into town late. I'm going to pull up right to the venue. I'm going to do my gig, get my money. And then I'm leaving.
GROSS: Now, you say at the end of your stand-up comedy special that, you know, right now you only want to do humor that has some kind of, like, social significance, that has some kind of, like, larger meaning. Is that something relatively new for you in terms of, you know, not just, like, telling jokes but have it, like, really mean something?
WOOD JR.: Yeah. I think stylistically - I think "The Daily Show" really did change my perspective on humor with regards to, number one, trying to understand the other side of the issue and then, number two, digging a little deeper than the surface on the topic at hand to find, you know, nuggets of wisdom that are a little bit more truthful and explanatory.
And, you know, I don't think - my comedy wasn't always like that, you know? I started at 19, so my perspective was lacking for, I'd argue, the first eight to 10 years just because I was a young man in his 20s still sorting out life. And, you know, the best comedy is delivered by people that have been through some stuff and experienced some things and seen the world. And I just hadn't done enough yet, whereas - you get a little older. You delve into the world some. You have your heart broken a couple times. You break a few hearts. You have a child. You've got a little bit of a body of work to draw on at that point, you know? And I think that for me - once I started "The Daily Show," it really started changing the trajectory of my comedy.
GROSS: Well, let's hear an example of you on "The Daily Show." And this is really funny. This is from April 29, 2016. And you're doing - basically you're doing a rap video as if you were Donald Trump. And all of the phrases in this are things that Donald Trump had actually said.
WOOD JR.: Every single lyric.
GROSS: Yes (laughter). And so - OK, so let's hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")
WOOD JR.: (Rapping) I have a great relationship with the blacks - the blacks - politicians all talk and no action. I was down there at 7-Eleven. I was there, spent almost nothing on my run for president. All the women flirted with me on "The Apprentice." If Ivanka wasn't my daughter, then perhaps I'd be dating her. We have to have a wall done. Who's doing the raping? We have to have a wall done. Who's doing the raping?
(Rapping) Check me out. Democrats - they love me. Check me out. These Muslims love me - oh, yeah. Stop hating. These women love me. These gays love me. Everybody love me - told you. Check me out. Megyn Kelly - she love me. Check me out. Illegals - they love me. What it do? These veterans love me. Protestors love me. Everybody love me - told ya.
(Rapping) I'm so good looking. I'm really rich. Part of the beauty of me is that I'm very rich. Don't respect women - they know it's the opposite. Arianna Huffington is unattractive. Happy Easter to all. I've never seen a thin person drinking Diet Coke.
GROSS: That is hilarious (laughter). Who...
WOOD JR.: That came from...
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, tell us the story.
WOOD JR.: You know, we were just talking about how much Trump brags. And it was just more of a - you know, like, he literally is like a rapper. He talks about his house, his boat, his properties. And I started talking with Jordan Klepper, who was a correspondent at the time, and - this is before he was host on "Opposition." And Klepper and I were like, I bet if we dug deep enough into his tweets, we could find enough bars to put into stanzas, to make a full-blown rap song. And that's what we did.
And we combed through - the Word - the Microsoft Word document was font size 12, single-spaced, and it was about 20 pages of just quotes and tweets and just anything braggadocios. And we just neatly went through and just found line by line and just put it all together.
GROSS: And I love that the chorus was, they love me; everybody loves me. They all love me, yeah.
WOOD JR.: (Laughter) Yeah, that was fun. And, you know - and that - it's one thing to say - you know, back to the original point of digging deeper, we could easily make the analogy of, hey, here is Trump bragging about this, this and this. He's a rapper - ha, ha, ha. And you move on to the next joke in Trevor's monologue or my desk chat or whatever.
But the next level is to actually - if he's a rapper, let's prove it. Let's do a whole rap song. Let's go in a studio. Let's listen to beats for three hours and figure out which beat matches these tweets, and let's rent one of these Bruce Wayne manors. The video is still up on YouTube as far as I know.
GROSS: Yep, it is.
WOOD JR.: But there's Ferraris. We hired models. We - a golf course. We went way beyond what could have just been a three-line joke if we just wanted it to be that.
GROSS: Do you have any idea if Donald Trump saw the video?
WOOD JR.: Oh, they saw it. I guarantee you they saw it. (Laughter) We had a researcher that sent off for press credentials for a Trump rally. At the time, the election was still going on. And they didn't reply to the email. So our researcher hits them up again and goes, hey, it's "The Daily Show." Can we get credentials for the Trump rally? And their reply was the YouTube link to the Trump video.
GROSS: Wow, OK. They definitely saw it (laughter).
WOOD JR.: No other words, nothing else. The only thing they replied with was the link to the video.
GROSS: So you and Trevor Noah started on the same day at "The Daily Show." Who discovered you? Was it Trevor Noah or Jon Stewart?
WOOD JR.: It was Trevor. It was Trevor and his people. You know, at the time before "Daily Show," I had been doing - I'd come off of a sitcom on TBS, "Sullivan & Son." We had gotten canceled. And so for that following year, I was doing - most of my television appearances were guest roles on ESPN on the, you know, various shows on their family of networks.
So a lot of what you do on ESPN as a comedian isn't that different from "The Daily Show." You take the day's news, and you find the punchlines. And it's even more difficult at ESPN because you can't offend sponsors and athletes and teams and - like, there's just - there's more potholes in comedic humor with sports versus politics. Politics, it's all in the game. You can go after anybody. But it's a much more manicured, delicate way of making jokes in the sports realm.
And I guess I did well enough from that to catch somebody's eye over on Trevor's side. And I got the call for the audition. And six days later, I was in New York City. That's the other thing they don't tell you about "The Daily Show," is that when you're hired, it's like, yeah, you start now. Like, what? My stuff's in California. Yeah, that's cool. They hire people, but you start now. We need you now.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Roy Wood Jr. And he is a correspondent on "The Daily Show." He hosts The Comedy Central series "This Is Not Happening," which features comics telling stories that really happened to them. And he has a recent stand-up special called "Father Figure." Let's take a short break here, and we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "4 ON 6")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic Roy Wood Jr. He's a correspondent on "The Daily Show." And he hosts the Comedy Central series "This Is Not Happening," which features comics telling stories that really happened to them.
So I want to play another clip from your comedy special "Father Figure." And in this, you know, you're talking about how we live in two different Americas and that when white people don't understand what African-Americans experience, it doesn't necessarily mean that the white people are racist. Sometimes it's just that the white people are uninformed. And then as an example, you talk about going to a Best Buy where you had to educate a white sales clerk. You had just bought a cell phone case.
WOOD JR.: Correct.
GROSS: And the sales clerk told you that you didn't need a bag for it, so you had to explain why you needed the bag.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "FATHER FIGURE")
WOOD JR.: Dude at Best Buy going to decide I don't need a bag with my purchase.
WOOD JR.: You just have an iPhone case. I figured you could just pop that open. No, I ain't popping [expletive]. You put it in the bag.
WOOD JR.: I need that in a bag. What do you need a bag for? I don't understand why you need a bag. It's wasteful. Recycle. Don't you care about the Earth? I go, Sir, this has nothing to do with the Earth. I'm a black man in America. I've got to leave this store with a bag, bro.
WOOD JR.: It's about safety. I'm black. I don't get the luxury of just walking out with [expletive] in my hand. That is a roll of the dice. That is a horrifying day if I - no. Not only do I need that bag, bitch. I need that receipt.
WOOD JR.: And staple it to the outside. I don't want a receipt in my hand. You staple my receipt to the outside like Chinese carryout. And I'll hold it up in the air. I'll "Lion King" - I'll hukana matata an iPhone case out of Best Buy. And it's not his fault. He just didn't understand. He thought he was saving the Earth, but he was saving a life. That's what was doing.
GROSS: That's my guest Roy Wood Jr. on his recent comedy special "Father Figure." So is that a true story? Did that really happen to you?
WOOD JR.: Yeah, that happened in Seattle. And it wasn't as flagrant as I made the sales clerk out to be in the joke. But it was me very politely explaining to this guy, I don't want to walk out of here without a bag. I just don't. Like, you're cool, but the yellow shirt up there at the door - he doesn't know or is not going to assume. I have no bag, no receipt. I'm just walking out with something in my hand. That concept is so foreign to me as a minority and having been harassed and followed around stores before and suspected of shoplifting. Why would I give someone invitation to question whether or not I'm operating within the boundaries of the law?
GROSS: I thought it was so interesting that you chose somebody to tell a story about who perceives himself as doing the right thing, as being very environmental-minded and therefore trying to not give you a plastic bag but not getting what it would mean for you to walk out without the bag and the receipt.
WOOD JR.: Yeah, and...
GROSS: I mean, you'd have the receipt, but it would probably be in your pocket. And then if you reach for it, who knows how that would be interpreted.
WOOD JR.: Yeah. It's just - no, it's - I don't care if I bought a Tic Tac. I want a bag. I want the biggest bag you have just to make sure. And, you know - and that's where when it comes to educating people about issues of race and just - here's a snippet of black life you might not have considered, something as simple about a bag, like, for me, I enjoy being able to find material that's specific in that regard because it gives me an opportunity to just show a little bit more of my world and what I believe African-Americans go through.
And it's not to vilify this man because I can't say that he's racist because he didn't know that a bag could get me harassed. If he doesn't have a black friend that's ever explained that to him, when is he ever going to learn it? Here's a joke for me to explain it to all of y'all.
GROSS: My guest is comic Roy Wood Jr. He's a - my guest is comic Roy Wood Jr. He's a correspondent on "The Daily Show." After we take a short break, we'll talk about growing up in Birmingham, Ala., in a neighborhood with gangs and with a father who was a well-known radio personality and civil rights journalist in Birmingham. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOM SCOTT AND SPECIAL GUEST'S "JIVE SAMBA")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Roy Wood Jr., a correspondent on "The Daily Show" with Trevor Noah and the host of The Comedy Central series "This Is Not Happening," which features comics telling stories that actually happened to them. His recent stand-up special is called "Father Figure."
In your 2017 Comedy Central special, "Father Figure," you talk about how black people are very conflicted about the national anthem, and black people in America have a lot to be angry about. They don't write patriotic music. And so I want to play that bit from your comedy central stand-up special "Father Figure."
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "FATHER FIGURE")
WOOD JR.: You want to know what black folks' feeling? Just listen to their music. Our music tell you everything that's going on in the black psyche. It's a beautiful...
WOOD JR.: ...Telegram. And nowhere in the history of black music is there a hit patriotic song.
WOOD JR.: It ain't what we do. I mean, we'll cover a song, but, like, we don't write no original patriotic song. Black artists ain't never - because we've got a conflicted relationship with the country. You can't write no honest patriotic song. You've got to leave that to white artists. They had a good time.
WOOD JR.: You had a good time in America, you're damn right you should be writing a patriotic - (singing) and I'm proud to be an American where at least I know I'm free.
WOOD JR.: They be serious. You couldn't possibly expect that level of patriotism from a race of people that have so many issues. You can't. It's not realistic. Black people don't - we don't sing about America. We sing about specific cities where you can have a good-ass time.
WOOD JR.: That's what we do. We don't talk about the country. We can tell you where party at, though. We can do that. Look; I can't tell you nothing about America, but let me tell you about the city where the heat is on all night on the beach till the early morning.
WOOD JR.: Drop into Miami. That's where you got to go. Black people don't do patriotism. Maybe "Georgia On My Mind" - that's the closest we probably come - maybe that, maybe that. That's a good song. It's warm. It's about the country - Ray Charles - "Georgia On My Mind" - good song. But the key word in that song is on my mind. Ray Charles was just thinking about Georgia.
WOOD JR.: He didn't tell you to go to there.
WOOD JR.: Georgia's like every other part of the South. It's got some pockets you should not be in after dark. If you would've asked Ray Charles to be more specific on where in Georgia to go, he would've said, go to Atlanta where the players play and they ride on them things, like, every day.
WOOD JR.: (Laughter).
GROSS: So did you fact-check that piece to make sure that no patriotic songs were written by black people?
WOOD JR.: I fact-checked it deep enough to make sure. And if you were going to find the song, you were going to find something that nobody ever really considered a hit in the first place. You know, like, to a degree, this was also spawned from a real conversation. I had a conversation with my uncle who's a veteran. And, you know, he loves America.
And to me, let's look at the bigger picture of patriotism as a race. Are black people - outside of the national anthem, when are we ever patriotic? Do we write any songs? And I started going through my list of black patriotic whatever and original black patriotic songs, and I couldn't really find one. I couldn't - like, not the way, like, say, Lee Greenwood did "God Bless The U.S.A." or Toby Keith with - we'll put a boot in your whatever. Like, that type of stuff you don't see often from black artists.
But you do see them talk about specific cities, and they'll sing the praises of a specific city, which made me laugh when I got to "Living In America" because that is a patriotic song. That is celebrating some of what's great about this country. But I'll be damned if at the very end of the song James Brown starts naming specific cities.
WOOD JR.: New Orleans, Detroit City, Dallas, Pittsburgh...
GROSS: What was the music you grew up with?
WOOD JR.: I grew up with my mother playing Dionne Warwick on Saturday mornings on an 8-track and, you know, some Bobby Blue Bland. My neighbors were deep off in the blues, and so they would open their windows. And, you know, Saturdays in the South - that's - you know, that's cleaning day. So I'm either hearing Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross and Rod Stewart from my mom's house or, through my window, the Lee (ph) family next door - I could hear Bobby Blue Bland and Fats Domino and some of that - you know, some of that deeper Southern blues stuff.
GROSS: And when you started listening to music that you chose, what was it?
WOOD JR.: I grew up with a little bit of the hair metal, like that - some of that MTV - well, Madonna's not hair metal, but I enjoyed Madonna. I enjoyed Janet Jackson. And, you know, and once the gangster rap boom happened, you know, I was caught up in that. You know, I had N.W.A cassettes that I would buy for $5. I was in the sixth grade, and I would buy N.W.A cassettes from this kid at school whose dad had a high-speed dubbing machine.
WOOD JR.: So if you took - I would take $2 of my lunch money. I would sacrifice - and lunch was about $2 a day back in those days - a little under $2. But at three-pack of TDK cassettes would cost you $1.50. So you had to give up a day of lunch to get three cassettes so you could give one to this guy. And he'd take it home and make you a copy of N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton" or Eazy-E "Eazy-Duz-It," a little bit of Tupac.
Like, all of this stuff - like, that was the music that started, you know, filling my Walkman. And, you know, at this point, "Yo! MTV Raps" is on. So I'm taking in a little bit of Public Enemy and Das EFX, just an array of music because at the time in the early '90s, the South didn't have a rap scene the way it does now. You know, it just - it hadn't burgeoned into what it would be known for today.
GROSS: Were you able to buy music that had parental warnings on it about the lyrics? How were your parents about listening to rap?
WOOD JR.: My mom was actually pretty liberal, you know, in reflection, you know? My mom - they - I felt - I guess my parents felt like they had enough core morality - I had enough of a core of morality to separate real life from, you know, show business, as my mom called it. The only protocol was that I couldn't play the music around her. And if she found it, she'd tear up the tapes. So it just became a game of cat and mouse of where to hide the tapes.
Or, you know, like, when we would be outside shooting basketball in the driveway - you know, this is long before you had portable Beats speakers and Bluetooth speakers. We would roll the windows down in my mom's Lincoln Continental, pop in N.W.A, crank it loud and play basketball to Ice Cube. And every now and then, I forget to take the tape out the tape deck in the car. So when my mom left work in the morning, Ice Cube filled her ears.
WOOD JR.: And she'd take the scissors to the tape. And now I got to skip another day of lunch to go get a three-pack of TDKs to take them to Ahmed (ph) so Ahmed will make me another dub because my mom found the old one.
GROSS: So did she object to the explicit sexuality in the lyrics, or did she just not like the music?
WOOD JR.: All of the above. It's violent. It's sexual. It's disrespectful. It's misogynistic.
GROSS: Did she talk with you about misogyny?
WOOD JR.: A little bit, yeah. You know, we talked - my parents found some Playboy magazines stashed under - I had the bright - I found some Playboys in the attic that were my dad's from way back when. And I got the bright idea to stash them in the living room because they'll never check there.
WOOD JR.: They'll check my room, but you won't dare check the living room couch.
WOOD JR.: And sure enough, they found them. And the first thing my mom - well, my father, rather - the first thing my father did was sit me down and talk about, you know, objectifying women and, you know, why it's wrong. And then he gave me a quiz on all the parts of the reproductive system, male and female. And my dad basically - by turning into this weird encyclopedia moment, he de-sexualized a woman's body because now it's, you better know the ovary, the fallopian tube. You better know everything about this if you're going to look at stuff. You better know what you're looking at. And you need to know your stuff, too. And that was kind of the first real bird-and-bees conversation that we ever had as well.
GROSS: That's a really interesting approach that he took.
WOOD JR.: Man, it made it so boring. And you'd see a rap video. And you'd be like, that's a gluteus. That is not a big butt.
WOOD JR.: Like, the moment your dad makes you call a butt a gluteus, it just doesn't...
GROSS: My guest is Roy Wood Jr., a correspondent on "The Daily Show." His recent stand-up special is called "Father Figure." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF INCREDIBLE BONGO BAND'S "APACHE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Roy Wood Jr. He's a correspondent on "The Daily Show" and the host of Comedy Central's series "This Is Not Happening," which features comics telling stories from their lives.
Can I ask you about the neighborhood you grew up in and, if your parents worked, what they did for a living?
WOOD JR.: So I grew up in Birmingham, Ala., on the west side. The neighborhood is called West End - ZIP code 35211, one of the worst ZIP codes in the city in terms of crime statistics at the time. I haven't checked the crime census data since I left in '96 for college - but pretty rough neighborhood. On the back side of the crack era, back side of - we moved into West End on the back end of white flight. So in the '80s, we had a couple of white neighbors. But, you know, by the early '90s and, you know, crack had really taken over, it was pretty much an all-black neighborhood.
The one thing that I've kind of joked about sometimes but it's actually true is that if you're going to live in gang territory, it behooves you to live deep in gang territory. Because where I lived in Birmingham, most of the shootings were happening where territories met, like on borderlines almost, if you will. So there were a lot of bad people. But a lot of the bad stuff that happened in the hood happened more so on the outskirt areas in relation to where I lived.
GROSS: Did you ever consider joining a gang?
WOOD JR.: No. You know, my mom - my parents were separated until I was in the third grade. So when my parents reconciled and we moved to Birmingham - my mother and I left Memphis and went to Birmingham, you know, I had taken piano lessons. I was playing baseball. I was in gifted courses. You know, when I was - when I got put on punishment and my mom would take my video games from me, I read encyclopedias, just, you know, really out of lack of better options. But, you know, I was always a brainy kid. I had Legos. And, you know, gangs tend to benefit people that are Type-A personalities or people who strive to be a Type-A personality. I was very aware of gangs.
There was a housing complex, South Park projects. And they had just built a new library in the commercial district on the other side of the projects. And the library had computer classes. And my mom wanted me to take computer classes. So the quickest way to the library was to cut through the projects. And sometimes I got picked on. And then there were days where I didn't feel like being bothered with that. So you would have to walk around the South Park projects to get home, which was a 45-minute detour. And then you get home. And then your mom goes, where you been? What you been out - so now you're getting accused of being out doing bad things when, in actuality, you were avoiding them. But, you know, you can't explain that to people.
The saving grace for me in my neighborhood was that my parents bought me a really nice basketball goal. And there's a park up the street from my house called Powderly Park. And Powderly Park had all the - you know, it was a municipal city park. And it had all the hoops. And, you know, it'd be bangers out there. And Powderly Park sat on the edge of Gangster Disciple and Vice Lord territory.
So sometimes it would go down at Powderly Park. So my mom didn't really want me around that element. So I - and I've never talked with her about this. But my guess is that her ideology was if the boy likes shooting basketball, let's put a basketball hoop in the yard. And that way, he won't be a Powderly Park if something goes down. And we had - it's just - I don't know if it's fate or what, man.
But we had a house - one of the few houses in the neighborhood with a two-car garage, a very wide two-car garage - which meant the way the goal was set up, you could play almost half court if you played off into the dirt off of the driveway. So we basically had half court. And we had the best basketball goal with a breakaway rim because the city park - the goals always break because they're rusted and crusty. And they replace them with other rusty and crusty rims. So all the gangbangers came to our house to shoot hoops. So I met everybody in the hood.
GROSS: All the gangbangers came?
WOOD JR.: Yeah. Bangers would come. Regular kids would come.
GROSS: But the goal was to keep you out of trouble. And all the troublemakers are coming to play basketball.
WOOD JR.: So you then asked me what my father did. And here's how it ties in.
WOOD JR.: My father was a radio personality in the city, and he was highly respected. My dad was a civil rights journalist back in the '60s and '70s. He was embedded - any march you can find me footage of, I'm sure my dad is no more than two or three steps behind Dr. King covering the march. And so when it comes to black political talk, and when it comes to black political commentary and playing the blues and - my dad did morning news on the radio. My father was the voice of the city of Birmingham for a very long time. His name rang out. And out of respect to my father, guys would leave guns around the corner. They would leave their liquor up the street. And when they came to our house, it was Switzerland. So you might see a Vice Lord and a Gangster Disciple - it's plausible - right there in our driveway. And there's no drama out of respect to my father or my mom because my mom also didn't take no smack off anybody. And I think there's something to that, you know, it-takes-a-village mindset of showing kids - you know, and my mom would bring ice water out. Like, she was nice. So I grew up in a bad neighborhood, but I had a lot of good - I had a lot of circumstances in my favor that kept me on the good side of the wrong people.
GROSS: What kind of show did your father do?
WOOD JR.: My father did - he did a jazz show. He did a political commentary show. But he also did morning news, as well. So he was, like, on your way to work - and in these days in the '80s, you have to remember that black radio was very consolidated. So a black station in the '80s and '90s before the, you know, corporate split of the genres of music, you would get R&B and upbeat '70s black music during the day. You would get current pop hits, black pop hits in the middle of the day, and then at night was rap. So all black people listened to the same black station at a different time of day to hear their favorite genre of music. So no matter your age, you knew who my father was.
GROSS: Wow, that's (laughter) - that must have been amazing. Now, you started out as a journalism student in college. Did your father inspire you to head into journalism - toward a journalism career, a goal that you did not (laughter) exactly fulfill? But...
WOOD JR.: No, not really.
GROSS: ...But kind of close. I mean, you're doing "The Daily Show," so there's a lot of news in that. It's just a comedy take on real news.
WOOD JR.: I did everything in my power to not be like my father.
WOOD JR.: You know, and - because that's all journalism and radio, and it was cool, but I was an adrenaline junkie. I wanted to be a firefighter. And up until my father's death in my senior year of high school, that - when my father died, I was still hanging on to being a firefighter. And coming around into the spring of my high school senior year, I started noticing this guy Stuart Scott on ESPN. And Stuart Scott spoke like me but talked about sports, and he cracked jokes. And I go, hell, that's the same thing we do every day at baseball practice. I talk about sports. I crack jokes. I could do that.
And it wasn't out of disrespect to Stuart Scott. It was just, he does it so effortless, I thought, hell, so do I. And that was the first time I saw a version of myself doing something. And so I go, what does Stuart Scott - what do I need to major in to do that - journalism? Cool, sign me up. And that's how I found the path to journalism. And then, ironically, here we are 20 years later, and I'm a black man giving commentary to people about the state of the black condition, which is exactly what my father did, only with no punchlines.
GROSS: You mentioned your father died when you were young. How did he die?
WOOD JR.: Prostate cancer. Prostate cancer.
GROSS: Was that devastating for you?
WOOD JR.: Yeah, yeah, it was - cancer's a different type of death, though, where it's not sudden. It's not a car crash. It's not an accident, you know? It's - you know it's coming. And so I reckoned with that long before his death. And, you know, we're also talking about a stubborn man who turned down a great deal of treatment because the treatment would've stopped him from being able to go to work. My father worked in radio until about three weeks before he died. Cancer, no chemo, taking - you know, he's getting treatment for the pain, but the chemo was going make him too weak to do radio. And I really think that's what kept him alive, was talking to people.
GROSS: So you carry his name. You're Roy Wood Jr. And in Birmingham where you grew up, your father's name really meant something after he died. What was the significance of the name? Did people remember him for a long time? Were you still seen as his son for a long time while you lived in Birmingham?
WOOD JR.: In Birmingham, I'll always be my father's son. That's just what it is. And there's nothing I can do to change that. You know, he was first. He was first, and he was impactful. And to be fair, he said a hell of a lot more things that mattered than I did. You know, and even when I came back to Birmingham after college - I came back in '01, and I ended up hosting a morning show at the same station that my father used to work.
At this point, the station was dedicated hip-hop, and there had been a split in genres and all of that. But, you know, there were a lot of people in the building, a lot of the engineers and, you know, some of the people in sales who worked with my father. There are people in radio in Birmingham to this day as we speak who - the only reason they have a job is because my father gave them an internship back in the '90s.
GROSS: So what was it like for you to go out on your own on the road where people didn't know your father, and you were really, like, starting from scratch? Was that a good thing for you?
WOOD JR.: Yeah, that was a good thing. You know, I've fought that for a long time because, you know, there was some degree of resentment between me - towards my father because I always - I never felt like I got all of my dad because of affairs and, you know, other children and things like that. So there was definitely resentment where I operated from a place of anger for a long time in terms of performing because it became this thing of, I'm going to make my own name, and I don't need that name, and I can do it.
And that's where a lot of the performing - the desire to perform came from, was like, OK, well, you might have ran the city; I'm going run the country. My name is going to ring out more than yours, and I'm going to be - and then I got back home three or four years later, and I'm hosting a morning show in the same city. And then everybody goes, you sound just like your daddy on the air. I'm like, ah.
GROSS: My guest is Roy Wood Jr. He's a correspondent on "The Daily Show." His recent stand-up special is called "Father Figure." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELVIN JONES' "ANTHROPOLOGY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Roy Wood Jr. He's a correspondent on "The Daily Show" and the host of Comedy Central series "This Is Not Happening."
So you're a father now. You have a son who's a toddler.
WOOD JR.: Correct.
GROSS: How does your approach to parenting compare to how you were parented?
WOOD JR.: I try to be present more. That's the toughest part. I now struggle with what my mother struggled with. How do you provide but be present? And that's a very difficult thing for any parent to manage.
GROSS: And you're on the road a lot.
WOOD JR.: Yeah. Yeah. You know, two weeks a month, I'm on the road. And, you know, for now - you know, my son and my partner, you know, they'll travel with me. And when the logistics are appropriate, my son will travel with me. But I often feel like I have to work harder now - this is going to sound horrible, but I hope this makes sense. For me, these years don't matter as much as the ones to come. And those are the ones that - like, if I had to pick a 10-year stretch to be present for my son - physically present and there - I would pick 10 to 20 versus 1 to 10.
GROSS: Why is that?
WOOD JR.: 'Cause 10 to 20 is where you really get an opportunity to shape and really infuse the morality. You lay the groundwork that first decade. But that second decade, it's, for me - and raising a black man in this society - a 6-year-old can't understand the conversations that I need to have with him about consent and about how to deal with the police and about how to make sure he gets a bag when he leaves that store.
A 13-year-old can, and those are the lessons that will maybe save his life. So if I have to be gone an extra weekend to make enough money so that I don't have to work later on, or that I can work smarter later on, then I'm going to be gone. And you know, my mom spent a greater part of most of my school years in some degree of night school - not continuously. But, you know, I remember - I distinctly remember my mom - when we were in Memphis, she went over to Memphis State and got her master's.
When we got to Birmingham, she was in law school for 4 1/2 years at night. So my mom would come home at 5:00, check homework till 6:00, and she was right back out the door. By the time she got home at 9:30 or 10:00, she was sleep. There was a four-year stretch where I saw my mom probably, cumulatively 45 minutes a day, but that's because she was out trying to build to make a better existence for me.
GROSS: It's really been such a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much for joining us.
WOOD JR.: Oh, thank you.
GROSS: Roy Wood Jr. is a correspondent on "The Daily Show." He hosts The Comedy Central series "This Is Not Happening," and he has a recent Comedy Central stand-up special called "Father Figure."
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE'S "WHO'S MAKING LOVE")
GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about Trump business partnerships in India, where The Trump Organization has entered into more deals than in any other foreign country. My guests will be journalist Anjali Kamat who has an article in The New Republic titled "Political Corruption And The Art Of The Deal," and Andrea Bernstein, the host of the podcast Trump, Inc. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE'S "WHO'S MAKING LOVE")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE'S "WHO'S MAKING LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.