DiversityInc 2021 Top 50 event: A Fireside Chat With Comedian, Writer and Activist Roy Wood Jr.

During a DiversityInc 2021 virtual Fireside Chat, American humorist, stand-up comedian, actor, producer and writer Roy Wood Jr. spoke with Carolynn Johnson, CEO of DiversityInc., about how he got into comedy, how he puts his beliefs into action, and what he does to make equity a reality in our country. Here’s a look back at their conversation.

 

Johnson: DiversityInc is very pleased to introduce you to one of the funniest men in America, Mr. Roy Wood Jr. A man who is not afraid to speak his mind and make his own views known, whether he’s advocating for gun control legislation, promoting the need for police reform, or simply taking part in the country’s seemingly unending battle against racism. You’ve seen his stand-up specials on Comedy Central, laughed with him as a correspondent on The Daily Show, and will also get to enjoy his acting chops on a recently announced sitcom set to air soon on Fox. Please welcome the incredible Roy Wood Jr. today to our Top 50 event. Roy, we’re so pleased you could be with us today.

Wood Jr.: Well, thank you. And let me start first by thanking you for your leadership in organizing this, and making sure that DiversityInc is celebrating the companies that are making a change because that’s how you create a wave, is one ripple at a time… I just tell jokes on TV for money. This is real work happening [here] today. It’s some real progress happening, so I’m just thankful to be a part of it.

Johnson: Well, thank you for your kind words. Roy, you began your career in comedy in 1998 at the age of 19 while you were a college student. Can you talk a little bit about how you got your start in journalism and how that rolled into your entertainment career?

Wood Jr.: For me, my start, it was a little bit by necessity in a weird way. I was always the weird, funny kid riding the bench playing sports in high school. I was always attracted to journalism that was a little bit off-center. CNN had Headline News, so I fell in love with this reporter, Jeanne Moos, who always did offbeat stories. And then, as I grew into SportsCenter, I fell in love with Kenny Mayne, Craig Kilborn and then Stuart Scott. Stuart Scott was the affirmation in seeing, okay, here’s a Black man that is not the traditional Bryant Gumbel button-down that I had been used to, but he was still doing something in a way that still spoke to… And I was like, “You know what? What do I need to major in to do that? Journalism? OK. All right. Well, let me go to FAMU and figure this out.” 

And once I got into college, part of the journalism requirement is impromptu speaking, and then you take voice and diction in the theater department. These were all performative classes, so that’s kind of where the bug hit. And I just think, in a weird way, journalistically speaking, I consider stand-up comedy a form of journalism. You’re either reporting on your inner condition or the world’s outer condition. Those are the only two things you can really talk about in terms of stand-up, in my opinion. A joke that’s meaningful at least.

So, just a lot of the principles of journalism just carried itself over into my comedy. It took a while. I had to grow into that, because I’m being honest, at 19, early on, the jokes, I wasn’t talking about that. I had a joke. This is a terrible joke. And please don’t laugh. My roommate eats some of my food but not all of it. I had some 7-Up, he drank six of them. I had a sip of 1-up.

“I just tell jokes on TV for money. This is real work happening [here] today.”

— Roy Wood Jr.

Johnson: Okay. I agree with you on them being terrible. Roy, one of the things, in my opinion, that makes you so unique and memorable, and it helps with whatever project you’re working on, is that you really do strike a nerve, that you’re not afraid to take, excuse me, a stand, and say what you believe in. Many actors and comedians, especially in this space that we’re in right now, where we realized that Black and Brown people’s bodies are viewed very differently, many actors and comedians won’t do this. They prefer to stay safe, and we see that a lot in the corporate space as well. Why are you so open and honest about your political agenda and the changes you’d like to see in the world?

Wood Jr.: I am gifted every week to have a camera pointed at me for the last… coming up on six years now, with The Daily Show. So, to have an opportunity to be a voice for the voiceless, if you don’t take advantage of that, what are you really doing? What are you really doing if you have an opportunity to at least speak to it? I will never think that any joke that I could tell is strong enough to change the law, but it might inspire the person who is, who then organizes, who then goes on a march, who then goes on the thing. Or if the joke could just better inform you, because it’s easy to think that you understand an issue, and if I can make you laugh or if I can make you smile, or if I can make you feel something, then I have your attention. And, at that moment, that’s when you can pour all the information into somebody’s brain and just whatever happens after that happens. But for me, I just can’t think of any other way to do this.

And I’ve often found that the easiest way, sometimes, to engage in these conversations, especially from the stage, when people are more steadfast in their views, if the argument is A and B, enter into the argument with a C side of the issue. Find the angle that no one else has considered, and if someone will consider that, then you can backtrack and dissect the merits of the A and the B side of the issue.

Johnson: I recall watching Dave Chappelle’s 8:46, and it occurred to me that the trusting relationship that we developed with him, and also with you, and folks like you both, is that you make us laugh. You make us laugh at ourselves, to then get over that so we can tackle the problems that you’re talking about head-on. But I think we first have to laugh or cry first before we can do that. 

So, when we talk about consequences, have there been any consequences to this openness? I think about my 18 years at DiversityInc, and watching Luke Visconti, my chairman and founder. Some of the consequences to just keeping it real, telling the truth, and not allowing people to do the wrong thing with you as an accomplice. I am sure that there are some things, if he was sitting next to me, he would say, “You know what? It definitely hurt, but it was worth it.” Can you talk to what, again, you believe some of the consequences to this openness have been?

Wood Jr.: For the people who are staunchly against opening their minds to even learning, there is often some pushback. And when I say pushback, I mean, you catch a nasty email or two every now and then. Social media’s the Wild West. But the one time that it probably stands out the most, I went to a gun rally in Montana. Excuse me, I went to a pro-gun rally in Montana and was having an open and honest conversation with gun owners just about the Second Amendment. And it wasn’t anything where I was going, “Yeah, I’m going to make you look dumb because I don’t…” No. “A and B. Let’s discuss C.” So, I show up to this issue to discuss what I considered to be the C side of the issue. That got me probably the most hate mail. I don’t want to say I got a death threat, because I don’t want to give it that much credit, but I got what… The guy sent me a Bible. This is God’s honest truth. This man sends me a Bible, and in the Bible, he’s highlighted all of the verses that are related to forgiveness and love. On every page, he’s highlighted every verse.

And then, on the last page of the Bible, he wrote, “I forgive you for what you did to me. Normally, I wouldn’t.” And I was like, “OK, this feels like, if this was five years ago, he probably would’ve sent a death threat, but clearly, he’s been going to therapy and working on himself. Therapy works.” The next thing I did was pitch a story on mental health awareness.

Johnson: Yeah. Well, again, everybody needs help, even when they don’t realize it. Roy, with that, you’ve taken a stand in so many ways in the past, as it relates to racism, discrimination, LGBTQ bias, gun control, gentrification, ICE deportations, even PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder as it relates to the Black community. Do you ever find it exhausting that there are seemingly so many areas that need such dramatic help and improvement here in the U.S.?

Wood Jr.: Well, covering the story is not exhausting. Choosing the story is exhausting because there’s just an endless amount of wrong going on in this country. And then what’s doubly worse, with Trevor Noah being at the helm, because Trevor has such a large international footprint and the show expanded under Trevor to I think 70 more countries than when it was under Jon Stewart’s watch, so there are people from all over the world. I could show you the side inbox in my Instagram and my Twitter where it’s just people asking us to talk about atrocities where they are, that are completely on the other side of the country, the other side of the globe. That’s hard when it comes time to choose. But once you have the story and you know where the funny is… 

I think the thing that I’ve learned in this time, in talking about a lot of tough issues, and I think this is something that could even play into some of the companies and the brands that are watching us right now, you don’t have to live at the center of the pain of an issue, or whatever the thing is that … There are days we come in the office and the mood is heavy because this terrible thing happened yesterday. It’s all on the news and it’s all in our hearts, and we have to come in here and figure out a way to make a comedy show.

There are ways to live on the outer orbits of the pain. There’s nothing funny at the center of that issue, but if you can analyze how we got here, or you can analyze how do we keep this from happening again? Causation and prevention. If you find a story, here’s the terrible thing. OK, well, how can we keep this from happening again, and who are the people keeping that from happening, or what are the laws in place that are keeping that from happening? That becomes where the fun is, that’s where the comedy is, and that’s where an interactive conversation can happen, because it’s not so much about the thing, it’s, how do we keep that from happening? Which we all agree upon.

“We have so many traditions in this country that I don’t think we ever stop to ask ourselves, ‘Why have we been doing this?’ It’s okay to rethink things every now and then.”

— Roy Wood Jr.

Johnson: Yeah. If you think about the theme of the event, data transparency in an age of understanding, the one huge part of the “how” is to collect the data and call it the same, normalize it, standardize it, instead of allowing it to be called a lot of different things. And I said that earlier, but I think it was important to say it again here. You were recently quoted in an interview talking about how terms like “woke” and “cancel culture” have been weapons of the right, and how it’s almost impossible to have a simple conversation with someone of a different political party because we’re all so walled into your own political beliefs and resistant to new ideas, or ideas that differ from what we think we believe. 

Can you expound on that a little bit for us, and talk about, obviously things are taken out of context, but can you talk about what you meant when you made the quote?

Wood Jr.: I think that we live in an age where we have conflated news opinion for news fact, and we can often consume whatever we choose to consume, wherever we choose to get our information. We may not be getting information, we might be getting an opinion. So, it’s easy to co-op those ideologies without first really unpacking what’s going on, but I think it’s still important to not throw people away because they are so steadfast in thinking one thing. I just think, sometimes, you have to slow it down. Maybe you have to find a different word. Maybe you’ve got to go to Thesaurus.com and figure things out. 

I think what’s very interesting about DiversityInc and what you all do is that companies tend to turn faster than the nation because, within a company, there’s an agreeance on the facts. There’s an agreeance on the data. We, as a country, can’t even agree on whether you should get the one-shot or the two-shot vaccine, or whether the vaccine … That conversation could spiral into a million different directions. But at least within corporations, you have a very, very huge advantage, because there is agreeance on data, and it is a roundtable of people talking, who may not necessarily agree, but you have a measured conversation.

And I think that’s also because what you all are doing, what these companies are doing can’t be influenced by outside media and pundits, et cetera, et cetera. I think that when we write off progress as just wokeness or just, “Oh, you’re trying to get rid of him…” No, let’s just take a minute to sit and think about the things that we’ve done. We have so many traditions in this country that I don’t think we ever stop to ask ourselves, “Why is this a tradition? Why do we do it? Why have we been doing this?” It’s okay to rethink things every now and then.

Johnson: Yeah, I think if we stay focused on one thing or one belief, that’s a form of insanity to me. Your thinking has to evolve. If you’re taking information and you’re sitting in those echo chambers, I think that’s probably where you want to be, right?

Wood Jr.: Absolutely.

Johnson: Have you found that through comedy at least, maybe there’s a way to break through these walls a bit and get people to see other points of view?

Wood Jr.: Absolutely. I think that, even if someone doesn’t agree with you, that’s not necessarily a realistic goal, I’m going to use jokes to change your mind. No, this is about being metered and understanding where someone is coming from, and maybe still having respect for their position on the other side of that conversation. And maybe you’re willing to concede something here and there. I think that goes for people on either side of the political aisle. 

It’s ultimately about understanding what another person’s concerns are and where they’re coming from, instead of immediately attacking them and calling them stupid, and using words and emotions. Once emotion enters a conversation, all progress ceases, once negative emotion enters that. So, it’s about understanding and metering and controlling that.

I think it’s also important, I was having this conversation with one of our producers a couple of weeks ago, but it’s very, very important to be considerate of other people’s pain. Just because you haven’t experienced it and you’re not going through it, and you’re not subjected to what they’re subjected to, it does not invalidate what they’re going through. That pain matters and the conversation for that is warranted. I hate to use my 5-year-old as an example, but [I want to tell him,] “It’s not a big deal to me that you dropped a graham cracker on the floor. It’s just a graham cracker. We’ve got a box of graham crackers. Eat another graham cracker.” But he’s really sad about this graham cracker. Got to have a conversation. But then, I also need to get him to understand going forward, “Hey man, don’t be tripping on graham crackers no more. I see what you’re going through, but in the future, calm down.”

Johnson: Yeah. I was thinking about, just this morning right in the region where we live, you’re in New York, I live in New Jersey, and yesterday a teacher in Jersey City virtually went off on his students, basically asking them to defend their viewpoints around Black Lives Matter. And one of the students, in particular, this brave young girl, 17 years old, didn’t know why she was doing it, but she knew she didn’t deserve that behavior, so she recorded it and the teacher has been suspended with pay. There are concerns around tenure and all that. But I bring that up because I think it underscores and underlines what you were just talking about. Just because you don’t understand someone’s pain, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter. But most importantly, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t impact you, because it absolutely does and you’ve got to take some time to get in there and understand it, because it may feel far away now, but it could be right next to you, right around the corner tomorrow.

So, moving on to my next question to you, Roy, Fox TV recently announced that you’re going to be creating your own sitcom. Now, I think I’m funny, so call me up. I’m just joking.

Wood Jr.: Absolutely. You are funny, but I’ll call your agent.

Johnson: Listen, if my dad was here, he said, “You’re not funny ha-ha, you’re funny looking.” Can you tell us anything about it? And will you be bringing your political edge to it in at least some minor way, or completely and fully?

Wood Jr.: Yeah, we’re still figuring out the creative parts of it in terms of how it skews and how it leans, but at its core, the show is about a National Guard unit and the calls and the things that they respond to around their particular state where they’re deployed. I’ve found the National Guard to be an interesting world to explore because I think they’re a little different from a traditional First Responder. They’re kind of, in a weird way, the second responder. The National Guard is like when things are really bad. Like, “All right. It’s a flood, and it’s some unrest riot, the aliens are coming. Call the National Guard, because now things are really tough.” 

But when you really look at a lot of issues in this country, be it environmental racism, or you look at a lot of… I’m trying to mince my words and I shouldn’t. The National Guard is America’s Band-Aid. They show up to fix things that are traditionally systemic issues that are caused by government malfunction, malfeasance, malpractice, whatever corporate words you want to put right there. More often than not, they’re there to be a Band-Aid.

So, I think it’s a show where there’s an opportunity to make it funny, but to also show where America is really messing up and why the National Guard are the ones that always have to come in, but the cops or the firefighters, they get all the glory, but the National Guard has to come in. Like during COVID, when they were having all of the quarantine issues, the National Guard was working in our prisons as jailers, they were working at nursing homes, they were running vaccine points. Right now in Florida, there’s a big levy full of dirty, disgusting water from some fertilizer farm that’s getting ready to flood an entire town. You know who’s there putting up sandbags to stop the toxic water? The National Guard. And that big reservoir outside of Tampa? Yeah, 30 years ago, politicians told them not to build that because this exact thing would happen.

It’s an interesting way to explore some of the malfunctions of our country. The infrastructure, bridges collapsing and getting swept away. The National Guard. Those are the ones who come in before the Army Corps of Engineers. I just think it’s a fun way to explore some things. Yeah.

“Even if you can’t make people laugh, you can definitely make them feel appreciated, and that’s something as simple as eye contact, or a phone call instead of an email when you can do it. Just the little things.”

— Roy Wood Jr.

Johnson: So, Roy, with the last three minutes that we have, my final question is really one of advice, right? We have folks exploring how to be anti-racist. We have folks trying to figure out how they can effectively be part of the solution without making it about them, right? For those of us who aren’t comedically talented, like you, how can we create a similar impact and help people have a different understanding of our points of view? What advice would you give to people who are trying to have a positive impact on their audience the way you’ve had on yours with, like truth-telling, even if it’s through comedy?

Wood Jr.: If you cannot make people laugh, make them feel. They are both relatable emotions. You can make them feel either through attempting to see them and checking on them, and asking them how they’re doing and what they’re going through, or simply telling a story of your own that you believe will make you more relatable. That goes from working with someone in your department or trying to relate with someone that’s above you or below you. You’re not always going to get the same reaction from every person. And there are some people that don’t want to talk. Some people don’t want to share. They don’t want to open up. 

But if they see you being vulnerable, if nothing else, it says to them that you care and that you’re trying. The thing that’s difficult about inclusion, specifically inclusion, is that we all connect with one another differently. There’s never going to be a sweeping blanket way to fix every person the same way. There’s no set metric to that, but there are different styles and techniques that you can use with people, and I think through repetition and sincerity, that’s undeniable and that has to come through. Even if you can’t make the people laugh, you can definitely make people feel appreciated, and that’s something as simple as eye contact, or a phone call instead of an email when you can do it. Just the little things.

Johnson: Yeah. I think that’s powerful, and it makes me think of the idea that, if we accept that we are all cracked vessels, and not just some of us are cracked vessels, I think we’ll get a lot further a lot faster. Roy, thank you so much for emceeing today. Thank you for this fireside chat. I definitely got to see a different side of you, other than just always being in stitches. This was awesome. Again, thank you so much.

Wood Jr.: Thank you.

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