It’s been 15 months since Colin Kaepernick first decided to not stand during the national anthem to protest police brutality and this country’s treatment of African-Americans. In the time since, his message has been both amplified and subverted. Now, everyone had an opinion about it: football fans and not, all the way up to the president. As these things go, when there is a lot of talk around a topic, there has always been a lot of comedy. But no comic has handled it better than Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood Jr. on his debut stand-up special, Father Figure. He found a way to dig deeper and think beyond just Kaepernick.
This is the subject of this week’s episode of Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them. Listen to the episode and read an excerpt from the transcript of the discussion below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Where did the joke start?
That was a real argument I had with my uncle. My uncle and I had a nice heated debate about Kaepernick and taking the knee and what it means to be patriotic in these times and we started talking about patriotic songs.
Then you decided it’s something you should try onstage?
I was like, You know what, I’ll prove it to you. We don’t even write patriotic songs! So I spent like two-and-a-half days just Googling black music and trying to find [a patriotic song by a black artist]. And it was hard. You really can’t find any, definitely not in comparison, not one to one, with white artists, in terms of the amount of original patriotic songs that come out. It’s no competition.
Yeah, you’ll see people rep a city or a neighborhood.
That’s what I started noticing. I go, Huh, that’s fascinating. I was like, Okay, what other cities are black people singing about? And I started going down [a rabbit hole of this]. One song I almost put into the bit is the song “Across 110th Street.” I was like, This dude is just talking about a street, he won’t even vouch for the whole town.
Unlike most stand-ups of your level, you watch a lot of comedy — every special, every late-night set — to make sure you’re original. For a joke like this, what did you see already out there, and what did you see that was missing?
A lot of comics had jokes about Kaepernick taking a knee, but I wanted to expand it out from the issue and just look at the sense of black patriotism as a whole. Like, are we even patriotic? Why have we been standing up until this point? What’s been going on that made us feel this way? And so then the joke became a deep dive on patriotism and what it means to be patriotic, and how is that shown? How do you demonstrate patriotism? Oh, okay, you stand, but what if you didn’t? What would happen if you didn’t do that and what other sides of patriotism are there? It’s always song, it’s gatherings, it’s dances, and that’s kind of where the whole thing started.
What’s interesting is it’s a joke about Colin Kaepernick, where you never mention Colin Kaepernick.
I try not to name people in my material. I try to discuss the issue because I feel the issue of black patriotism will always be percolating for at least long enough for people who give a shit about what I do to watch the special. But if you start naming people and events and things, I feel like it has a way of dating your material.
Yeah, if you watch old stand-up, where the comedian is political at all, they’ll name like a senator or a governor, and the joke just doesn’t work.
A lot of people say that a stand-up special should just be a slice of the world as it was at that time and I agree with that to an extent, but I would love it if someone could pop in my special 20 to 30 years from now, and they’re not left out on a single syllable of anything that I’m talking about.
For this joke, it allows it to still resonate, even if the topic is still in the news. Like the president tweeted about months after the special came out.
Yeah, the president is just such a different joke world, because it’s a moving target that’s constantly evolving and it’s constantly changing. You could write 20 minutes about one thing and then he reverses his opinion. Well, now what are you going to do with that material? I could start writing my act today, but in five weeks when we go and tape, 20 different things would’ve happened by then. It’s not something I enjoy because it forces you to stay on topic with an issue. To report every week on what Trump did, you’re just saying he did this, here’s a joke about it, and here’s why you shouldn’t think that way. There’s got to be more. There’s got to be something bigger to that. To me the issue isn’t Trump, it’s the people in office who don’t stand up to him. That’s the bigger deep dive. Because if you look at all of the president’s antics since he’s been sworn in, the one consistent narrative is that nobody stands up to him. So to me, that’s what I want to talk about. I want to talk about who are all these people who don’t go, “Hey, man, don’t fucking tweet today.”