the great bits

The Great Bits: Roy Wood Jr.’s ‘Black Patriotism?’

Roy Wood Jr. in his 2017 special Father Figure. Photo: Comedy Central

“I gotta follow Roy Wood Jr.?” I said as I checked the lineup.

It was a sobering moment. Some comedians are hard to follow because they use cheap tricks, like miming sex with the stool to a song from Lion King. Roy is hard to follow because he’s just good. He simply nails every aspect of the job. His 2017 album Father Figure is a masterpiece.

It feels wrong to review a six-minute chunk of Father Figure. Every bit is richer in the context of the entire work, which mostly explores a single topic: the African-American struggle. Few comedians even aim for an album-wide theme. Comics discard 15 minutes of unusable crap for every five minutes that works. Doing this until you not only have an hour of comedy, but an hour of comedy that makes a coherent statement is a ton of work. Wood created a focused piece on a difficult subject that gets more laughs than most albums with no constraints at all.

My favorite bit on Father Figure is “Black Patriotism?” Listen to it now before you read another word.

“Something’s wrong, man,” Wood begins, his tone intimate and distressed. He can’t believe people act shocked that black people have issues with this country. He imitates one of these people in a quivery voice full of pathetic surprise. He doesn’t even let them finish their thought. He cuts them off in his own voice with a dismissive “What?” and then a mumble that’s almost “motherfucker” and an exasperated “We’ve been angry!” It’s a perfect dismissal of an absurd point of view and it gets Wood his first laugh after 18 seconds. It doesn’t matter that it’s not a complete sentence any more than it matters that Otis Redding’s outro to “Try a Little Tenderness” isn’t a complete sentence. You know exactly what he’s feeling, and the cuts allow him to make his first point by the 30-second mark.

A good comedian can drop original insights that instantly seem like common knowledge. Comics base ten-minute bits on just one such statement. In the six minutes and fifteen seconds of “Black Patriotism?” Wood gives us three.

His first revelatory insight — that we should have understood black people’s frustration when they invented the blues — gets an applause break 34 seconds into the bit. He then points out that African music was happy because they were free, earning a second ovation seconds later. He manages to sing in an African accent and get the laugh without seeming insulting. The audience gets that he’s not making fun of Africans, just the overly joyous tone of their pop music. Wood then pays off his blues premise. After just seven words of setup, he delivers a wordless punch line that’s just a sung guitar riff. It’s his third applause break in 75 seconds.

“How the hell are you surprised?” Wood pounds in his exasperation. Then he goes back to his quivering, panicked character. “Black people don’t like the national anthem anymore!” he stutters with impotent fear. Wood pumps up the weakness in his voice like a sound engineer at a mixing board, his words trailing off into terrified gibberish.

Wood then drops his next shrewd observation: Black people don’t write patriotic songs. He doesn’t shame white people for writing them — he merely suggests that your level of patriotism is a direct response to how you’ve been treated here. Less than a minute after this second sage insight, Wood drops his third: “Black people don’t sing about America, we sing about specific cities where you can have a good-ass time.” It’s like a truth bomb goes off in each audience member’s brain. It’s just a premise, but they react as if it’s a bit-closing punch line. For the next minute it becomes pointless to differentiate where the applause breaks start or stop. Every time the comedy beach ball starts to lose altitude, Wood smacks it back into the sky.

You know the scene in an action movie where the arms dealer demonstrates their weapons, switching from rifle to machine gun to RPG to the wicked delight of their customers? Wood now shows his audience the arsenal of techniques available to the expert comic. He gives two examples of black songs praising fun cities, without naming the songs. He knows the audience will laugh harder if they figure it out themselves. He knows these songs would get laughs just from recognition, but he goes the extra mile and re-contextualizes them. He repeats Dr. Dre’s rhymes like these precise lyrics were just some dude’s uncle telling you how California likes to party. It’s a crafty game, and the audience can’t get enough.

Wood then executes a brilliant move. Comedians know that, somewhere deep in their brain, humans like jokes to contain a series of three elements. After only two examples, Wood stops and changes the subject. The whole Ray Charles bit is a misdirection. It’s a misdirection with three punch lines, but it’s still a fake-out. The audience gets into it, accepting that they won’t be getting any more song examples. Then, with absolutely no one seeing it coming (you can hear pin-drop silence at the 4:02 mark,) he hits them with the Jermaine Dupri lyrics like Ali hitting Frazier. They howl. Five seconds of sustained applause — way more than if he just gave them all three in a row. He delayed their gratification without them even knowing he was doing it. It’s Olympic-level stand-up.

Wood knows the crowd has now had enough time with his premise to start poking holes in it. Kyle Kinane once said that “stand-up comics make sweeping generalizations and then get off the stage before they figure out we’re full of shit.” Wood has his Uncle Derek attack his song theory. This is a stronger choice than saying “Some of you may be wondering, what about ‘Living in America’?” It makes the bit about Wood again, reinforcing the personal connection that keeps the audience engaged with a comedian’s ideas.

By the time he gets to James Brown, Wood has done eight different voices and sung four bits of music. The applause he gets when he’s finished is not just an ovation for this intense, deliberate effort, it’s an appreciation of a complete statement. They just saw a stellar comedy bit that is also a sound multi-part case for understanding black alienation.

“Black Patriotism?” is evidence that comedy can indeed provoke unsettling thought and disrupt an oppressive social order. Wood presents a series of ideas the audience must evaluate if they want to enjoy themselves. They can only laugh if his insights ring true somewhere in their hearts. If they don’t laugh, they still have to absorb his ideas. A punch line may relieve the tension set up in a joke, but the comedian’s words remain. “Black Patriotism?” leaves the listener with this: If you can list only a small number of cities that are safe for black people, then the rest of the country is unsafe. Therefore, their ambivalence about America is sensible. It has been and still is a dangerous place for them. These statements confront widely held beliefs about our country. Presenting them as jokes does nothing to blunt their impact and makes people listen who might not otherwise.

Some feel that comedians shouldn’t address racism at all — this will only alienate the audience, who after all, just want to laugh. “Black Patriotism?” rebukes this with every applause break. An audience only cares if they laugh? Then make them laugh and you can talk about whatever you like. The only comics who should avoid tackling certain topics are comics incapable of pulling it off. Wood gets more laughs discussing black ambivalence about patriotism than most comedians could with a set they’d let you do on America’s Got Talent.

Throughout Father Figure, Roy wonders whether he has done enough to help the struggle for African-American equality. I hope he counts creating something as hilarious and insightful as “Black Patriotism?” as a worthy contribution.

The Great Bits: Roy Wood Jr.’s ‘Black Patriotism?’