comedy review

Watching Roy Wood Jr. Feels So Good

Roy Wood Jr. in Imperfect Messenger. Photo: Sean Gallagher/Comedy Central

There’s a quality to a Roy Wood Jr. special that feels a little like going to church. His delivery has a rhythm that accelerates, then pauses; it gets noisy, then holds silence for a few moments. It’s there in the rhetorical shapes, too — Wood has gotten especially comfortable with the structure of a theme woven over an hour that creates a sense of unity but is roomy enough for a variety of premises and tones. Also like a sermon, Wood’s comedy insists on abstraction and big-scale ideas.

The material in his new Comedy Central special, Imperfect Messenger, is about police-dispatcher jargon and celebrities getting people out of jail and the layout of civil-rights museums, but Wood is absolutely laser-focused on the moments in those jokes that are also about cultural values, shared history, and humanity. It works. Imperfect Messenger is a fantastic hour because Wood has meticulous control of that sermonlike rhythm and because he is so, so good at finding unexpected comedic targets inside broader cultural arguments.

The idea Wood uses to launch Imperfect Messenger, and the line he returns to throughout the hour, is a theme and variations on how we’re all just trying to feel good. It starts with an acknowledgment of the coronavirus pandemic, a graceful recognition of our current shared reality, and then Wood spins it out into a longer, more universally applicable entry point into all sorts of topics. It can be so satisfying when there’s a palpable through-line, when a jumble of stories gets tied together with a neat bow. And the repetition isn’t just comforting; it’s rhetorically useful. It’s such a sermonlike form of storytelling for a reason — a pastor wants you to remember the message. But from a comedy standpoint, the theme becomes a rhetorical foundation, a baseline that then gets subverted, twisted, undercut, and turned inside out as each new joke enters the arena. For Wood, “People are just trying to feel good” becomes (among other things) a series of jokes about American flags, police violence, watching too many civil-rights movies, and discovering that your favorite Black actor is British. Near the end, the idea transitions into a long anecdote, a sprawling story about Wood’s childhood, community business, unjust incarceration, and humility.

The tidiness of a theme can cut both ways: A structure that can feel neatly organized may feel trite and overdetermined if the thematic emphasis isn’t flexible enough or if the variations on the theme don’t allow for surprise. Which makes Wood’s continual return to the theme more impressive. By the time it builds to that large story near the end (not quite the closer but the most personal portion of the hour and, likely, the story Wood most wants to emphasize), he has toyed with that theme often enough that it loses some of its meaning. He turns it over enough times that it feels like a motif, a little item to toss around and get him from one joke to the next. So when he finally arrives at this closing story, the sincerity of the theme that he had almost drained of all meaning suddenly roars back to the forefront. You thought it was mostly a cute device? No. The full weight of that idea about just trying to feel good suddenly returns all the heavier, because you forgot Wood was carrying it this whole time.

Imperfect Messenger does echo Wood’s 2017 special, Father Figure, and he returns to many of the same topics. His incredible Confederate-flag opener from Father Figure is modulated into a shorter but just as punchy flag joke here. In Father Figure, he tells a joke about the slow-motion collapse of Black actors in civil-rights movies as they fall to the ground; by Imperfect Messenger, his fascination with civil-rights movies has become a joke about the white actors who agree to play racist monsters. The jokes are even shaped in many of the same ways — while Father Figure’s last long bit is about Wood meeting an old Black man in the grocery store, Imperfect Messenger builds to that personal story, which is largely about an older male authority figure in Wood’s childhood community.

But Imperfect Messenger is very clearly an evolution, not simply an echo. Wood is even more comfortable moving between broad cultural observations and explicitly silly bits, which makes both ends of that spectrum stronger. The goofier parts are more delightful, the political commentary more striking. It’s also so fun to watch him play with stupid sections he can’t quite pull off. At no point can he do enough of a British accent to make his Idris Elba material truly land, yet he has a firm insistence that “beans for breakfast” will be enough of a cultural signifier to make the joke function. (And he’s right, mostly, though it’s still not enough to distract from the mess of the fake accent.) His garbled police-dispatcher noises are more solid, but even there, it’s mostly about creating some space in “Let’s laugh at wacky sounds” to make emotional room for the more high-flying material on racism and cultural history.

For anyone acquainted with Wood’s work, Imperfect Messenger will feel at least a little familiar but in the best sort of way — the comedian you already know, doing an even stronger, more assured articulation of his point of view. It would be fantastic, though, if this special introduced even more people to Wood. Especially recently, the conversation about comedy has been focused on what comedians are and aren’t allowed to say, what constitutes power and freedom onstage, and what kinds of boring, unfunny, lazy material can be justified in the name of saying whatever you want. Wood is the best imaginable proof that a comedian can be intensely serious and wildly funny at the same time. Comedians do have the right to say whatever they want; the care and inventiveness of Roy Wood Jr. make him the sort of comedian who justifies and rewards an audience for listening.

Watching Roy Wood Jr. Feels So Good