The Georgia Straight
Ex-prankster Wood gets serious about comedy
To the best of his recollection, the first time Roy Wood Jr. laughed out loud at anything, he was three or four years old. He was watching the disaster-movie parody Airplane! on TV, and he got a kick out of Otto the autopilot, the inflatable dummy called on to fly the plane to safety when the flight crew becomes incapacitated.
There’s one scene when Otto becomes deflated and a harried flight attendant played by Julie Hagerty is asked by the control tower to blow it back up via the inflation nozzle located near Otto’s crotch. Leslie Nielsen’s goofy doctor enters the cockpit while she’s trying to revive the plastic pilot and immediately assumes that... Well, you’ve probably seen the movie anyway.
“It took me years to get that joke,” Wood recalls on the phone from his New York City home, “but that would probably be the first time I started really laughing [at comedy]. And then Comedy Central came on as a teenager, so I started watching a lot of stuff on the network, and that’s kinda where I started getting a regular diet of standup.”
Wood’s early predilection for funny stuff on the tube got him on the path to becoming a successful standup comic, one who is also known for his work as a correspondent on The Daily Show for the past seven years. He was one of the first Daily Show correspondents brought onto the show after Trevor Noah took over hosting from Jon Stewart in 2015, and the job has allowed him to shed light on such issues as gun violence, police reform, LGBTQ+ discrimination, and PTSD in the Black community.
“You have to remember that what we’re talkin’ about is serious stuff,” Wood explains, “but we have freedom and levity to talk about it in a lighter way. So there’s still a responsibility, because at the end of all of these stories, there’s still people; there’s still tragedy, in some cases, surrounding some of these issues. So we try to be as funny as we can, but if we aren’t talking about the serious stuff, what are we doin’ here? That’s an important part of the legacy of The Daily Show.”
As far as the current host of the program goes, inquiring minds want to know what Trevor Noah is really like. Is he as funny in real life as he is on TV?
“Aw, yeah,” replies Wood, “Trevor’s just as funny in real life. But I would argue that he’s just a million times more interesting than we have time for on the show, ya know?”
Wood confirms that he and Noah are pretty good buds outside the show and that they hang out from time to time.
“I might swing by his house and play a video game or two,” he says, “watch a little Premier League soccer. But, you know, he’s touring right now doing standup, and I’m still in town. I have some projects that I’m working on myself, so it’s touch and go.”
One of the things Wood has been keeping busy with of late is his hour-long Comedy Central special, Imperfect Messenger—now
streaming on Paramount+—which he says covers “the usual fun stuff—racism and police reform.” His previous Comedy Central specials were 2017’s Father Figure and 2019’s No One Loves You, but long before that he was best known for his prank calls, many of which have been archived on YouTube.
“I’ve done over 500 that I have on the record,” he says. “There’s another 300 that were lost to a bad hard drive. I’d say one that probably got me on the map early on
was ‘The Car Title’, where I called an old man about his car title and he just went off on the car title. Those were fun at the time, but, you know, I haven’t done a prank call in almost 12 years. That’s such a bygone era for me, creatively.”
Wood’s main focus at the moment is standup comedy. He counts Wanda Sykes, Bill Burr, and Deon Cole among his current faves in that field, and he just went and saw Yvonne Orji—star of HBO’s Insecure— perform her standup show at Manhattan’s Carolines on Broadway.
“I still enjoy watching live standup comedy,” he says. “It’s something that I love to do, but it’s also something I still love to see.”
Speaking of getting out and about, Wood also attended the recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington, D.C., which host Noah described as “the nation’s most distinguished superspreader event”.
“It was funny and wild,” Wood notes, “and uncomfortable, like I think the Correspondents’ Dinner always is.”
When he isn’t out laughing his ass off at other people’s comedy or performing his own, Wood tries to make a difference by helping the underprivileged in various ways.
“I try to support people that are on the ground doing good things,” he says. “We just went to a high school recently and gave away some VR headsets for student enrichment. You know, I support a couple of different charities that do different things. I believe you can fight crime with literacy, and there’s a company, I See Me, Inc., who I’ve worked with. I try to support people that are doing the work and just give them a platform and give them a voice and point a camera in their direction.
“I stop short of calling myself an activist,” he adds, “but I do know that I’m for sure an amplifier.”