Before getting onstage in Atlanta to perform, Roy Wood, Jr. rifles off a list of life lessons to his 9-month-old baby boy. Realizing the futility of the exercise, he picks up his child and places him into the guiding hands of a Frederick Douglass-like figure, saying “Thank you Frederick Douglass,” before ascending the stairs upwards toward the lighted stage area.
It’s one of those absurd bits that have become so commonplace in intro videos to stand-up specials (like Chelsea Peretti’s motorcycle monologue from One of the Greats or John Mulaney’s dog predicting his death in French at the beginning of The Comeback Kid). There’s no narrative tissue connecting the intro bit to the rest of the show, but it does set a tone and helps establish a thematic framework for the set. The presiding thematic framework of Father Figure is the U.S. Black experience… but through the lens, specifically and unabashedly, of being a 38-year-old adult.
A native of Birmingham, Alabama, Wood grew up watching the electric social critiques of Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence in the 1980s and 90s -and as a current correspondent for The Daily Show, you shouldn’t be surprised at all to find that he has major opinions about U.S. social divisiveness. Unlike Lawrence and Rock, who paced their stages with visible fervor, Wood chooses to anchor himself in the middle, jutting himself out into the crowd on an isthmus-like platform, at the historic Center Stage Theater in Atlanta. A veteran of almost 20 years putting out his first hour-long special, it’s apparent that his microphone techniques, facial expressions, intonations, and other abilities have been honed to a molecular level of perfection.
Importantly, a comic like Wood compartmentalizes the Black experience in the U.S. in Father Figure differently than how Chris Rock would in a special like Bring the Pain – because while Wood will talk about activism and ruminate about social progress, a lot of his material is couched in being a normal, working adult, and still having to deal with a lot of social BS. A favorite of these bits comes towards the beginning of the set, where Wood has to justify being able to wear the color blue to a member of the Crips, “What hood you claimin,’ boy?” Wood impersonates, before issuing with laser-like timing, “Sir, I am claiming adulthood, okay?” This bit is replete with quotable lines like “I was wearing a blazer on top of the shirt… What gang you know puts a blazer on before they start murderin’?”
In similarly hilarious fashion, Wood then imagines what it must be like as a tour guide at the new Black History Museum in Washington, D.C., speculating that talking about slavery for 8 hours a day might just cause one to mentally unravel (“COME IN HERE AND LOOK WHAT YA DONE TO US!! NOW GET OUT OF MY MUSEUM!”). Later, he does a bit about the current culture of protest, juxtaposing the schedule constraints of adulthood with a desire to effect social change – and how one is liable to get swept up in protest regardless of what one had planned to do that day, and how protests might even cause someone to be fired from their job for being late (“sir, you wouldn’t believe it… there was a wall of Black people on the freeway…”).
Wood does stay true to the messages he espouses on The Daily Show, clarifying that we should focus more on what people are protesting than how they choose to protest (and he does re-hire the imaginary “fired person” as a tour guide for the Black History Museum in a continuation of the aforementioned bit). He also stays true to the humor he uses to shine a light on social divisiveness, and at no place in the special is this better-reflected than a bit about patriotic music, where Wood literally says “we live in two Americas” and argues that Black people have never written a patriotic song – quipping that James Brown’s “Living in America” was a secret message because at the end of the song “he’s just naming safe places for Black folks.”
Wood does a fair amount of hand-wringing over the progress of the last half-century. At one point, Wood can’t help but look at LGBTQ progress and compare, saying that “gay people shut sh*t down” and advocating that Black people need to have a “meeting with gay people at Panera [Bread] over soup and salad.” And again, these are statements made within the trappings and idiosyncrasies of being a working adult. All Wood seemingly wants to do is get upset at store employees for “trying to be [his] friend,” and rail at smoothies for being too expensive.
We’ll see if he gets to. As long as the President of the United States can’t even pretend he knows who Frederick Douglass is at a Black History Month event, then the struggle will remain. As for Wood and his parenting debacle, he has all the tools he needs. It rattles an old cliche to ask “How can you think to bring kids into today’s world?” but after all, when Frederick Douglass is your babysitter, the still waters of your parenting skills run deep.
Roy Wood Jr. Father Figure is available now.