Comic Roy Wood Jr. taps into America's psyche on 'The Daily Show'
Wood Jr. will host the White House Correspondents' dinner April 29. In 2018, he explained how the years he spent performing in comedy clubs in the South and Midwest prepared him for The Daily Show.
Other segments from the episode on April 28, 2023
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Comic Roy Wood Jr. is scheduled to appear Saturday in Washington, D.C., as the latest comedian to host the often-controversial White House Correspondents Dinner. Wood is a correspondent for Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and made his debut on that show the same day Trevor Noah took over as host. And since Trevor Noah stepped down, Wood had his own stint as guest host as part of Comedy Central's on-air process to audition and appoint the next permanent host. Here he is about a month ago, when he hosted the show for a couple of weeks.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")
ROY WOOD JR: Moving on to a big story today, one of America's Supreme Court justices is in a major corruption scandal. And you'll never guess who. OK, it's Clarence Thomas.
WOOD: But you'll never guess what.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE MEMBER #1: A simply blockbuster blonde bombshell report. Get this, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas did not disclose luxury trips around the world worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE MEMBER #2: ProPublica says Justice Thomas has for years accepted free chartered jet flights and stays on a yacht and luxury resorts from real estate developer Harlan Crow. Crow is a conservative megadonor. Crow tells ProPublica he's never tried to influence the justice on legal or political issues.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")
WOOD: Oh, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Sure. I'm sure. No, no, hang on. No, no. I'm sure this billionaire Republican didn't want to influence nobody.
UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE MEMBER #1: Yeah.
WOOD: He just - no, no. He - no - he just wanted to go on vacation with Clarence Thomas, you know, because we all know that Clarence Thomas is clearly a bag of fun.
WOOD: Just be straight-up. Who wouldn't want to pull up on Miami Beach with old CT?
WOOD: Come on, Clarence. We're doing tequila shots. Mmm. Clarence love tequila shots.
WOOD: I don't know why I made them sound like "Slingblade." Here's my question. If you're going to buy a Supreme Court justice, why would you spend all that money on luxury yachts and planes for Clarence Thomas? You could have bought Brett Kavanaugh for a bottle of Jager and a Southwest boarding bypass.
WOOD: This is the better deal.
BIANCULLI: Wood previously hosted Comedy Central's "This Is Not Happening." His comedy specials for the network include "No One Loves You" and "Father Figure," and he's still doing stand-up tours. Terry Gross spoke with Roy Wood Jr. in 2018 and started by playing a clip from "Father Figure." In that stand-up special, Wood, who is Southern and African American, kicked things off by walking to the mic and instantly approaching a sensitive topic - the Confederate flag.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "FATHER FIGURE")
WOOD: But if we get rid of the Confederate flag...
WOOD: ...How am I going to know who the dangerous white people are?
UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE MEMBER #2: OK. Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE MEMBER #3: Right.
WOOD: I'm just saying, the flag had a couple upsides. Let's just be real about it. I ain't saying keep it around. But I grew up in the South. I can't tell you how many times the Confederate flag came in handy. You stopping for gas at a strange place at 2 in the morning, you see that flag hanging from the window, you know this is not the place to get gas...
WOOD: ...And you keep on moving.
WOOD: What's the rush to get rid of the flag? - especially if you're white. If you're white, you should want to keep the flag for a little while longer, so at least Black folks'll know you're cool, 'cause if you're white and you're not an a**hole, that's the one thing that helps us identify you. You get rid of that flag, we'll be mmm. We got to figure out a way to know who the cool white people. Cool white people, we just got to start giving y'all wristbands or hand stamps...
WOOD: ...Just something you can show in a dark alley, let us know you down with the struggle. That'd be cool. Give me your money, white dude. Like, whoa. Ah, ah, ah.
WOOD: I'm so sorry. Come on through.
WOOD: Come on through. No, they got the wristbands. They good. Listen, put this wristband on. Just want to wear that. In case it go down, we'll have that wristband on.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Roy Wood Jr., welcome to FRESH AIR. So the bit we just heard, it kind of starts in the middle of a sentence. It starts with but, but it's the opening line of your comedy special. Why did you start in the middle of a thought like that? - 'cause we all know where you're going?
WOOD: I feel like once you hear the word Confederate flag, I've got your undivided attention.
WOOD: And the first sentence of the special is but if we get rid of the Confederate flag, which, to me, already positions me in an unpopular place of attempting to defend the flag. I just felt like that would be a more gripping way to start a comedy special versus the traditional, hey, how you doings? - which - I eventually got to it on the back end of that bit. But it was just something that kind of happened in happenstance where the way - the bit was wasn't originally done that way. It was done in a traditional, now let's talk about the Confederate flag. But I'd been in an argument with the comedian off to the side of the stage as I was being introduced, and I basically walked the argument onto the stage as if I was continuing a conversation, when in actuality, I really was, and...
GROSS: A national conversation, yes.
WOOD: Yeah, an actual a conversation.
GROSS: And a conversation between you and the other comic. That...
WOOD: That first line as originally performed was to a comedian standing off to the side of the stage.
GROSS: That's great.
WOOD: I wasn't even acknowledging the crowd. And it got a laugh, and I go, oh, maybe that's the first bit that I should walk on stage from now on, because it instantly puts the audience in their seats. And, you know, for me, I'm very anxious to get to the jokes. I'm not big on salutations. I'm not a crowd-work guy. And it's not that I don't appreciate the audience. I do. But I'm just a performer that's anxious to get to his craft. I kind of liken it to how the musicians - like, when you go see a rock concert and the band comes out and they don't say hello and they rock out for 10 minutes, and then at the conclusion of that 10 minutes they go, Detroit, how you doing tonight? And it's like, woo.
GROSS: So that bit sounds like it has a lot of truth behind it. Did you feel when you were growing up in Alabama like Confederate flags warned you away from places and people that spell trouble?
WOOD: Yeah. I think the difference between Southern racism and Northern racism is that in the South, you know where you stand, and there's - I don't want to say - a freedom in that, but when you know where the boundaries are, then you kind of know how to play the game a little bit more. So if someone's going to openly say, I don't like you people, and I'm going to hang a flag over my door to remind you I don't like you people, then I know not to eat at that business. How much cleaner is that than me sitting there and getting bad service for an hour and a half, complaining to the manager and nothing happening? Which one is more tormenting? It's more - the Confederate flag is literally more convenient. You save me 90 minutes.
GROSS: Did you see a lot of Confederate flags growing up in Alabama?
WOOD: Yeah. But I also started as a comedian - my first nine years of comedy - from '98 until I moved to Los Angeles, you know, I was a Southern and Midwest act. So, you know, I did a lot of shows in a lot of strange places, a lot of armpits...
WOOD: ...Of America, if you will - beautiful places, sometimes questionable people. So I've seen Confederate flags, so, you know - and I don't want to say it doesn't bother me because, you know, it's troubling to think why someone has the flag, you know? But it doesn't scare me in that sense.
GROSS: You say you performed at strange places. Did you ever perform at a bar or a club that had a Confederate flag?
WOOD: Absolutely. I've been called the N-word from the stage by somebody in the crowd, and the club owner did nothing to defend me. So there's definitely been questionable situations. But at the end of the day, give me my $50 that I drove nine hours to get paid so I can be on my way back to Birmingham. Cities like that - traditionally my protocol was to never stay at the hotel that the venue provided. So I'd either sleep in my car, or I would stay at a - you know, I would drive three or four hours out of town. Like, I would split the drive that night and just drive halfway back to Birmingham and then sleep somewhere else, because I just felt like in those towns, if I'm one of the few Black people - and I'm here telling the jokes and you know, ha ha ha, it's all fun and games. But to some people there, it isn't a game.
You know, there's a level of respect you have to have for someone who's bold enough to say that they don't like you and that they'll call you one of the most hated words in the history of this country. Somebody like that might be motivated to come find you after the show. And I'm the only person in town with Alabama plates, so, yeah, get the hell out of there. And, you know, thankfully every gig wasn't like that. But I'm thankful for those gigs. So, you know, it's - if nothing more, my first nine, 10 years of comedy were just a very, very bitter education on the psyche of the middle of the country.
GROSS: Why were you even booked in places that had such a kind of racist audience?
WOOD: Because they had a microphone. I didn't care. Why should I care? I mean, nine times out of...
GROSS: Did they know that you were African American when they booked you?
WOOD: Yeah. Yeah. But they figure Black people are funny, but you just better not date my daughter or hang around town too late. Like, I did a show in Johnson City, Tennessee, which is an eastern Tennessee mountain town, and people would come up after the show. And there's some town - there's some neighboring town over, and supposedly there's a sign that says, don't let the sun set on your Black ass here in this town, where you basically had sundown warnings where you had to leave by the time lights were out. And this is 2002, 2003. This is recent.
So when you're booked in a weird city, and the booker calls you and goes, hey, man, I need you to go do blah, blah, blah, Arkansas. And you look at it on a map, and you can see that it's - I call it the blue lines, the freeway. You know, the freeways on, like, the atlases are blue. They're denoted by the color blue. So I could look and tell about how far off the blue line a city was, whether or not I was going to have problems. And it looks like a problem city. OK, I'ma (ph) go into town late. I'ma pull up right to the venue. I'ma do my gig, get my money, and then I'm leaving.
GROSS: Now, you say at the end of your stand-up comedy special that, you know, right now you only want to do humor that has some kind of, like, social significance, that has some kind of, like, larger meaning. Is that something relatively new for you in terms of, you know, not just, like, telling jokes, but have it, like, really mean something?
WOOD: Yeah. I think stylistically, I think "The Daily Show" really did change my perspective on humor with regards to, number one, trying to understand the other side of the issue. And then number two, digging a little deeper than the surface on the topic at hand to find, you know, nuggets of wisdom that are a little bit more truthful and explanatory. And, you know, I don't think my - my comedy wasn't always like that. You know, I started at 19, so my perspective was lacking for, I'd argue, the first 8 to 10 years just because I was a young man in his 20s, still sorting out life.
And, you know, the best comedy is delivered by people that have been through some stuff and experienced some things and seen the world. And I just hadn't done enough yet. Whereas you get a little older, you delve into the world some, you have your heart broken a couple of times, you break a few hearts, you have a child, you got a little bit of a body of work to draw on at that point, you know. And I think that for me, once I started "The Daily Show," it really started changing the trajectory of my comedy.
BIANCULLI: Roy Wood Jr. speaking to Terry Gross in 2018. More after a break - this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "TOOT, TOOT, TOOTSIE")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2018 interview with comedian Roy Wood Jr. This Saturday, the "Daily Show" correspondent is scheduled to host the White House Correspondents' Dinner.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Well, let's hear an example of you on "The Daily Show." And this is really funny. This is from April 29, 2016. And you're doing - basically you're doing a rap video as if you were Donald Trump. And all of the phrases in this are things that Donald Trump...
WOOD: Every single lyric.
GROSS: ...Actually said. Yes.
GROSS: And so - OK, so let's hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")
WOOD: (As Black Trump, rapping) I have a great relationship with the Blacks - the Blacks. Politicians, all talk and no action. I was down there at 7-11 - I was there. Spent almost nothing on my run for president. All the women flirted with me on "The Apprentice." If Ivanka weren't my daughter, then perhaps I'd be dating her. We have to have a wall, Don. Who's doing the raping? We have to have a wall, Don. Who's doing the raping?
Check me out, Democrats - they love me. Check me out, these Muslims love me - oh, yeah. Stop hating, these women love me. These gays love me. Everybody love me - told ya (ph). Check me out, Megyn Kelly - she love me - love me. Check me out, illegals - they love me. What it do, these veterans love me. Protesters love me. Everybody love me - told ya.
I'm so good-looking. I'm really rich. Part of the beauty of me is that I am very rich. Don't respect women - they know it's the opposite. Arianna Huffington is unattractive. Happy Easter to all. I've never seen a thin person drinking Diet Coke.
GROSS: That is hilarious (laughter).
WOOD: That came from...
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah, tell us the story.
WOOD: You know, we were just talking about how much Trump brags. And it was just more of a - you know, like, he literally is like a rapper. He talks about his house, his boat, his properties. And I started talking with Jordan Klepper, who was a correspondent at the time, and this is before he was hosting "The Opposition." And Klepper and I were like, I bet if we dug deep enough into his tweets, we could find enough bars to put into stances to make a full-blown rap song.
And that's what we did. And we combed through - the Word - the Microsoft Word document was font size 12, single-spaced, and it was about 20 pages of just quotes and tweets and just anything braggadocious. And we just neatly went through and just found line by line and just put it all together.
GROSS: And I love that the chorus was, they love me, everybody loves me. They all love me, yeah.
WOOD: (Laughter) Yeah, that was fun. And, you know - and that - it's one thing to say - you know, back to the original point of digging deeper, we could easily make the analogy of, hey, here is Trump bragging about this, this and this. He's a rapper - ha, ha, ha. And you move on to the next joke in Trevor's monologue or my desk chat or whatever.
But the next level is to actually - if he's a rapper, let's prove it. Let's do a whole rap song. Let's go in a studio. Let's listen to beats for three hours and figure out which beat matches these tweets. And let's rent one of these Bruce Wayne manors. The video is still up on YouTube as far as I know.
GROSS: Yeah, it is.
WOOD: But there's Ferraris. We hired models. We - a golf course. We went way beyond what could have just been a three-line joke if we just wanted it to be that.
GROSS: Do you have any idea if Donald Trump saw the video?
WOOD: Oh, they saw it. I guarantee you they saw it. (Laughter) We had a researcher that sent off for press credentials for a Trump rally. At the time, the election was still going on. And they didn't reply to the email. So our researcher hits them up again and goes, hey, it's "The Daily Show." Can we get credentials for the Trump rally? And their reply was the YouTube link to the Trump video.
GROSS: Wow. OK. They definitely saw it (laughter).
WOOD: No other words, nothing else. The only thing they replied with was the link to the video.
GROSS: So I want to play another clip from your comedy special "Father Figure." And in this, you know, you're talking about how we live in two different Americas and that when white people don't understand what African Americans experience, it doesn't necessarily mean that the white people are racist. Sometimes it's just that the white people are uninformed. And then as an example, you talk about going to a Best Buy where you had to educate a white salesclerk. You had just bought a cellphone case.
GROSS: And the salesclerk told you that you didn't need a bag for it, so you had to explain why you needed the bag.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "FATHER FIGURE")
WOOD: Dude at Best Buy going to decide I don't need a bag with my purchase.
WOOD: You just have an iPhone case. I figured you could just pop that open. No, I ain't popping [expletive]. You put it in the bag.
WOOD: I need that in a bag. What do you need a bag for? I don't understand why you need a bag. It's wasteful. Recycle. Don't you care about the Earth? I go, sir, this has nothing to do with the Earth. I'm a Black man in America. I've got to leave this store with a bag, bro.
WOOD: It's about safety. I'm Black. I don't get the luxury of just walking out with [expletive] in my hand. That is a roll of the dice. That is a horrifying day if I - no. Not only do I need that bag, b****, I need that receipt.
WOOD: And staple it to the outside. I don't want a receipt in my hand. You staple my receipt to the outside like Chinese carryout.
WOOD: And I'll hold it up in the air. I'll "Lion King" - I'll hakuna matata an iPhone case out of Best Buy. And it's not his fault. He just didn't understand. He thought he was saving the Earth, but he was saving a life. That's what was doing.
GROSS: That's my guest Roy Wood Jr. on his recent comedy special "Father Figure."
GROSS: So is that a true story? Did that really happen you?
WOOD: Yeah, that happened in Seattle. And it wasn't as flagrant as I made the salesclerk out to be in the joke. But it was me very politely explaining to this guy, I don't want to walk out of here without a bag. I just don't. Like, you're cool. But the yellow shirt up there at the door, he doesn't know or is not going to assume. I have no bag, no receipt. I'm just walking out with something in my hand. That concept is so foreign to me as a minority. And having been harassed and followed around stores before and suspected of shoplifting, why would I give someone invitation to question whether or not I'm operating within the boundaries of the law?
GROSS: I thought it was so interesting that you chose somebody to tell a story about who perceives himself as doing the right thing, as being very environmental-minded and therefore trying to not give you a plastic bag, but not getting what it would mean for you to walk out without the bag and the receipt.
WOOD: Yeah. And...
GROSS: I mean, you'd have the receipt. But it would probably be in your pocket. And then if you reach for it, who knows how that would be interpreted.
WOOD: Yeah. It's just - no, it's - I don't care if I bought a Tic Tac, I want a bag.
WOOD: I want the biggest bag you have just to make sure. And, you know - and that's where, when it comes to educating people about issues of race and just - here's a snippet of Black life you might not have considered, something as simple about a bag. Like, for me, I enjoy being able to find material that's specific in that regard because it gives me an opportunity to just show a little bit more of my world and what I believe African Americans go through.
And it's not to vilify this man, because I can't say that he's racist because he didn't know that a bag could get me harassed. If he doesn't have a Black friend that's ever explained that to him, when is he ever going to learn it? Here's a joke for me to explain it to all of y'all.
BIANCULLI: Roy Wood Jr. speaking to Terry Gross in 2018. After a break, we'll continue their conversation. Also, Ken Tucker celebrates the 50th anniversary of Al Green's album "Call Me." And Justin Chang reviews a new film version of a classic Judy Blume novel. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, in for Terry Gross. We're listening back to Terry's 2018 interview with comedian Roy Wood Jr. He's a correspondent for Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and recently guest hosted that program for a few weeks. On Saturday, he's scheduled to be in Washington, D.C., with many other more serious correspondents as host of this year's White House Correspondents' Dinner.
GROSS: Can I ask you about the neighborhood you grew up in and, if your parents worked, what they did for a living?
WOOD: So I grew up in Birmingham, Ala., on the West Side. The neighborhood is called West End, ZIP code 35211, one of the worst ZIP codes in the city in terms of crime statistics at the time. I haven't checked the crime census data since I left in '96 for college, but - pretty rough neighborhood. On the back side of the crack era, back side of - we moved into West End on the back end of white flight. So in the '80s, we had a couple of white neighbors. But, you know, by the early '90s and - you know, crack had really taken over. You know, it was pretty much an all-Black neighborhood.
The one thing that I've kind of joked about sometimes but it's actually true is that if you're going to live in gang territory, it behooves you to live deep in gang territory because where I lived in Birmingham, most of the shootings were happening where territories met, like, on, you know, border lines almost, if you will. So there were a lot of bad people, but a lot of the bad stuff that happened in the hood happened more so on the outskirt areas of - in relation to where I lived.
GROSS: Did you ever...
GROSS: ...Consider joining a gang?
WOOD: No. You know, my mom - my parents were separated until I was in the third grade. So when my parents reconciled and we moved to Birmingham - my mother and I left Memphis and went to Birmingham, you know, I'd taken piano lessons. I was playing baseball. I was in gifted courses. You know, when I was - when I got put on punishment and my mom would take my video games from me, I read encyclopedias just, you know, really out of lack of better options. But, you know, I was always a brainy kid. I had Legos. And - you know, and I was very aware of gangs.
The saving grace for me in my neighborhood was that my parents bought me a really nice basketball goal. And there's a park up the street from my house called Powderly Park. And Powderly Park had all the - you know, it was a municipal city park, and they had all the hoops. And, you know, there would be bangers out there, and Powderly Park sat on the edge of Gangster Disciple and Vice Lord territory. So sometimes it would go down at Powderly Park. So my mom didn't really want me around that element. So I - and I've never talked with her about this, but my guess is that her ideology was if the boy liked shooting basketball, let's put a basketball hoop in the yard. And that way, he won't be at Powderly Park if something goes down.
And we had - it's just - I don't know if it's fate or what, man. But we had a house, one of the few houses in the neighborhood with a two-car garage, a very wide two-car garage, which meant the way the goal was set up, you could play almost half court if you played off into the dirt off of the driveway. So we basically had half court, and we had the best basketball goal with a breakaway rim because the city park, the goals always break because they're rusted and crusty and they replace them with other rusty and crusty rims. So all the gangbangers came to our house to shoot hoops. So I met everybody in the hood.
GROSS: All the gangbangers came.
WOOD: Yeah, bangers would come. Regular kids would come.
GROSS: But the goal was to keep you out of trouble, and all the...
WOOD: Yeah, but...
GROSS: ...Troublemakers were coming to play basketball.
WOOD: OK, but so then you asked me what my father did, and here's how it ties in.
WOOD: My father was a radio personality in the city.
WOOD: And he was highly respected. My dad was a civil rights journalist back in the '60s and '70s. He was embedded - any march you can find me footage of, I'm sure my dad is no more than two or three steps behind Dr. King, covering the march. And so when it comes to Black political talk and when it comes to Black political commentary and playing the blues and - my dad did morning news on the radio. My father was the voice of the city of Birmingham for a very long time. His name rang out.
And out of respect to my father, guys would leave guns around the corner. They will leave their liquor up the street. And when they came to our house, it was Switzerland. So you might see a Vice Lord and a Gangster Disciple - it's plausible - right there in our driveway. And there's no drama out of respect to my father and my mom because my mom also didn't take no smack off of anybody. And I think there's something to that, you know, it takes a village mindset of showing kids - you know, and my mom would bring ice water out. Like, she was nice. So I grew up in a bad neighborhood, but I had a lot of good - I had a lot of circumstances in my favor that kept me on the good side of the wrong people.
GROSS: What kind of show did your father do?
WOOD: My father did - he did a jazz show. He did a political commentary show, but he also did morning news as well. So he was - like, on your way to work - and in these days in the '80s, you have to remember that Black radio was very consolidated. So a Black station in the '80s and '90s before the, you know, corporate split of the genres of music, you would get R&B and upbeat '70s Black music during the day. You would get current pop hits - Black pop hits in the middle of the day, and then at night was rap. So all Black people listened to the same Black station at a different time of day to hear their favorite genre of music. So no matter your age, you knew who my father was.
GROSS: Wow. That must have been amazing. Now, you started out as a journalism student in college. Did your father inspire you to head in a journalism - toward a journalism career, a goal that you did not exactly fulfill? But...
WOOD: No, not really.
GROSS: ...Kind of close - I mean, you're doing "The Daily Show," so there's a lot of news in that. It's just a comedy take on real news.
WOOD: I did everything in my power to not be like my father.
WOOD: You know, and - 'cause it's all journalism and radio. And it was cool, but I was an adrenaline junkie. I wanted to be a firefighter. And up until my father's death my senior year of high school, that - when my father died, I was still hanging on to being a firefighter. And coming around into the spring of my high school senior year, I started noticing this guy, Stuart Scott on ESPN. And Stuart Scott spoke like me but talked about sports, and he cracked jokes. And I go, hell, that's the same thing we do every day at baseball practice. I talk about sports. I crack jokes. I could do that.
And it wasn't out of disrespect to Stuart Scott. It was just, he does it so effortless, I thought, hell, so do I. And that was the first time I saw a version of myself doing something. And so I go, what does Stuart Scott - what do I need to major in to do that, journalism? Cool. Sign me up. And that's how I found the path to journalism. And then, ironically, here we are 20 years later, and I'm a Black man giving commentary to people about the state of the Black condition, which is exactly what my father did, only with no punchlines.
GROSS: So you carry his name. You're Roy Wood Jr. And in Birmingham where you grew up, your father's name really meant something after he died. What was the significance of the name? Did people remember him for a long time? Were you still seen as his son for a long time while you lived in Birmingham?
WOOD: In Birmingham, I'll always be my father's son. That's just what it is. And there's nothing I can do to change that. You know, he was first. He was first, and he was impactful. And to be fair, he said a hell of a lot more things that mattered than I did. You know, and even when I came back to Birmingham after college - I came back in '01. And I ended up hosting a morning show at the same station that my father used to work.
At this point, the station was dedicated hip-hop. And there had been a split in genres and all of that. But, you know, there were a lot of people in the building - a lot of the engineers and, you know, some of the people in sales - who worked with my father. There are people in radio in Birmingham to this day, as we speak, who - the only reason they have a job is because my father gave them an internship back in the '90s.
GROSS: So what was it like for you to go out on your own on the road, where people didn't know your father? You were really, like, starting from scratch. Was that a good thing for you?
WOOD: Yeah, that was a good thing, you know? I've fought that for a long time because, you know, there was some degree of resentment between me - towards my father because I always - I never felt like I got all of my dad because of affairs and, you know, other children and things like that. So there was definitely resentment where I operated from a place of anger for a long time in terms of performing because it became this thing of, I'm going to make my own name, and I don't need that name, and I can do it.
And that's where a lot of the performing - the desire to perform came from, was like, OK, well, you might have ran the city; I'm going run the country. My name is going to ring out more than yours. And I'm going to be - and then I got back home three or four years later, and I'm hosting a morning show in the same city. And then everybody goes, you sound just like your daddy on the air. I'm like, ah.
GROSS: It's really been such a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much for joining us.
WOOD: Oh, thank you.
BIANCULLI: Comedian Roy Wood Jr. speaking to Terry Gross in 2018. On Saturday night, he's scheduled to host this year's White House Correspondents' Dinner in Washington, D.C. The event will be televised live on C-SPAN. Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker tells us why Al Green's album "Call Me" is widely considered his greatest. This year marks its 50th anniversary. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF INCREDIBLE BONGO BAND'S "APACHE")
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Al Green is widely considered one of the greatest pop singers ever, known for his soulful ballads. His commercial peak was the decade of the 1970s. Rock critic Ken Tucker realized recently that this year is the 50th anniversary of what he considers Green's greatest album, 1973's "Call Me." Ken knew he wanted to do a piece to celebrate this rhythm and blues landmark.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ME")
AL GREEN: (Singing) Call me. Call me. Call me. What a beautiful time we had together. Now it's getting late, and we must leave each other, yeah. Just remember the time we had and how right I tried to be. It's all in a day's work.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: In Al Green's song "Call Me," the singer addresses a woman he's passionately in love with, who at this moment is not feeling that same passion. What they once had isn't working for her anymore. Green acknowledges her fading feelings for him even as he can't resist reminding her of, as he puts it, the beautiful time we had together. What he wants to tell her most of all is that she can call him any time, and he'll be there for her. In Al Green's musical universe, men and women are almost always operating on a level romantic playing field.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ME")
GREEN: (Singing) The best thing I can do is give you your love - is give you your love, baby - that you're going away, feeling as free as a dove. And if you find you're a long ways from home, and if somebody's doing you wrong, just call me, baby, and come back home.
TUCKER: Al Green constructed this superb nine-song album for Hi Records in Memphis at Royal Studios in close collaboration with co-producer Willie Mitchell. Essential to the sound was the Hi Rhythm Section, which included the three Hodges brothers, bassist Leroy, Charles on keyboards and guitarist Teenie Hodges. Howard Grimes played drums. In the 1970s, the warm intimacy of the music that came out of Royal Studios attained an almost mystical force. When I went there to interview Green and Mitchell in 2003, Willie Mitchell yelled at me when I moved my hand to sweep away a spiderweb in a dusty corner of the studio. Don't touch it, he said. It's all part of the sound. I was not at all sure that he was kidding.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU OUGHT TO BE WITH ME")
GREEN: (Singing) Sit right down and talk to me about how you want to be. You ought to be with me. Yeah, you ought to be with me. Thinking about what people do, talking about how I love you, thinking there's nothing to what they say. You're going to be with me anyway.
TUCKER: That's "You Ought To Be With Me," one of three hit singles off "Call Me," along with "Here I Am (Come And Take Me)" and the title song. Green's phrasing is unique. He uses a falsetto croon that can deepen into a growl, enunciating lyrics conversationally. "Call Me" was Green's sixth album and includes two superb covers of country music - Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and this one, Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUNNY HOW TIME SLIPS AWAY")
GREEN: (Singing) How am I doing? Well, I guess I'm doing fine. It's been so long, and it seems like it was only yesterday. Ain't it funny, funny, funny how time slips away, hey.
TUCKER: This album also includes "Jesus Is Waiting," a gorgeous early example of the gospel music that would at one point take over Green's career when he became the Reverend Al Green. And the most underrated song on "Call Me" is "Stand Up," a quietly vehement piece of sinuous funk with politics that imply as much about the importance of Black assertiveness as anything that Sly Stone or the Isley Brothers or Marvin Gaye were offering during this same period.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND UP")
GREEN: (Singing) I think it's time to stand up and identify yourself. Stand up and identify yourself. What's your name? What's the nature of the game? Who you are, how far you come, where have you been, oh, yeah. Stand up - you've been promised just one day, and that's today.
TUCKER: When I read that this was the 50th anniversary of "Call Me," I had a visceral reaction. I was momentarily overwhelmed, recalling the pleasure that this album has given me over the years.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE I AM (COME AND TAKE ME)")
GREEN: (Singing) I can't believe that it's real - the way that you make me feel. A burning deep down inside, a love that I cannot hide. Our love is you and me, baby. That makes the world go round. And if you've been doing loving with me, laying all my troubles down. Here I am, baby - come and take me. Here I am, baby - baby, come and take me. Take me by the hand...
BIANCULLI: Rock critic Ken Tucker. Al Green's album "Call Me" was released 50 years ago this month. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews the new movie version of another classic from the '70s - the 1970 Judy Blume novel, "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELVIN JONES' "ANTHROPOLOGY")
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The author Judy Blume is having her moment in the movies, first as the subject of the new documentary "Judy Blume Forever," and now, with a film adaptation of her 1970 novel, "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." It opens in theaters this week and features Rachel McAdams and Kathy Bates. The movie, like the book, tells the story of a sixth grader and her anxieties about boys, puberty, religion and her recent move with her parents to suburban New Jersey. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Given the recent uptick in book bans nationwide, it feels right that Judy Blume should be back so prominently in the conversation. Over the past several decades, the 85-year-old author has seen more than a few of her novels yanked from school library shelves, starting with her 1970 classic "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." None of that kept the book, with its frank treatment of an adolescent girl's inner life, from becoming a huge bestseller and an enduring touchstone. And now, more than 50 years later, it's been terrifically adapted to the big screen by the writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig, with nearly all its warmth, humor and wry wisdom intact.
One of the best things about the movie is that it resists the temptation to update Blume's book to the present day, likely realizing that a version set in the era of social media would be a markedly different story. And so it's the '70s when young Margaret Simon, winningly played by Abby Ryder Fortson, returns home from summer camp and learns, to her horror, that she and her parents are leaving their cozily cluttered New York City apartment and moving to a house in suburban New Jersey. It's a major upheaval for an 11-year-old, though Margaret is soon befriended by her new neighbor and fellow sixth-grader Nancy, played by Elle Graham. Nancy, a bossy know-it-all, wastes no time bringing Margaret into her secret girl's club, where she presses them to talk about whether they've gotten their periods and whether they've started wearing bras. Feeling the pressure, Margaret goes bra shopping with her mom in a sweetly funny scene. Later, Nancy gives her and the other two girls in the club a few tips.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ARE YOU THERE, GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET")
ELLE GRAHAM: (As Nancy) Hey, if you want to get out of those small bras, you're going to have to do the same exercise and technique I do.
ABBY RYDER FORTSON: (As Margaret) There's an exercise?
GRAHAM: (As Nancy) Of course there is. You hold your arms out like this and you say, I must, I must, I must increase my bust. I must, I must, I must increase my bust.
FORTSON: (As Margaret) Does that really work?
GRAHAM: (As Nancy) I'm living proof. Now come on. Get up. Get up. Get up. Get up. You'll see. Get up. I must, I must, I must increase my bust.
ABBY RYDER FORTSON, ELLE GRAHAM, AMARI PRICE AND KATHERINE KUPFERER: (As Margaret, Nancy, Janie and Gretchen) I must, I must increase my bust.
GRAHAM: (As Nancy) Chin up.
FORTSON, GRAHAM, PRICE AND KUPFERER: (As Margaret, Nancy, Janie and Gretchen) We must, we must, we must increase our bust. We must...
CHANG: To further speed along the process, Margaret begins praying every day and night, starting off each time with a nervous, are you there, God? It's me, Margaret. And so her anxieties about her body lead her into a deeper curiosity about her soul. Unlike a lot of her friends, Margaret wasn't brought up in any religious tradition, for reasons the movie gradually makes clear. Her father, Herb, played by Benny Safdie, is Jewish, and her mother, Barbara, played by Rachel McAdams, is Christian. Their marriage caused a lot of family drama years earlier, and they've kept religion out of the house ever since. But tensions persist. While Margaret is very close to her Jewish grandmother, played by a scene-stealing Kathy Bates, she has yet to even meet her maternal grandparents, who cut off contact with her mom after she got married. That longstanding rift sets the stage for some big emotional reckonings in the third act, which the movie plays for generous laughs but also real poignancy.
As she showed in her enjoyable coming-of-age movie, "The Edge Of Seventeen," director Fremon Craig has a gift for mining humor and drama from her characters in equal measure. She also has a terrific cast, including newcomer Fortson, who reveals Margaret's decency and sweetness but also her capacity for thoughtlessness and cruelty. But the movie's most memorable character is Margaret's mother, Barbara. For those of us who still remember and cherish McAdams' performance as the villainous Regina George in "Mean Girls," there's something especially moving about seeing her here, playing the loving, protective mom to a young girl facing her own battle with peer pressure. But Barbara's own personal struggles - she's an artist who gave up a rewarding teaching career in New York to be a stay-at-home suburban mom - are no less dramatic than her daughters. McAdams is simply luminous as a woman trying to strike a balance between sensible authority figure and boho free spirit.
One of the most radical things about Blume's book was its suggestion that kids could come to their own conclusions about faith, that religion wasn't something that should be foisted on them. The movie honors that conviction. Margaret doesn't join a church or synagogue, but she experiences her own kind of epiphany. She learns that puberty can hit at any time, but real maturity often comes later. She learns that everyone has their insecurities and that everyone, from the unpopular kid in class to a queen bee like Nancy, deserves to be treated with kindness. "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret" doesn't pretend to have all the answers, but by the end, this awkward preteen has achieved her own state of grace.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret." On Monday's show, how South Africa nearly descended into civil war instead of giving birth to a multiracial democracy. Journalist Justice Malala explains how Nelson Mandela and his white counterpart kept the country on a path to peace after a shocking political assassination in 1993. Malala's book is "The Plot To Save South Africa." I hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Diana Martinez. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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