In 'Woke,' Cartoonist Keith Knight Drew From A Real-Life 'Wake-Up Call'

Sep 8, 2020

The trippy new Hulu comedy Woke is what you might get if you mixed the satire in the movie Get Out with a psychedelic Sesame Street for adults. An African American cartoonist, played by Lamorne Morris, is deeply conflicted over just how engaged with social issues his art should be. Talking objects like a malt malt liquor bottles voiced by Nicole Byer and Eddie Griffin mess with his head. Punctuating the show's brainy humor is a soundtrack that includes hip hop, R&B, punk and folk.

Woke is inspired by the life of the show's co-creator Keith Knight, an award-winning cartoonist whose comic strips include The Knight Life, (th)ink and the K Chronicles. Knight is also a rapper and a founding member of the "nerdcore hip-hop band" the Marginal Prophets.

Early in the first episode of Woke, the Knight-inspired character Keef is on a career high when his fun, goofy comic strip "Toast and Butter" is picked up for national syndication. When challenged by an African American editor about why "Toast and Butter" isn't confronting racial injustice, Keef pushes back, "Why is it that people of color are always having to stand for something ... I'm just a cartoonist," he tells her. Keef is secure in "keeping it light," until he experiences police brutality first-hand.

Twenty years ago in real-life San Francisco, Keith Knight was putting up posters of his work when he was racially profiled by police who mistook him for another Black man they were looking for. "It was a circus how many cops showed up," Knight recalls. He says his white roommate happened to observe the incident from a bus, jumped off, ran up and "just got up in the cops faces" as he yelled at them for detaining the wrong guy.

Keith Knight

"It was a wake-up call to me because if he had been Black or brown, the way he was up in the cops' faces screaming at them and all that stuff, he would have been beaten or tasered or even worse," says Knight.

Unlike the character in Woke, Knight had already been drawing pretty scathing cartoons about injustice. They Shoot Black People, Don't They? is a book compilation of 20 years of Knight's police brutality cartoons, released in 2015.

"But when your number comes up, and it's happening to you, it's a whole other thing," says Knight. "So it really made me double and triple down with the work I was doing."

The social satire of Woke is what drew actor Lamorne Morris to the role. He says after starring in New Girl he was ready for "something that meant more than just entertaining." He calls that Fox sitcom "one of the greatest experiences of my life" but, without a hint of criticism, says the sitcom "never fully engaged" with social issues. Just as Keef in Woke wants "to keep it light," Morris believes that "sometimes comedy should just be comedy." But, as a Black man who has also been the victim of police brutality, he says he's ready to use his voice in whatever way he can to raise awareness.

Keith Knight's work has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post and MAD Magazine.
Hulu

In the new Hulu series, Keef's conscience is at war over whether to get "woke." On the one hand, his straight-talking African American roommate Clovis, played by comedian T. Murph, has little sympathy for Keef's reaction after his scary run-in with the police. "Now we gotta hear about it because all this s*** is new to you?" he asks sarcastically. Clovis urges Keef to "maintain" and keep his comic strip light to keep his mostly white fans happy. In a line that sums up the inner conflict at the heart of the series, Clovis tells Keef "woke rhymes with broke."

"What Clovis is speaking to," says Woke co-creator Marshall Todd, "is the idea that the real money lies in white people's comfort zone, that the more you can sort of entertain them without upsetting them, the more money you make. Because if you make them uncomfortable, if you sort of speak truth to power, that doesn't necessarily bode well for financial gain."

Coaxing Keef on the other side of how to use his art are some of the wisest talking objects you'd ever meet but which only Keef — and the audience — can hear.

T. Murph as Clovis (from left), Blake Anderson as Gunther and Larmorne Morris as Keef in Woke.
Liane Hentscher / Hulu

Take the trashcan, voiced by Cedric the Entertainer, who blasts the new white owners of a Black barbershop as "those man-bun, gentrifying, co-opting devils," telling Keef he needs to do something about it. "I'm a trashcan. I can't fight 'em. But you can."

(The objects in Woke come to life through a combination of physical puppetry techniques and animation.)

Todd says Knight's "peculiar" sense of humor runs throughout the Hulu series.

I feel like my character is the Charlie Brown of activism. He's trying to do the right things but they aren't working out very well. - Keith Knight

"I feel like my character is the Charlie Brown of activism," says Knight. "He's trying to do the right things but they aren't working out very well."

Yes, Knight says he is a "huge fan" of "Peanuts" as well as "Doonesbury." He grew up in Malden, Mass. Knight says his dad, who worked in a factory, was "a very good illustrator" with a mind for detail. "We would sit and we would draw a tree and draw all these leaves on the trees ... these little intricate leaves."

His mom, who worked in state government, did not suffer fools. When he was a little boy, he remembers walking through a shoe store with her. "And there was this person following us everywhere, you know, thinking that we were likely to steal something," Knight recalls. He says his mother "turned around and she tore them a new one." At the time, Knight was confused and embarrassed. But he never forgot it.

Keith Knight

Years later, as an adult living in San Francisco, the same thing happened to him walking around an office supply store. "This dude was following me around everywhere and I turned around and tore that guy a new one ... and I thank my mom for that, for showing that we are human beings and when this stuff is happening, to stand up to it."

At a time when protests against police brutality against Black Americans are happening on a regular basis, Knight believes Keef's dilemma in Woke will resonate. Standing up to it can take many forms. He says you don't necessarily need to "get in someone's face. ... You might do it by creating art."

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SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The new TV series "Woke" from Hulu is both trippy and prescient. In it, an African American cartoonist has a moral dilemma.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WOKE")

LAMORNE MORRIS: (As Keef) Why is it that us people of color are always having to stand for something or, you know, say something in our work?

PFEIFFER: And boy, does he find out. Set in San Francisco, "Woke" also features an eclectic soundtrack with punk, hip-hop and soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVELY DAY")

BILL WITHERS: (Singing) A lovely day - lovely day, lovely day, lovely day, lovely day - lovely day, lovely day...

PFEIFFER: NPR's Elizabeth Blair talked to the show's creator about the social conscience of this new comedy.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Early in the series, cartoonist Keef, played by Lamorne Morris, is on a career high. His comic strip, "Toast And Butter," has been picked up for syndication. He's all about keeping the strip light - until he experiences police brutality firsthand.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WOKE")

MORRIS: (As Keef) No, no, no - you got the wrong guy.

BLAIR: As he's pinned to the ground, he watches as his white roommate starts berating the police for trying to arrest the wrong man.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WOKE")

BLAKE ANDERSON: (As Gunther) It's not fine. You're acting not right. Hey, don't you touch...

BLAIR: Keef can't believe his eyes. Later, he and his white roommate tell their other roommate what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WOKE")

T MURPH: (As Clovis) They should have shot you.

ANDERSON: (As Gunther) No. No, they didn't have to do that.

MORRIS: (As Keef) Damn, bro.

T MURPH: (As Clovis) Well, they would have, you know, if he were - if he was Black.

BLAIR: "Woke" is inspired by the life of cartoonist Keith Knight, who also co-created the series. He told me, 20 years ago, when he was living in San Francisco, pretty much the same thing happened to him.

KEITH KNIGHT: I had been doing strips about this for years before that. But this was - when you see it played out in front of you and it's happening to you - your number comes up - it's a whole other thing. So it really made me double and triple down with the work I was doing.

BLAIR: One of Knight's real police brutality cartoons is a drawing of an application to become a police officer. Under an image of a group of African American men, it says, what do you see in this picture - sons, brothers, fathers, human beings - or target practice?

In the show, Keef starts to see the world differently. He walks into a barbershop long owned by an African American, only to find it's been taken over by white hipsters.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WOKE")

NICOLAS OUELLETTE: (As white barber) But we kept the name and the soul of the place - still got all the Ebony and Jet magazines. Plus...

BLAIR: And here's an example of how "Woke" is like a mix between the social satire in the movie "Get Out" and an edgy version of "Sesame Street." Keef declines the haircut. On the sidewalk out front, a trash can starts talking to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WOKE")

CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER: (As trash can) Down here, my brother. That's right. I'm a talking a trash can. I got eyes. I got a nose. I can smell things. I stank sometimes.

BLAIR: Voiced by Cedric the Entertainer, the trash can wants justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WOKE")

CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER: (As trash can) I tell you what's wrong - those man-bun, co-opting, gentrifying devils. That ain't no barbershop in there.

BLAIR: Keith Knight says the talking objects are his cartoonist coming out. He once drew a cellphone telling a payphone, we're going to take you out.

KNIGHT: I like the idea of these inanimate objects being able to say things that the human characters can't say or won't say. So it was a way for us to comment on society without tying it to a certain character.

BLAIR: One of the human characters in "Woke" is the flip side of Keef's moral crisis breakdown. His friend Clovis, played by T. Murph, warns him, if he starts to use his cartoon to take on racial justice, he'll blow his chance to make a lot of money.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WOKE")

T MURPH: (As Clovis) You got to get a juice box, find a safe space. Whatever the [expletive] you need to do to not be woke, you need to do it.

BLAIR: "Woke" co-creator Marshall Todd says Clovis is pointing out what a lot of Black people who work for white corporations already know.

MARSHALL TODD: To be Black, the real money lies in white people's comfort zone - that the more you can sort of entertain them without upsetting them, the more money you make.

MORRIS: This character, Keef, reminded me of myself.

BLAIR: Actor Lamorne Morris is best-known for the Fox sitcom "New Girl." He says, like Keef, he wants to become more politically active. But he also relates to Clovis, who wants to play it safe.

MORRIS: Like, bro, you're about to be rich. You're about to be this. Just save all the pro-Black stuff until after you get this money. Like, you know, relax. Like, chill. There are people who feel that way. And at times, I do, too.

KNIGHT: I feel like my character in the show is the Charlie Brown of activism.

BLAIR: The Charlie Brown of activism because, says Keith Knight, in "Woke," as in life, whether you play it safe or take a stand, there are consequences.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.