Cartoonist Keith Knight’s dramedy “Woke” is a semi-autobiographical mixing of political consciousness with outrageous humor and surreal animation.

Story Transcript

Keith Knight: I’m an artist it’s important to preserve a little mystery.

Speaker 2: You’re not mysterious. Lenny Kravitz. He’s mysterious.

Keith Knight: Lenny Kravitz is Batman. You’re on your way to the top.

Newspapers, TV show, movie deals.

Speaker 3: So you’re Keef Knight?

Keith Knight: I am.

Speaker 3: It’s funny. I didn’t think you’d be tall.

Keith Knight: Happens all the time.

Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. It’s good to have you all with us. We’re about to have a conversation with cartoonist Keith Knight, who as many say, has always been woke, or at least most of the time. He created K Chronicles and the new Hulu show Woke. Once wanted to tell stories of everyday black life in his comics and not focus on political struggles, but then he found himself pinned down by police officers because he was a black man with a pen in his pocket, was mistaken for a robbery suspect. And then he found his comic strip, the K Chronicles becoming increasingly more political. Now there’s a new TV show on Hulu called Woke, which follows some of Knight’s trajectory in a hilarious, comedic, and often really deeply surreal fashion. It’s a fabulous program. It fuses animation into narrative, like talking garbage cans and Native American artifacts that come alive, cursing out appropriators of their culture.

Speaker 5: Extraordinary. Tell me about this.

Speaker 6: I love antique appraisals.

Speaker 7: Isn’t it great?

Speaker 8: It was given to me by my great great uncle Colonel John Beasley, he got it as a gift from the Sioux tribe.

Artifact: Oh, for fuck sakes. How many times do I have to tell you? It’s Yokut, not Sioux, Yokut. Beasley and his regiments slaughtered the tribe that made me took all their possessions and raped the horses.

Keith Knight: Raped the horses?

Artifact: You heard me. Raped the horses. That white man was a freak. He even sticked me up his ass while he was doing it. Horse rapist, mother fuck him and John Wayne.

Marc Steiner: It’s a very deep show, a very meaningful show. It tackles issues like gentrification, racism, and more with suitable and relatable humor. It’s one of the best things I’ve watched in a while. This series premiered, September 9th and all eight episodes are available on Hulu. So we all can binge watch.

So Keith it really is good to have you with us here. To go back to 2015 when you won the NAACP History Maker Award for that cartoon series, They Shoot Black People, Don’t They? And I was just thinking about what you said back then. About the time we’re in and people having to be conscious and people have to be woke and people have to be ready to move, to change things. And here you are five years later launching a new program and when it was launched, when you were doing it with no idea that we were going to be in the midst of a COVID pandemic and all the demonstrations taking place around the country and people fighting about racism in America, in ways I’ve not seen in my lifetime, not in this mass way. I mean, that five-year-old arc is amazing. I mean, just curious how you felt about all that from then in 2015 to now, as this program’s launching on Hulu and here we are again.

Keith Knight: Yeah, it’s interesting because it really, I kept on saying even in 2015, when I would do that slideshow, I would tell people it’s going to get a lot worse. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. And it’s continued to get worse and worse, but we really had no idea when we finished shooting February 28th of this year, like we finished February 28th, a week and a half later, everything shuts down and it just ends up being like the perfect storm of everything. People being stuck in. And honestly, you know, police brutality happens all the time and it’s been happening forever. But the fact that people are stuck inside and they don’t have a job to go to not think about it. And they’re forced to see George Floyd murdered with a cop, like staring into the camera with like, what are you going to do about it?

Like, this is my job. And I think people, and then they look to a President that doesn’t want to bring people together. I think if we had any other president, they would have tried to bring people together. And I don’t think people would have reacted the way they did it, but they saw that this President does not care about bringing anybody together. And so I think people are just like, we have to hit the streets.

And this is the first time where me doing these comics, that white people were super on board with it, which is like, which is crazy. And it’s a shock. And I hope that this leads to something, but it’s one of these things where it’s like, we’re so psyched that we got the television show down, but it’s just like in the big scheme of things, it’s just TV and we’re excited that we’re coming at this point and people keep on that saying, you must be amazed, the timing is great, but racism and police brutality are evergreen.

It’s been like this 20 years ago, 40 years ago, 60 years ago. And it’s going to be like this 10 years from now, 20 years from now. But I think there’s a sea change in the idea that like five years ago, when I was talking about white privilege and white supremacy, people were like, are you insane? They were shocked by that. If I talk about reparations, they’d say get out of here, but we are incrementally moving forward. So that I’m excited about. I’m excited about that more than I’m excited about this show and I’m really excited about the show. So, yeah.

Marc Steiner: Yeah I was thinking about when people tell you that the timing is great. With the time and it shouldn’t be great. I mean, that’s the problem, right?

Keith Knight: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah.

Marc Steiner: I’m curious about the animation and comedy dealing with this, what is a very serious subject, but also semi-autobiographical about you and how that, how using that genre plays into all this. The comedy, the animation that’s really well done and it’s just, I just love it. I mean, it’s real and surreal at the same time. So how do you think that plays into all this?

Keith Knight: The show is really an extension of my autobiographical comics. I’ve been doing autobiographical cartoons for decades, and there’s always a note of magical realism in the comics; which is I take something that happens to me for real, but then I sort of have it veer off into some bizarre situation. So we were just trying to figure out how can we do that visually in a live action type of setting. And so I have to credit Marshall Todd, the co writer of the pilot, and co-creator with the idea of, okay, what if we based it on, the police incident that you had, but it triggers this third eye and what sort of crazy thing where a cartoonist see that’s unique to himself and not everybody else. And so we just thought, okay, stuff starts animating and inanimate stuff starts animating.

Why is it that as people of color we’re always having to stand for something in our work? Just a cartoonist.

Speaker 10: Because the world’s a racist place.

Keith Knight: And that’s why I keep it light.

Our work can only happen with the sustained support of our viewers. Will you join our campaign for independent radical journalism by making a gift today?

Speaker 10: Keep it light.

Keith Knight: Yeah, keep it light.

Speaker 11: Don’t move. Centrally the suspect in question, six foot tall.

Speaker 12: You got the wrong guy.

Speaker 11: Copy that. This isn’t the suspect.

Keith Knight: I can’t believe they did us like that. Are you cool?

Keith Knight: That was where it took off. And I have to say that it was Maurice Marable, our directing producer, who came to us and said that he was interested in not doing just flat 2D animation, but having puppetry and all sorts of 3D type of stuff going on in it, which I think totally elevated it. I think if it was just flat to the animation, it wouldn’t have sold at all. And I think the animation is done so well that it just makes it trippy and it adds to the setting and it adds to the situation. And it’s just really fun to watch. That’s one of my favorite things is how the animation manifests itself in different ways throughout the season.

Marc Steiner: Yeah, for me to. Aman said that it really popped out at us when we were talking about that and thinking about this conversation with you, just how that’s used and the idea of using comedy to really drill down and using these other voices in the animation to drill down on a very serious topic. It’s really nothing new and maybe more powerful than the pedantic side of preaching.

Keith Knight: Oh, definitely so. Like one of the things about cartooning and about editorial cartooning is it takes complex issues and hopefully uses humor and metaphors and different things like that to engage and get people to understand a topic that might be just a nightmare to read about or something like that. So I feel like cartoonists are the modern day court jesters who speak truth to power. And so that was important for us, which is to use comedy to address these important issues. And it just makes the medicine go down just a little easier.

Marc Steiner: Like George Carlin and all the rest who, and Richard Pryor did the same thing for us, right. For generations.

Keith Knight: Yeah. Yeah, definitely.

Marc Steiner: So the one scene that you had in there, just to kind of explore for a second for our viewers here is, when you went into Darnell’s barbershop. That was just to me such, not just funny, it was just this poignant seeing the idea of the black barbershop, which is so powerful in culture. You walk in the barbershop with nothing but white people, but Malcolm on the wall.

Keith Knight: It’s interesting because, I felt that way, even when I was living in San Francisco. I left San Francisco 2007, but my barbershop Stuart’s Style-O-Rama on Hayes street. I just remember the clientele changing from black men to like, suddenly there were like more white guys going in there and he’s still doing it, but you just start to see the evolution of the gentrification. I shouldn’t say evolution, but that gentrification of a neighborhood. And then I remember just moving down to Los Angeles and seeing like full swing barbershops like that, just hipster, everybody’s got the beards and there’s the whiskey and the sports and all that stuff. And so it was very important for us to include that in there. Oh, I’m sorry. And the irony of it is, what’s great about it is, Marshall Todd co-wrote the original Barbershop and Cedric the Entertainer is the voice of the trashcan outside the barbershop. And he was in the original Barbershop.

Trash can: Down here my brother. That’s right I’m a talking trash can.

Keith Knight: This is all wrong.

Trash can: I tell you what’s wrong. Those man bun, co-opting ginger fine devils.

Keith Knight: Marshall didn’t even realize that while we were shooting that, and it was like, wow, this moment, must be really interesting to you. And he’s like, why is that? And I explained it to him. He was like, I didn’t even realize. So, that was cool.

Marc Steiner: The story of Keith Knight confronted the police in San Francisco, the story of Keef Knight being confronted by these police. And this epiphany that he has, I mean, how much of that is you?

Keith Knight: Well, it’s definitely a much more naive version of me in the show. And I think we’re packing 30 years into an eight episode season. But when it happened to me, it wasn’t as dramatic. And I didn’t get thrown to the ground. What was shocking to me was my roommate, my white roommate was on a bus coming down the street when it was happening. And he said, he looked off the bus and he saw these cop cars around all these cops.

He was like, Oh man, SFPD hassling your level of black man. And then as he got closer, he saw it was me. And he was like, Oh, wait a second that’s my black man. He was just like, you should have seen him come off the bus. He came off the bus and he raged across the street, screaming bloody hell and getting up in the cops faces. And that to me was really my woke moment, which was seeing these cops treat him like he was their boss. They treated him with respect in a way that they didn’t treat me. And that’s when that was the epitome of white privilege to me. And at that time I was doing stuff about police brutality and racism, but it really made me double and triple down with the work that I was doing. Which eventually led to doing the slideshow and all that stuff, so.

Marc Steiner: To digress here for just moment. So did you have a conversation with your roommate about that afterwards? Did you kind of probe it?

Keith Knight: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. I mean, it’s pretty shocking to see. So yeah, I definitely had that conversation. Had he been black or brown, he would have been on the ground and they would have hit him. They would have done something to him. And I was just amazed. I was just amazed.

Marc Steiner: Given the moment we’re in, I was thinking about five years ago when you got that award and the interviews I saw that you had them. When you got the NAACP award, the History Maker Award. And the rebellions that took place across the country, whether it was in Ferguson or in Baltimore and all across the country. And here we are now. And all of a sudden, we’re also seeing millions of non black people, white folks, Asians, Latinos, everybody together in the streets. Even I talked to a friend of mine out on the rez, his rez the other day, and they’re out there doing it as well. So, it seems like we’re in a very different, surreal moment. And it’s hard to say where it’s going to go. And I am, let me stop there for a minute. Go ahead.

Keith Knight: No, it is hard. It’s hard to say where it’s going to go. And I mean, I was just amazed. Yeah, seriously at the widespread protests that were going on. We’re going to see what happens. We’re going to see what happens in November. We’re going to see what happens six months from now. We’re going to see what happens a year from now. I think there’s people jumping on the bandwagon posting their black lives matters avatars and stuff like that. But I think there are people really talking about systemic change, which I know I’ve had conversations with the school superintendent of the schools that I went to high school. And I just feel like, I talked to him about just the importance of having black literature, having thoughts. I didn’t have, I didn’t read a book. I read more books where the animals were protagonist, than people of color. You know, Animal Farm and Beowulf and Jack London books.

And it wasn’t until I was in college that I read James Baldwin and Maya Angelo and stuff like that. So it’s important I think to me to start a very young age and address the system at the start and all fundamental aspects of life. Including getting people of color into Hollywood boardrooms. The people who make the decisions for this stuff, cause you know, I don’t know if we could have sold the show if it wasn’t surrounding, if it wasn’t about racism. There’s so many amazing shows that have come up about this. The Watchman series and the Lovecraft Country and stuff. But I want to get to the point where we can just have just a straight up fantasy story that you know, where there are black protagonists and it’s not based on racism or something like that. Just like straight up romance, fantasy, science fiction of those sentiments.

Marc Steiner: Other than Woke and the role that a program like Woke plays in all of this. The ability to tell a story that is layered and has magical realism with realism intertwined and makes you laugh almost all the way through it at the same time. I mean, there’s a power to that. I think that people don’t realize and that you’re harnessing here.

Keith Knight: Yeah, and it’s funny because it was really hard to convince some people that it would work. I think so many. And again, it’s the limited amount of what we see with black characters and protagonists. It has to be couched in reality, it has to be urban really realism. And it’s like, no, this is a show about a black nerd. You know, this is a combination of comics culture and black culture smashing together. And I would always say, it’s so important that we got to get, let’s get these references to hip hop in there, let’s get references to Star Wars in there. Let’s get references to old school, black television and then let’s get as much in as possible. And I know it will work and just because people haven’t seen it before, I just knew it would work.

Marc Steiner: Well, I think the idea of growing consciousness through comedy is really important. Right?

Keith Knight: A long tradition, it’s a long tradition. This is that rare moment where the door is open for a lot of black creators. And I just kept on saying the whole time, it takes two flops for that door to close and I just don’t want to be one of those flops. You know.

I want to keep that door open and get in as many people in as possible because we have stories to tell and we should be able to tell it and tell our stories ourselves. Cause whenever I talk to kids, whenever I talk to cartoonist, I just say, tell your story, tell your story because if you don’t, someone else will tell it for you and they will get it wrong. And it usually stinks. So you tell your story.

Marc Steiner: Well, I think that the magic of your mind along with Lamorne Morris’ acting. People are just going to be drawn into this. I did not know what to expect. I know that when we were watching, Eric and I were watching the pieces online, I was just, I loved it. I just could not stop laughing and thinking, and people need to watch this.

Keith Knight: Yeah, Lamorne did an amazing job. And I’m surprised that he wasn’t leaving a show earlier than he did like now. I mean, I’m psyched that he’s read the script and just wanting to do it. I’m just so fortunate. So fortunate to have such talented people around me.

Marc Steiner: Well Keith Knight I want to thank you so much for joining us today. This was great.

Keith Knight: Thank you. Thank you. Appreciate it.

Marc Steiner: Thanks for joining us. So for co-producer Eric Blount and the real news network, I’m Marc Steiner, take care.

Speaker 15: Thanks a lot for watching. Appreciate it. But do us one more solid favor, hit the subscribe button below, you know you want to stay up on the videos.

Marc Steiner

Managing Editor

Marc Steiner, interim co-Editor at TRNN, is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on issues of social justice. He walked his first picket line at age 13 and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested for Civil Rights protests, in the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught Theatre for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993 through 1997 his signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR – which Marc co-founded – and Morgan State University’s WEAA.