“The house has never not been on fire”: How two “Daily Show” correspondents made comedy for our pain
As taxing as the last 15 months of the pandemic has been for millions of us, imagine being among the few entertainers tasked with guiding us through it. Now put yourself in the positions of Dulcé Sloan and Roy Wood Jr., the two correspondents on “The Daily Social Distancing Show with Trevor Noah” frequently entrusted with boiling down current events related to racial justice protests, cultural inequities and general white bread craziness for viewers who come to them let off steam and perhaps learn something.
Sloan and Wood have turned in excellent field pieces and segments over the last year, but they’ve also been working nonstop on other projects in addition to their “Daily Show” duties. Sloan launched a podcast, voices a main role the first season of “The Great North” on Fox (which has been picked up for second and third seasons) and co-starred in “Chick Fight” before lockdowns began. Wood also hosts a podcast, has a stand-up special on the way and is the executive producer on “The Neutral Ground,” a documentary about the fight over removing Confederate statues set to screen at the Tribeca Festival and making its PBS premiere on July 5.
Salon caught up with Sloan and Wood over Zoom to talk about how the challenges and opportunities of living through a quarantine year impacted their work on “The Daily Show” and, frankly, to figure out how they’re able to keep going at a time when so many of us are contending with burnout.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Over the last year I’ve been feeling some pressure, as a fellow Black media professional, to speak to issues in terms of what’s going on in the world. Obviously I don’t have all the answers or even most of them. Meanwhile a lot of the people have been turning to “The Daily Show” not only to let some pressure off, but to learn from the incredible work you’ve done in the last year. How has that been for you, not just in terms of handling these expectations but also maintaining your own creative flow?
Dulcé Sloan: With all of the racial injustice that is happening in America towards Black people, and other people of color, one day I realized that it’s not our responsibility to fix it. Because we’ve been marching the entire time my mother has been alive. And we have been asking mainstream America, white America, to acknowledge our humanity, and they refused to do it. The abuser can’t look at a victim and ask them, “How do I stop abusing you?” An abuser has to make a choice to stop abusing. So when I got to the point of, “I’m not going to spend my creative energy trying to explain my humanity to people whose ancestors stole my ancestors,” I decided that I’m talking about whatever the hell I want to talk about. Because I can’t make people view me in any other way than they’ve decided to view me. . . . It’s not my responsibility to fix that anymore.
Jim Crow was ended because white men signed a piece of paper. The Civil Rights Act happened because white men signed a piece of paper. Voting rights, all of these big changes in the way that Black people have been treated in this country is because white men in power signed a piece of paper and decided to stop being a**holes. So until they decide to do that, I’m talking about what I’m talking about. And I’m not begging y’all to think of me as person anymore. Period.
Roy Wood, Jr.: In the last year, there’s been a lot of pain, there’s been a lot of people acknowledging a lot of issues about which there are not any jokes at the center. But if you can figure out the causation of how you got to the pain, or you can figure out what the solutions are to get out of the pain, those two sides of the issue lead to a field piece, right? That’s where we’ve tried to exist. Like when you talk about Ahmaud Arbery. So, you talk about his death. Okay, that’s deplorable, and those men [who murdered him] should be under the jail. So then let’s look at [Georgia] State Rep. Carl Gilliard, who has decided to try to end the citizens’ arrest law. So that became the field piece. And so we’ve had an opportunity during all of this transformative time that the country has been in, to honestly do a bunch of stuff that we were already doing before. The Ahmaud Arbery story I legitimately believe is something we still would have covered in 2019 if it happened before then.
Sloan: A lot of other shows are attempting to try to catch up to issues and things that we’ve already been talking about. We’ve already taken hard-to-talk-about things and been like, OK, where’s the funny in this? Other people are catching up, but we’ve always been doing this.
Wood: It’s so commonplace that I think people forget that that’s what we do. That’s literally “The Daily Show” brand before Trevor. Of course, we attack it differently under Trevor. But I mean, if anything, the hardest thing to do is to follow up on these damn stories, because there’s always a new turd in the street that you never get a chance to go back and check. Because the update on the citizens’ arrest law in Georgia? They changed it. Now instead of being able to detain someone, I think, for three or four hours, now you can only detain them for an hour.
Sloan: Oh, thank you. That’s still enough time to die!
Wood: Yeah, so that’s the hardest part during these times now, because there are so many fires. The hardest part is figuring out which one to point the hose at first. The other thing that I think is hard is, like, how do you activate viewers? Strategically, how do we get somebody to care about the environment? You have to almost take the same steps as you would you do for like a piece that Dulcé did about Black women’s hair.
The Black women’s hair segment was one that hit just in a way that I haven’t seen in a long time. You know, just in terms of a segment that kept being mentioned to me by people who were shocked and asking, “Did you know about this?” Yes. I knew about this.
Sloan: So much has been done in the history of America to make Black women think that their hair is not worthy since it is not straight. It just grows out of my head this way! . . . But you have to find that thing to make someone go, “You’re lesser than, we have to control this.” First, we can’t show our hair and we got to put scarves on right? But the scarves got too beautiful. Now we can’t do that. So it’s always something. And now we are here. We took the scarf off now we are wearing our fine wigarees, okay?
Wood: It’s been fun to figure out because collectively as a country, people are interested in the nuanced issues of race. We have opportunities not just with the field pieces, but we get to flex with sketches, and chat segments with the correspondents, and one on ones with Trevor. So we get to be more versatile in how we get the point across.
Each of you have had projects launching in addition to your “Daily Show” work in the last year. Dulce, we spoke about your podcast, and you’re on “The Great North.” Roy, you have your podcast and you’ve had your stand-up specials. First of all, it makes me think like, “I need to do more things! I am not adequate.” But then I have to wonder about that, what with all the conversation across the board about exhaustion. Meanwhile, everything in your careers is amping up, which is wonderful for you. But honestly, how are you able to keep those things in balance?
Sloan: Well, yeah, because, I also shot a movie called “Chick Fight” in Puerto Rico in like, January and February. And then when I kind of got back, lockdown started, so the movie came out during the pandemic, so and then I was recording the TV show and then trying to do other things. I did this voiceover thing for EA. You know, before this I was traveling two, three, four weekends a month and also shooting the show during the week. But my friend was like with [the pandemic], “God told the whole world to sit down.” I know I was exhausted before this. And so it’s given me time to focus on things that I didn’t get to focus on before. Like myself.
Wood: For me, it was, it’s an opportunity to just pick a couple of things. So, you know, my third stand-up special on Comedy Central comes out in October. And I’d started kind of working on some of that material before the lockdown happened. And then as the country starts opening back up, you start tiptoeing out to the clubs that have the right protocols in place. But you’re still able to just focus on your field pieces which is, for me, that’s, that’s more than enough as far as I’m concerned. That’s been the cool thing as well because it left me time to go, you know what, let me start therapy and see what the hell that’s talking about. And then we started doing stuff in mental health awareness, and “The Daily Show” and Viacom, we started doing these mental health awareness initiatives, I’m like, yeah, we should be doing that. That’s good.
It gave me more time to think about pieces that weren’t necessarily at the top of that attached to things that are at the top of the news cycle. . . . I’ve done less work, but it’s been more rewarding or more meaningful, if that makes sense. It’s like, when you go to a steak restaurant, you get a smaller serving, but the food tastes better. And it’s just so much richer, you know? Like that part of it, I think it’s really been cool.
Dulce as I said, the last time I talked to you was a year ago. Let’s say we reconnect at this time in 2022. What are you hoping that we’ll be talking about in the best possible future?
Sloan: I think being able to report on a real shift. Like really being able to show that all of the protests of last summer were not in vain.
I hope that we’ll be able to see, we’ll be able to report on better relations between people. Because you got to see what it was like to not be able to touch. You couldn’t go see your mother, you see what I’m saying? You couldn’t hug your grandparents. So I would want to see that we’re reporting less on unarmed people of color getting murdered, that we’re reporting less on anti-Asian violence . . . I want us to be able to see that something happened out of all of this and we can start seeing a real change, just in humanity as a whole. We’re seeing a change in the country.
Wood: For me, politics used to be we agreed on the problem, but we don’t agree on the solution. Now it’s that we don’t even agree on what the problem is. So my hope is that at least in a year, if we can all just agree on what the problems are, and that there is a problem, that in and of itself is cataclysmic progress going into midterms. And then figuring out what the solutions are to the problems that we all agree on. You know, America’s on fire and you have people sitting on the front porch sipping sweet tea, saying that nothing’s going on, and that “I don’t even see smoke.” So until we can get on the same page like that, as a country, I think we’re you know, we’re going to be at a serious impasse.
So my hope is at minimum for that for America – that at least we agree on what the problem is. Because at least with that, it’ll make figuring out what field piece to do so much easier. Because there won’t be eight different fires to choose from.
The world can be better, and everything can still be funny.
Wood: Yes, yes. That’s the goal. That’s the goal.
Sloan: Y’all pay attention! The house has never not been on fire, but we got the main arsonist out the building. So the question is, has Biden come with a hose? Or is he roasting marshmallows? That’s what we’ve got to figure out now.
“The Daily Social Distancing Show” airs at 11 p.m. weeknights on Comedy Central.