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

Lamorne Morris plays cartoonist Keef Knight in the Hulu comedy <em>Woke. </em>The character is based on Keith Knight, the show's co-creator.
Joe Lederer
Lamorne Morris plays cartoonist Keef Knight in the Hulu comedy Woke. The character is based on Keith Knight, the show's co-creator.

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

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

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.

"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
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."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.