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When Keith Knight, the nationally syndicated cartoonist behind “The Knight Life,” “The K Chronicles,” and “(Th)ink” and co-creator of the Hulu show “Woke,” addressed the graduating class of 2022 at Salem State University in May, he planned to let them know that, yes, he was a failure.
At ceramics, that is.
“I had this teacher who is a super nice guy but he was the type of guy who says, ‘Oh, you don’t have to come every time, just make sure you get your stuff done,’” Knight recalled, laughing. “So I didn’t go and I didn’t get anything done.”
But even if Knight’s Salem State transcript has a less-than-stellar hole where ceramics should have been, “we shouldn’t be afraid to fail,” he said. “The failure is not going for the thing that you want, you know? A lot of people are afraid to try to go for the thing they want because they’re afraid that it won’t happen, or some people are afraid of actually succeeding and getting that, and what happens then.
“So I would say: embrace failure,” he said.
Fortunately for Knight, most of the career risks he’s taken have resulted in just the opposite — even, or perhaps especially, the risks that involved speaking up about challenges facing the Black community in America. Those challenges, in particular the pervasive issue of police brutality, are a major undercurrent of his comic strips and also of “Woke,” the show based on them.
“I guess I was putting a perspective in comics that you just never saw quite often, so I became ‘that guy,’” the recently announced “Cartoonist of the Year” nominee said. “And I don’t mind being that guy, because I think telling my story is super important now.”
It’s a story Knight recently told the Strip Search comic strip podcast, going deep on “Woke” — now in its second season on Hulu — how it presaged George Floyd, and what’s next for the cartoonist and erstwhile Michael Jackson impersonator. (Spoiler alert: Those two things are connected.)
Listen and read highlights from the Q&A below. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Boston.com: You grew up in Malden [where they recently dedicated a mural in your honor] and went to Salem State, and now you’re getting an honorary degree from your alma mater. How does that feel?
Keith Knight: Listen, now when I buy airline tickets online I can put that “Dr.” thing. My twin sister hates it — she’s like, “I’m the smart one!” But no, I’m humbled and honored, and I know that I’ll have professors there that will try to stop this thing from happening. [laughs] It’s all just pretty amazing … All I need to do is call my dad in Vegas to put everything in perspective — he’s like, “So are they paying you?”
But yeah, everything is amazing and wonderful, and considering where the world is at — I just remember when we were shooting the first season [of “Woke”], and Salem State had asked me to do this two years ago for 2020, and at the same time, the Library of Congress asked me to come and do something. So I was like, man, the Library of Congress has called me, we’re shooting season one of my TV show, and now Salem State wants me to do commencement. I said to my wife, “I don’t know, I think something bad’s gonna happen.”
So you’re the cause of the pandemic.
I do believe that I’ve made some deal with a shady figure at some point, and we are all paying for that right now.
For those who haven’t seen it, can you give us a rundown of what “Woke” is about?
Well, it’s based on my time in San Francisco and I would say that my character is the Charlie Brown of activism. He’s trying to do the right thing all the time, but it just keeps on sort of backfiring on him. I think there’s a lot of people out there that see the word ‘woke’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be preached to, I’m not going to watch the show.’ And then, finally, someone gets them to watch it and I hear so many people saying, “Why didn’t anybody tell me this was going to be funny?” That’s the thing that I hear more than anything else.
The main character, Keef, is subject to police brutality in the first episode, and that forces him to confront some things that he hadn’t before, both in his life and work. To what extent does that mirror experiences that you had? Did you try to make your work more innocuous when you started out?
In a way, I did. In the sense that the only time I ever got hired when I first started out was in February … it was Black History Month, we need a Black cartoonist. And so I would do the gigs and then I would get the checks and sign them into cash, but then I would call up the editor and say listen, I work the other 11 months of the year, too … Once I started working all 12 months of the year, I saw that the comics that really resonated with people the most were the ones about race, were the ones about police brutality.
I was doing these comics before I got stopped by the police, but that incident in the pilot is based on a real incident. My experience wasn’t as physical, it wasn’t as dramatic, but I will tell you this: My white roommate came off the bus and got up into the faces of the cops, and they didn’t do anything — they treated him like he was the manager. And that was like a huge thing, too. And I’m so glad we got that in the show.
All the episodes in some way, shape or form have something to do with something that happened to me in real life, but you know, this is TV so it’s like, “What if this happened?” Some of the things that you think could not be true actually happened to me in some way … it’s a weird, weird, weird world we live in.
I assume one of the things that didn’t actually happen is that your markers and trash cans didn’t start talking to you.
Listen, if you take the right substance. [laughs]
The talent you’ve got doing those voices on the show — J.B. Smoove, Cedric the Entertainer — is just tremendous.
I can’t believe the amount of talent that is involved in the show. It is incredible. The people, the talent, in front of the camera and behind the camera, it’s been wonderful.
The right has adopted “woke” as their new derogatory term, like “bleeding heart liberal” — does that complicate matters for a TV show named “Woke”?
Yes and no, actually. Every time people say that [type of thing], I like leaning into it — I mean, every time you see [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis with the STOP Woke Act … like, I want to use that as an ad! It’s just an opportunity to check out the show. [Besides], they’re moving on — like now “grooming” is the thing, you know, the leftist grooming. It’ll move on to the next thing soon enough.
But what I like about the show is its timelessness — you know people think, ‘Oh, you did that just because of George Floyd,’ but the incident that happened to me happened 20 years ago — over 20 years ago. And you know, Black folks will tell you that this is an evergreen subject that will exist 20 years from now, so when all of this is said and done, I think the show is still going to have legs.
I was wondering about that, because it debuted just a few months after George Floyd’s murder. It was in the works prior to that, though?
It was. We shot the whole season at the very beginning of 2020. When George Floyd played out and everything started happening with the protests, we were like, “Oh my goodness, are we going to watch our season happen right [in front of] us?” Originally we were telling Hulu, you have to release this sooner than later, because we don’t want people to think [we said], “Oh, let’s do the show on the heels of this.”
So I think that’s one of the reasons why, if you look at some of the early reviews people were like, “Well, now that George Floyd is happening, this show is out of touch, blah blah blah.” But now that season two has come out and it’s being received really well, people are going back watching season one — all these people are discovering it now and they’re like, “Oh my goodness, wow, this is really cool.” I think the longer we move away from George Floyd, the more it’s going to stand on its own, as a really good piece of art.
What have you learned about TV production? What’s surprised you about it?
It’s such a juxtaposition when it comes to being a cartoonist, because you work by yourself, like just alone, all the time. Being on a TV show is like being part of a huge symphony orchestra where everybody has to do their job for it to be [successful] … I think part of the reason why I was ready to work with all these creative people is because they all brought stuff to the table, even the people that didn’t work out brought stuff to the table, and it’s just all contributed to this really amazing production.
I knew what I wanted, and all I can do is make something that I would want to watch. Ultimately, it’s the way I do my comics — I draw comics that I want to read. So I wanted to make a TV show that I would want to watch, and I think we did that, and as long as I adhere to that, I think we’re doing OK.
Speaking of your comics, you’ve done three people might know, “The Knight Life,” “The K Chronicles,” and “(Th)ink.” What’s up with them, and what other comics projects are in the works?
Well, I don’t do “The Knight Life” anymore — I was happily able to retire that once I went into the writers room for “Woke.” So I was able to put that to rest, but I have a bunch of strips that have never been in book form, so I’ll gradually be putting those in book form. I continue to do “The K Chronicles,” I continue to do “(Th)ink,” and I continue to do one-offs.
But one other thing that has been on the back burner for quite some time is this graphic novel that I’ve been working on about my time as a Michael Jackson impersonator, and it’s been long gestating. I’ve done a little bit here, a little bit there, but the show has really sort of put that on the back burner. I’m now able to sort of get back at it and attack it, and really hopefully get it finished before we have to get to … I’m hoping for season three!
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