[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
Roy Wood Jr. doesn’t start off “Imperfect Messenger” with any grand pronouncements. His newest Comedy Central special has no booming introduction, just him on stage with everything mostly dimmed. As the lights start to come up, he makes an oblique nod to the idea that the last two years have been suboptimal for a lot of folks. But this isn’t a 2020 recap. If anything, “Imperfect Messenger” is a better time capsule for right now because it lets the audience draw its own connections.
As someone who’s a regular part of a nightly comedy show, “Daily Show” correspondent Wood Jr. is in a tricky spot. He can’t completely ignore the unfolding events of the present, so instead he nests all those ideas inside larger ones. The Capitol attack gets brought up in the context of white allyship. A joke about people using face-aging apps gets punctuated by the idea that many black men won’t get to see what their old face will look like.
From that slow-fade opening, Wood Jr. approaches “Imperfect Messenger” as an hour-long check in. It’s not overly friendly in a patronizing way, but tucked in amongst all the stories about lucky traffic stops and jokes about civil rights movies (his pick for one of the best recent ones is a fantastic reveal) is a refrain that now is a time to find your happiness while you can.
The sharpest parts of the special are the ones where Wood Jr. offers another reminder: There are plenty of people who see happiness as a zero-sum game. Even though he doesn’t underline it, one sentiment stands out from those check-ins. “Anything to feel good. But you gotta be careful, though,” he says. “There’s a lot of people out there, the only way they know how to feel good is to make you feel bad.” He’s not there to shame or inflate his own choices. Instead, he lets his jokes help drive home that point.
And he does it in plenty of different ways. Wood Jr. isn’t someone who relies on giant dynamic changes as punchlines. He keeps a pretty even keel over the course of the hour and lets momentum do the work. His callbacks are to things that call just enough attention to themselves so people can register them later. (One particular simple hand movement he does early on becomes a lot more pointed when he brings it back near the end.) In the middle of a stretch where he’s talking about people using celebrity to help free people from jail, he makes perfect use of the stool sitting behind him. This is an example of a talented comic working in an established format and finding plenty of ways to tweak a formula to make something recognizably his.
It makes for a satisfying experience to take in something that can be recognizable and surprising all at once. He’s able to address his personal experience with law enforcement, the judicial system, parenthood, and fame, all while foregrounding the experience of others. He’s able to put you in the mindset of what it feels like to be afraid, confident, vengeful, or outright exhausted, while also acknowledging that none of those emotions exist in a vacuum. Wood Jr. is in all these stories, but he’s rarely the star. This is comedy that comes from humility and “Imperfect Messenger” is always better for it.
It’s an hour that can have Wood Jr. redelivering lines from “Django Unchained” and a joke about “the two most powerful women in the country” (wouldn’t dare spoil the context for either), and have it segue gently toward an eventual endpoint that has the sentiment “Revenge is not a substitute for healing.” As live comedy starts to get its footing again, this is a hopeful indicator of where things might go from here.