It is said the etymology of the adage “desperate times call for desperate measures” goes back to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. It evolved out of his declaration in Aphorisms, circa 400 B.C., that “For extreme diseases, extreme methods of cure…are most suitable.”
As the extremest of viruses ravages the country, pummeling African-Americans the hardest, comedian and ESSENCE Festival host alum Roy Wood Jr. has come up with the perhaps the most extreme method for curing all of the long-standing structural inequalities that Covid-19 has laid bare.
“What if after the government gave everybody their $1,200 dollars, Black people pooled it all together and bought South Dakota?”
This question was specifically directed at fellow comic Ali Siddiq, who responded “I would be down to purchase South Dakota” (although hesitated on whether he’d be one of the first to U-Haul to Rapid City.) The desperate measure was a back-and-forth quarantine riff for the Tip Your Wait Staff fundraiser launched by Wood Jr., Mike Birbiglia of Sleepwalk With Me fame, and SNL veteran (and recognized “Cha Cha Slide” master) John Mulaney. The roster of funny people has grown behind a simple idea, fans get to watch two comics on Instagram Live workshopping a new bit, all in the name of aiding the unemployed staffers at comedy clubs of the performers’ choice.
“We bounced ideas off each other and decided this is the most efficient way to get a little something in the pockets of people who work in the clubs,” says Wood Jr. “They’re the backbone of the industry, allowing us to do what we do, tell jokes. Without them, we don’t exist.”
Wood Jr. is raising money for two joints in his native Alabama, Stand Up Live in Huntsville and his hometown spot, the Birmingham Stardome. It’s where he started in the ‘90s, with a debut joke about weather maps, the color purple, Minnesota, and how Prince must be “cold as f*ck.” The financial goals of the Tip Your Wait Staff campaigns aren’t on a massive scale, they’re more of the personal groceries and Hulu bill nature. For the Stardome, Wood Jr. has brought in $5,330 of his $6,000 goal, which would be enough to give the 20 displaced staffers $300 to help get by. Whatever little bit helps because after more than two decades the game, Wood Jr., 41, knows the big picture for his chosen profession is grim. For Vulture, he wrote a slap-you-across-the-face essay titled “It’s Time for Stand-Ups to Prepare for the Worst.”
“On a given Friday night, when the entire country is really cooking, there’s probably 3,000 people on stage somewhere telling jokes,” he says. “If we’re just talking paper, of that group, probably 10-15% are on television, or working in television, or have a job in the industry that would disqualify them from the coronavirus public benefits package… And we all know many of these clubs are never going to reopen their doors.”
To that end, Wood Jr. also participated in “Laugh Aid,” a telethon put on by Comedy Gives Back, a non-profit helping comics in financial turmoil, which raised $368K. (Here he is encouraging Hannibal Buress to put down NBA 2K and bathe, assuming his house “smells like dick and balls.”)
Shelter in-place be damned, Wood Jr. is keeping busy. From his Manhattan apartment, he’s doing “field” pieces in his beloved Cubs bathrobe for The Daily Show, explaining benchwarmer etiquette in his beloved entire Cubs outfit for “Ridin’ Pine,” and doing press conferences in his beloved Birmingham Black Barons Negro League jersey with his three-year-old son. It’s all in the name of helping a lonely nation overcome major league baseball withdrawal, and more importantly, keeping his family safe.
“Quarantine time messes with your mind. It feels like Kobe died three years ago, but my son loves it, permanent spring break. Between me and his mom, school, and Elmo, we’ve got him covered,” says Wood Jr. “He doesn’t have any idea about the scope of the thing, but we taught him to elbow cough, which has been our major accomplishment.”
Wood Jr. is living day-to-day in the New York City coronavirus epicenter, and like so many of us, monitoring his family from afar. States below the Mason-Dixon line dragged their feet on precautionary measures, but Wood Jr. specifically praises the mayors of Birmingham and Montgomery for getting out ahead and ignoring the gubernatorial hands-off (or more precisely, hands-on) approach to social distancing and staying at home. Still, it’s frightening to watch the body count rise in a state not exactly known for its robust healthcare system.
“Living in New York and talking to people down South has been like calling from three weeks in the future, but there’s still a lot of people who aren’t taking it seriously state-wide,” Wood Jr. says. “I’m thankful my mom and people I’m close to in Alabama have been in quarantine, although I can’t say the same for friends in Mississippi. At the end of the day, you can only be the governor of your own family, the three people under my roof, but at least I said what needed to say to people and I can rest well knowing I tried.”
This doesn’t mean Wood Jr. isn’t cognizant of the blazing United States hypocrisies and inequities beating at the heart of the pandemic. Initially, pundits and politicos claimed Covid-19 would be “a great equalizer,” a classless colorblind virus destroying lives in demographics across the board. To the surprise of only those who remain unaware of “American history,” Blacks are dying at higher percentages in urban and rural communities alike.
“Covid-19 is attached to another conversation Americans are still too scared to have about lack of access to nutritious food and quality healthcare in black communities,” says Wood Jr. “Add in that so many of essential workers are minorities—working cash registers, delivering food, driving Ubers—and we’re really taking it on the chin. It’s a byproduct of socio-economic realities we don’t talk about…. But it is funny, we went from people in the Black community thinking we couldn’t catch coronavirus to White folks not believing we have it, in a matter of like three weeks.”
Desperate times not only call out for desperate measures, they also call out for belly laughs and pitching in for neighbors we know and strangers we don’t. Wood Jr. will be back again soon with another Tip Your Wait Staff riff featuring special guest “check his Instagram feed.” Whoever it is, they will be joining Roy Wood Jr. in bringing a little light, and a few extra bucks, to people who really need it now.
If all else fails, there’s always South Dakota.