Cartoonist Keith Knight has been making people laugh and think with his comics for years, but he hit a new level of fame with the 2020 premiere of Woke on Hulu. The 8 episode series was not only based on Knight’s comics, but starred a character played by Lamorne Morris named “Keef Knight” – a Black cartoonist living in the Bay Area. The show won acclaim for its ensemble cast and take on the racial issues America was confronting following the murder of George Floyd.
It’s territory Knight has been covering for years, and the second season of Woke – debuting April 8th on Hulu – delves even deeper into America’s reaction and how Keef is dealing with newfound fame.
The real Keith Knight will be appearing this weekend at WonderCon with new t-shirts and merchandise – his first convention since the show debuted – and we were able to have a short zoom chat to talk about getting back on the road and how his life has changed.
Knight will be appearing at WonderCon this weekend on Sunday at the Woke Panel along with Lamorne Morris, Blake Anderson, T Murph, Marshall Todd, Maurice “Mo” Marable, and JB Smoove, Sunday, April 3rd at noon PT in room North 200A
[This interview has been edited for clarity and length]
THE BEAT: Keith, you and I talked in many a comic-con hall back in the day for years, but we haven’t seen each other since Woke started streaming. It’s great to have a chance to catch up. Congratulations, of course, especially on making it to a second season. And just to start off, how has your life changed now that you have a TV show based on your life?
KEITH KNIGHT: The thing that has changed is I’m not extremely looking over my shoulder financially, which is a huge, huge thing. So much so that there was a moment where I realized that everything I had been doing was making that deadline, putting out the next book, putting out the calendar, all the “if I don’t do this, I can’t pay the mortgage, or I can’t pay rent, or I can’t do this” [stuff]. So there was a moment there where I was, wait a second, I’m not totally tied financially to continuing to produce. I realized I’d had my foot on the gas for 25 straight years. And I could slow down for a moment, and gather myself. So it’s that more than anything else. Because the show came out and the pandemic hits. So I really couldn’t go around and be promoting it, like what we’re doing at WonderCon. This upcoming weekend is the first time I’m going to be doing a con in person since the show’s come out. So I’m just curious. Will people be ‘Oh, this is the guy that inspired Woke’ or whatever. I have no idea. But it’ll be nice if I sell a few more books, let’s just say.
THE BEAT: You gotta keep your eye on the goal! Sell books! You always have so many things going on…I haven’t even kept up them during the pandemic but have more doors opened for you to write and other things?
KNIGHT: Certainly. It’s so exciting to be able to work in this medium, and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I always knew it would happen in some way, shape, or form. But I always say this – I thought it would be some sleazy, independent outfit that says, “Oh, we got to put a lot of nudity in it,” that way. But, yeah, there were so many ideas beyond just the autobiographical stuff that I would love to tackle that fits in the realm of satire, and humor, and race. And I hope I get the opportunity to do it beyond just this show.
THE BEAT: I hope so. Obviously, you were a little ahead of the curve on bringing attention to police violence against Black people. I remember seeing your slideshow at SPX and I dare say, for many of the early indie comics crowd that goes to SPX, it was a bit of an eye opener and consciousness raiser for a lot of people there. Since the first time I saw you do it, SPX has become even more inclusive and diverse. What was it like doing your slideshow at those kinds of events?
KNIGHT: I think a lot of times people go to comic cons to get away from the real world. And that idea of fantasy, I get that. That’s part of the dilemma of what the character [Keef Knight] talked about in the first season in the first episode of Woke. Why does it have to be about something. We need that escapism, we need joy, we need to not just be about depressing stuff, and politics and race and all the issues. But we also have to be inclusive and listen to voices of marginalized groups. So I think it’s important that people bring their stories. I’ve always been an advocate of telling your own story, because if other people tell your story for you, they’ll get it completely wrong. It’s super important for us to do that.
THE BEAT: So when the first season of Woke came out, it was put together in the before times, just as Covid hit, but also I believe it was before the murder of George Floyd.
KNIGHT: It was pre-George Floyd. I think we were one of the last productions to wrap before they shut everything down. We finished at the end of February 2020. So literally, I flew back from the set, on March 1st or 2nd, and then everything shut down after that. We were so lucky.
THE BEAT: The meaning of the show obviously changed in those five or six months before it debuted on Hulu. A lot of people commented on that, although I feel the theme of Woke is germane before, during and after the racial upheaval of 2020. So with the second season having more of a chance to comment, what was some of your thinking, what were some of the themes that you wanted to touch on?
KNIGHT: I wanted to capture that post-George Floyd moment where there was a lot of performative activism, with companies being “okay, how can we capitalize on this? How can we sort of look like we’re being inclusive, too?” Like, I think all the commercials I still see are all mixed race couples. But, you know, things like, “Oh, we have to get rid of the word ‘master bedroom,’ because it’s oppressive.” It is, you know, can you just give me a loan? [laughs] I just want a home loan, you can call it a master bedroom!
So, that’s what we wanted to tackle, which is suddenly for our character, it’s a year later he’s got a little bit of a celebrity thing going on, a local celebrity thing, and companies start to court him. That’s it. We’re also tackling the way “woke” has become a pejorative — it’s like the new “politically correct.” So we have a lot of people who are just discovering the show for the first time and they’re “Oh, I didn’t know this was gonna be funny.” It’s really interesting, the way people have just discovered the show and it’s exciting. I hope that we bring in a lot of new folks as well as a lot of returning folks and, and have the opportunity to do it again, because it’s been a great run.
THE BEAT: I’ve seen a few episodes of the second season and it’s really funny! I I love the supporting cast, Clovis, Gunther and Ayana. It’s a fun group of people to show that unique Bay Area blend of pretension and performative but well meaning (and often effective) activism.
KNIGHT: I think the cast is amazing. And it’s so fun to write this stuff, and then watch the actors take it and it becomes way more than it was on the page. It’s really fun to play in the world and expand beyond it, because it’s not just Keef’s story this season. It definitely expands out to the other characters.
THE BEAT: I noticed that you have a little bit more animation in the title credits, and showed Keef drawing a little bit more. Was that something conscious that you did?
KNIGHT: We did that early on, because it was important to show that he’s really dove into this, using his work and telling his story. It was important to establish that, mostly because he gets so involved in the celebrity of it that he gets away from it in the later episodes.
THE BEAT: Well, we’ve seen I’ve seen it happen in real life a few times, you know, our cartooning friends, the lure of what you were talking about, financial stability, and then fame, can be a dangerous path sometimes.
KNIGHT: What I love about cartooning is it’s such a solitary endeavor, and you are in control of the scripts, you’re in control of the scenes, you’re in control of everything. It’s the perfect balance to either playing in a band, which I did with The Marginal Prophets, or having a TV show, which is a complete collaborative effort. I would say that if I was in complete control of the show, it would be crap. All the creatives bring all their ideas to the show, and I just sit there, and think about all the steps from where it started to where it got to. This person wrote this joke off of this joke and someone said that this would be a great idea to do this visual. And then the actor took it and did all these different things that happened. It just makes me go, wow, man, this is so cool! It’s just great to bring an idea to the table, and then people just hop on it and just make it so much more than that. It’s a great balance to do both. I will never quit drawing — it’s the ultimate DIY thing, and has a budget of $1.50. You can create anything, that’s what I love about it. And, and that’s what brought me everything else. It’s a wonderful medium.
THE BEAT: You do all the drawing for the show also, right?
KNIGHT: I do almost all. What I was really excited about is there’s a caricature artist in the show that we meet in the first episode. And I got one of the first cartoonists I met in San Francisco, Jaime Crespo. I hit him up to do the art for this character. It’s so great to reach back and have him have him do it. It’s the same as having folks like Lonnie Millsap and Steve Notley up on the walls at the syndicate in the first season. Any opportunity I can get to have some of my peers in the show is great. It’s really fun to do.
THE BEAT: How long did you actually live in the Bay Area?
KNIGHT: Yeah, I lived in the Bay Area for 17 years.
THE BEAT: Had it gone all techie when you left?
KNIGHT: It was. That’s one of the reasons – listen, we left a three bedroom apartment that was rent controlled. I think I was paying $1400 for three bedrooms. It was just one of those things where The Marginal Prophets, my band, had stopped playing with original bands and started playing with really bad 70s cover bands that were just playing corporate stuff. And we just started to see the writing on the wall. People just leaving and moving and stuff. I didn’t want to be the bitter San Franciscan living 20 years later, still in their rent controlled apartment, sitting there, smoking really good pot saying “The Bay Area used to be a lot better!” [General laughter]
THE BEAT: The smartest person ever was Steve Leialoha. He used those Secret Wars royalties and bought a whole building. A very smart cartoonist.
KNIGHT: You know, there’s a quick reference to Trina Robbins in Season 2.
THE BEAT: I saw that actually when they are talking about cartoonists who have headlined protests, and they name drop a bunch and I thought “Robbins!” That’s so cool. Nice little nod to the to the local community. To wrap this up, Keith, what are you doing now? I’m sure you’re very busy, obviously promoting Woke, but what about what brought you to the dance? What are you doing publishing-wise right now?
KNIGHT: There are a couple of projects that I’m finally, hopefully, I’ll have a little more time to finish. I’m going to be dropping a new THINK book pretty soon, my single panels collection. But there are a couple of long gestating projects that I’m not going to mention right now, because I don’t want anybody else knowing if they don’t come out on time [laughs]. But I’m also gonna have a bunch of T-shirts, and new limited edition T-shirts and prints at WonderCon. Also the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco is doing a great exhibit of Woke props, and scripts and sketches, and my K Chronicles work. So I’m super excited to head out there and check that out.
See Keith Knight at WonderCon this weekend, or support him on Patreon, and check out Season 2 of Woke on April 8th o Hulu.