Lamorne Morris on How ‘Woke’ Turned Laughs into Lessons
The series lead explains how the dramedy used humor to deliver its timely message
2020 has been a year unlike any other. Expecting any show to be able to speak adequately to the trauma, tumult, and sheer unpredictability of our current moment would be a tall order. That, however, didn’t stop Woke from trying something bold. The timely dramedy centers on Keef, a Black cartoonist living in San Francisco whose career-changing big break is derailed after a violent encounter with the police sparks a racial awakening within him. Across eight episodes, Woke tracks Keef’s transformation from a peppy, if somewhat repressed, artist, climbing the career ranks to an adult grappling, for the first time, with all that it means to be a Black man living, loving, and creating in a structurally unjust world.
In Woke, laughs abound, but very real and very sober realities are never too far out of frame. I caught up with the show’s lead Lamorne Morris and asked him how he thought the show was able to achieve its dynamic tone.
This show bounces between very funny and hilarious. You have inanimate objects talking to you and saying funny things, but also scenes that are very serious and potentially traumatic even, for some people. How are you, as a lead, and your fellow actors trying to keep a balance in those scenes, where you maybe have both elements happening?
Honestly, there's a couple of ways to go about that. In acting, there's always this dance that you're doing. There's this musical dance and there's a rhythm about what you're doing. So even when you're doing something comedic in a very dark theme, as the performer, you have to police yourself a little bit to know, "Okay, this isn't one of those brightly lit slap-sticky moments." This is more subtle, the joke has to be undertone a bit to sell. And most of that is due to one, obviously, the actor has to be well-versed in that dance in order to do it, but also it’s up to the director. Maurice Marable, our director did a great job of blending the two. Even our guest director for a couple of episodes, Chioke Nassor did a really good job of that.
America has been grappling with issues of racialized violence, and racism in general for as long as it has existed. But this year in particular has brought up a lot of issues back to the surface that people are now talking about in a way that they probably weren't before. Was there ever a worry that a comedy speaking to issues of racism, and black and white dynamics might not be appropriate for the time? Like, is this going to fly?
I think at times, yes. You always want to do the best job you can with making your vision come true, with Keith Knight's story, something that he holds close to him.
You have to look at it from all sides. And I think, if there's a dramatic show, that's really preaching this thing that we are talking about and it's too dark or it's just dark in general, it'll be kind of typical. It will be, “We've heard it before” or “We've seen it before”, let's use humor to get people to actually focus and pay attention. You'll start laughing at something and then at the end of it, you go, "Oh, but I actually kind of learned something I guess, or maybe I didn't see it that way or from that perspective.” So you really need to use humor in order to get that messaging across.
This show brought together a cool mixture of actors and performers. Was there something different about this set and having this range of black actors who had various experiences?
Yeah, it was great. Sasheer Zamata, for example, comes from pretty much the same type of improv that I come from and where we can just play all day. And T. Murph has a standup comedy background. So he's never truly, truly acted before. And you couldn't tell when you watch the show because he's amazing, so that was fun. Just sitting down and kind of going back to my roots where I'm breaking down technical things for him and blocking and things like that, it was just kind of cool to see. But when the camera's rolling, that dude is on and him being a standup comedian, every once in a while he'll throw a joke out there that's so left-field and funny that you forget that type of funny exists sometimes.
Keef obviously makes this gradual transformation. I imagine, as an actor, it's hard to keep track of where this character is in his transformation throughout the show when you're filming. Did you develop any sort of system for that? To know how he should be talking in a scene or how should he be physically or how should he be dressing even?
Absolutely. Certain shows you can get away with not taking too many notes. Especially if you're shooting it in a more chronological way. But with this being out of sequence, we'd be shooting three episodes in advance and sometimes some scripts that we haven't even fully read yet with changes. So, I would go into it thinking one thing, and then it changes on the day of.
What you would have to do is get your notebook out and literally write down every single detail about that moment, that scene, the moments before, where you were, what you were feeling, what you're thinking. I write down music notes in my notebook as well so I can know what song I was listening to in my trailer, what mode I was put in. Sometimes some people go even as deep as remembering what coffee they had that day, it's just completely a case of putting yourself back in that entire environment. But we've also got continuity people on set that help us and guide us back to those particular places. So it's a team effort for that one, just to get yourself back into a certain mindset.
There was a very pretty clear inciting incident with Keef in the first season and it prompted all these questions for him that he hadn't quite considered before them this way and his life. And it's like "Oh, where do we go next?". Now that he has this power and he has this knowledge.
You're right. That inciting incident was so strong. But there are inciting incidents that are happening all around us. And San Francisco being the environment, it doesn't necessarily have to happen to Keef. And that doesn't actually mean anything actually has to happen. We could still live in this space knowing who our kids are.
If this is the inciting incident, it's the inciting incident for the series. And that PTSD that he's kind of going through? It's not something you'd get over quickly. And I'm anxious to see his journey of how he gets over it, or if he gets over it at all.
I wanted to talk a little bit about that final episode, “Blue Lies Matter,” where you have the beer with the cop who we learned was the cop who roughed Keith up in the first episode. People who are subject to police violence don't have this opportunity, typically, to stand face to face with the person who subjected them to this terrible thing. So I wonder what was your mindset in approaching that? Did you see it as a way for it to be cathartic or did you see it as something else?
When you do that scene there are a lot of script changes, a lot of line changes, a lot of different things that came out of it. When you're saying it and when you're delivering it, you do feel it, you feel it a little bit. So it does come out of you in such a way. And sometimes you have to even pull back and just remember you're acting to not let it get too furious inside of your bones, where you can't play. So cathartic in a way, for sure, but for me in the beginning, when I read it I just thought it would be more cathartic for others who had gone through it. Like one of those moments on TV, when you see it and you respond, "Yep, that's exactly what I'm saying”, “That's how I would do it”, "Man, just throw the beer in his face!” All these things.
One of my favorite episodes from the season is “Prayers for Kubby.” It’s an episode that skewers the way Americans can find relatively trivial things to become outraged about while ignoring more serious problems sitting right in front of them. Was there a real life analogue you guys were thinking about while making that episode?
Yeah. We were just thinking about all the times in history where we were told that like it's fine, the injustice that happens to people, it's just collateral damage. It's just par for the course.
When we were shooting that episode we were thinking about Harambe as compared to what was happening with every other black person, brown person that you see go through the things that they go through. Get killed, get beat up, all these things. And sometimes you go, "Where's the outrage for them?" and not until George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, it didn't feel like people were really paying attention and listening and looking at the hypocrisy of where their outrage was.
When there's a homeless guy on the bus and you roll your eyes at him cause he smells bad, it's like how can you possibly do that? Feel that way about people like that? But then have these marches and candlelight vigils for when something happened to an animal? Keep that same energy for the injustice of homelessness. Keep that same energy for the injustice of the rent being raised too high for people to afford it. Where is that outrage on that front? That's all we were going to say, was keep that energy when everything else that is going on around you as well.