By Charles Lewis III
Bay City News Foundation
Aside from the late Morrie Turner (creator of “Wee Pals”), there haven’t been many nationally syndicated Black cartoonists, let alone those who boast of their Bay Area roots.
Luckily for local Gen Xers and millennials, we have Keith Knight to brag about.
The Massachusetts-born artist made a name for himself in the 1990s and 2000s as the award-winning creator of “The K Chronicles” (his semi-autobiographical strip) and “(Th)ink” (his single-panel political satire). With his distinctive Sharpie-pen style, the man affectionately known as “Keef” hilariously broached topics of race, gender, class, pop culture, and life in San Francisco — and that’s when he wasn’t one half of the hip-hop duo The Marginal Prophets.
As recognition grew, Knight’s work inevitably drew comparisons to that other Black-created strip skewering the Bush administration: Aaron McGruder’s “The Boondocks.” Knight made a running joke out of frequently being mistaken for McGruder at appearances, often referring to himself as “The Other Black Cartoonist” and facetiously daring fans to mistake McGruder for him, rather than the other way around. (McGruder would write the intro to the Knight’s 2005 compendium “The Passion of the Keef.”)
Race and San Francisco are once again central topics in Knight’s newest venture, the TV series Woke, which premieres on Hulu next month. Inspired by its creator’s own experience with racial profiling, the show focuses on Keef Knight (Lamorne Morris), a Black cartoonist in San Francisco who — despite an intentionally non-confrontational demeanor — finds himself assaulted by armed members of the San Francisco Police Department.
In the aftermath, Keef suddenly becomes aware of inanimate objects speaking to him and educating him on the racism he tried to ignore. Keef has become “woke.”
With the premiere less than a month away, I was able to catch a quick word with the real Keef to ask about the show’s inspiration and the importance of its Bay Area setting.
Obvious question out of the way first: How have you and your family been keeping sane in a world gone topsy-turvy?
Keith Knight: Just like every other family, we’re just trying to make it work – though, we were already home schooling, so we kinda had a head start on it. We were very fortunate, because we finished shooting the season by Feb. 28 of this year – I think things shut down about a week after that? I was able to get paid for finishing the show, and for a few my antiracist comic strip slideshows I did during the month of February.
-Seeing as how the show’s main character is named “Keef Knight,” what made you use yourself and your life story for your first major live-action work?
Knight: That’s what sold! I’ve been doing my auto-bio comic strip for over 25 years. That’s a lot of I.P. [intellectual property]. They dug the stories I told. We named the character “Keef” in the show to differentiate.
-Even with the show being live-action, animation plays a major role in Keef’s new outlook. Did you consider going fully animated? Do you think the show’s animators do your marker justice?
Knight: When I first thought about pitching the show, a friend and mentor suggested I pitch a live-action show, because fewer networks were into buying animated shows. Pitching it as a live-action show gave it a better shot at selling. I think the animators [Stoopid Buddy Studios in Los Angeles] did a wonderful job. The animation manifests itself in so many different ways, and SBS was up to the task.
-To you, what is it about Lamorne Morris that says, “Yeah, this guy is Keef”?
Knight: Lamorne is very likable, and very amiable. He’s funny, and he’s got great acting chops. This is his chance to shine and show amazing range as an actor. We shared similar stories that are reflected in my cartoon “One Black Kid.”
-On the show, Keef has his epiphany after being harassed by cops. It’s tempting to say it makes the show incredibly timely, but Black folks know this is nothing new. Do you think the events of 2020 make the world more or less “ready” for a show like this?
Knight: More ready. This show is right on time, despite focusing on something that happened to me 20 years ago.
-Sweeping shots of S.F. appear in the trailers and one of the episodes is titled “Oakland Get Down.” Why set it here instead of the other places you’ve lived (Massachusetts, North Carolina)?
Knight: San Francisco was where I made my name as a cartoonist. It was and will always be my favorite city to live in. I met my wife here. Played naked at the Fillmore. And it’s where the cops profiled me while I was posting fliers for my band in the Richmond District.
-I have to ask: Is the show actually shot here or in Canada?
Knight: Sadly, we couldn’t afford to shoot here. It was shot in Vancouver.
-Given the show’s basis in your own life, will there be a version of the Marginal Prophets or your “evil” twin sister?
Knight: There is some Prophets music in the show. And if you look closely, some fliers here and there.
-One would be remiss not to notice that this is a Black-centered series premiering soon after Hulu canceled its last one, “High Fidelity” — especially since that show’s star, Zoe Kravitz, called out the company for its lack of diverse programming. What’s been your experience working with Hulu?
Knight: There was some mild interest from others, but Hulu came in hot from the start. Hulu’s been great to work with. We had a very diverse writers room, a Black casting director, Black directors, and so many people went out of their way to make sure my voice was a strong part of it.
-Given all the variety in the age of “peak TV,” do you see “Woke” as a one-season story or have you already started brainstorming for a possible second?
Knight: I have some great ideas for a second season, if we’re lucky enough to get the go-ahead.
-Your current home of North Carolina recently saw an influx of mail-in ballots with President Donald Trump’s face on them. As an illustrator yourself, what would you have drawn instead?
Knight: I just saw those! This guy is truly an asshole. North Carolina is the farm league for GOP shenanigans. If they can get away with it in N.C., they introduce nationwide months later. I would draw blood. [As in, the illustration of blood.]
-And finally, do people ever still mistake you for Aaron McGruder?
Knight: Are you kidding me? It’s time for folks to go up to him and ask if he’s Keith Knight!
The entire first eight-episode season of “Woke” premieres Sept. 9 exclusively on Hulu. The series was created by Keith Knight and Marshall Todd, and stars Lamorne Morris, Blake Anderson, T. Murph, Rose McIver and Sasheer Zamata.
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theater artist and arts critic. He’s online at TheThinkingMansIdiot.wordpress.com.