Keith Knight

The views and opinions expressed by speakers and presenters in connection with Art Restart are their own, and not an endorsement by the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts and the UNC School of the Arts.

Keith Knight is currently busy writing the second season of “Woke,” the hit show on Hulu that he co-created and co-produces. “Woke” follows a cartoonist named Keef Knight who after a startling assault by a policeman discovers that inanimate objects start speaking to him. In brutally funny ways, these objects, as well as Keef’s human friends, open his eyes to the pressing social issues his art has yet to address.  

The show is clearly semi-autobiographical, but there’s no question that the real Keith Knight has been socially and politically aware decades longer than his TV creation. Since the early 1990s, he has been creating razor-witted comic strips that regularly tackle such issues as systemic racism and police brutality. His work, including the popular comic series “The K Chronicles,” “th(ink)” and “The Knight Life,” has been seen in newspapers and web outlets all over the country. In 2007 he received a Harvey Kurzman Award for “The K Chronicles”; in 2010 he received an Inkpot Award for career achievement at the San Diego Comic-Con; and in 2015 the NAACP honored him with a History Maker award in recognition of the impact of his body of work.

In this interview with Rob Kramer and Pier Carlo Talenti, Keith reveals how he has navigated a number of unexpected obstacles — from the shrinking of traditional newspaper outlets to the COVID-19 lockdown — to stay on his toes and shape his remarkable career.

Choose a question below to begin exploring the interview:

Pier Carlo Talenti: Can you describe navigating the complexities of all of 2020 for us?

Keith Knight: It’s sort of wild because basically we finished shooting season one by the end of February of 2020. Then we flew home, and a week later everything just sort of shut down. And we were just like, “Oh my goodness, we really dodged a bullet.” 

There was some transition in doing post-production at home. I think all the editors had to have the equipment shipped to their homes. And we had to do a lot of post-production where the voice talent had to set up stuff at home. They’d have stuff shipped to them that was wrapped in plastic and disinfected, and then they recorded their voices at home while they were directed online. So there were all these types of things like that. We had to get used to the Zoom room for editing. But yeah, essentially, [laughing] we continued to get paid. 

Being stuck at home as a cartoonist is sort of what we do anyway, so it’s like, “Oh, OK. So I have to just sit at home and draw?” Also at the same time we homeschool our kids, so that was already happening. And the boys, they went out in the back — we have a really cool neighbor who is into biking — and they built a bike track in our yard and the neighbor’s yard.

The toughest part was navigating the neighbors. Some of them were bent out of shape because our kids were out biking in the back, having a good time, and their kids were saying, “Why can’t I join them on the bike track?” So that was kind of weird. But other than that, we were very, very fortunate.

Pier Carlo: The inciting incident of the first season of “Woke” is, of course, a moment of police violence. George Floyd was murdered in the spring. What was it like to watch these protests erupt when you’d already wrapped up your first season?

Keith: Honestly, I remember calling up everybody, being on a group call, and saying, “Our first season is going to play out in front of our eyes over the summer.” I just kept on pushing. I think the season was supposed to drop in November, and I said, “We have to put this out earlier. It’s super-important. Considering everything that’s going on, let’s see if we could push them to put it out earlier.” And thankfully they listened to us, and they put it out in September.

So many journalists ask me, 'How did you time this so perfectly?' And I say the same stock answer, which is, racism and police brutality is evergreen.

It’s interesting. So many journalists ask me, “How did you time this so perfectly?” And I say the same stock answer, which is, racism and police brutality is evergreen. If this came out 20 years ago, it would’ve felt like it was right on time, because it would have been like, “Oh, this is just after this killing” or “This was after this incident.” Ten years from now, it’s going to be relevant, because the same thing’s going to be happening.

The founding of the police. They were developed from slave patrols, poor whites that were hired to keep the Black community in check, to chase down slaves. This is what the police department does today. And it has not changed. Until we acknowledge that’s what it’s founded on, there won’t be an effort to make fundamental change. But we have to acknowledge that first. I’m sure that that is not taught at the academy. 

George Floyd, I think, was a combination of this egregious thing happening and it could not be denied in any way, shape or form. But it also was part of … most people could not go to work and forget about it. They were stuck at home. They couldn’t go outside and get rid of the thought of it. They had to stare it in the face for a very long time, for almost nine minutes. Then this anger, this frustration of being cooped up, just burst out onto the streets. 

I think the success of the show has as much to do with that, but also it has to do with people looking for content because they probably watched everything they could watch throughout the summer. And a lot of production shut down so there was barely anything new coming out. We were just fortunate with very unfortunate circumstances.

Rob: Hopefully our country is finally grappling with some overdue systemic change. As you reflect back on your career as an artist, have there been other moments or times where you can identify moments of systemic change? How did you experience it? Did it help or hinder your work?

Keith: Yeah, certainly so. I’ve been doing it long enough to see ... . I remember when I first started out, when I sent out my comics to newspapers, I had to mail them to the newspapers. I had to make copies and mail them. 

Pier Carlo: With a self-addressed, stamped return envelope, probably, right?

Keith: Exactly. Exactly. [Laughing] And there were times when I had to do a lot of overnight packages. The internet was this amazing … well, scanning and sending was this amazing thing. I would say Photoshop was a wonderful, great thing to make everything easier with mistakes and fixing up your comics on the computer, but then the internet, sending it overnight, was this huge thing. 

But then, of course, the internet sort of destroyed the alt-weekly industry. Well, destroyed the newspaper industry. I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of that. I would say I was part of the last wave of alt-weekly newspaper cartoonists that flourished in the ’90s. Being in San Francisco at the time, you saw the writing on the wall, so I knew then I had to diversify how I made money. That’s when I started developing my slideshows. 

I started doing slideshow presentations at colleges, at high schools, in the workplace. I realized that really to me that was the perfect combination, because I love performing. I don’t like sitting by myself in a hole and drawing cartoons. That’s why I draw a lot of my cartoons at cafes, because the energy of human beings helps me write the comics. 

Doing those slideshows, I’ve been super fortunate. I’ve always done a lot of stuff on police brutality and race issues, but the —

Pier Carlo: Can you describe a slideshow? 

Keith: I basically call it standup comedy with visuals. No one expects me to be funny, especially with the subject matter, but I realized early on that I had to be funny too, otherwise it would be a big downer. I mean, my first few slideshows were brutal. I would just show pictures of police-brutality victims. I remember saying, halfway through, “Oh my God, this is a downer.” [He laughs.]

Rob: How were you able to dance through that and make it work?

Keith: You just got to make people laugh. You got to set people up. I’d have a few to make people laugh, and then I’d punch them in the face. You tickle, tickle, punch, tickle, tickle, tickle, punch, punch, punch. Just balance that. 

And that’s another big transition: What happens in the time of COVID? I had always thought about developing a virtual slideshow, but I was forced to do it. Because of that, I’ve been able to do it for a lot of places that probably couldn’t afford to bring me out to where they’re at but could pay me enough to do the slideshow.

I’m actually doing a slideshow on Friday for the Civil Rights Museum in Atlanta. And that’s another big transition: What happens in the time of COVID? I had always thought about developing a virtual slideshow, but I was forced to do it. Because of that, I’ve been able to do it for a lot of places that probably couldn’t afford to bring me out to where they’re at but could pay me enough to do the slideshow.

I do multi-panel comics. At first I would put the whole comic on a screen at the same time. It was Dave Eggers, the writer, who’s a friend of mine, who said to me, “You should break those panels up. That way you can time them when people are laughing.” I think that was a huge thing, because then you can control the pace. It’s all about timing and with the humor aspect.

So that changed everything. He actually took me on tour. We did this really cool tour called “McSweeney’s vs They Might Be Giants.” A performer would do their thing, and then They Might Be Giants would play a song. It was like They Might Be Giants was the house band. It was really fun. We were playing thousand-seat theaters and stuff. It was really trial by fire just doing that, and then it just became easy to do these, whatever, 1,000 or 500 people in an auditorium.

Pier Carlo: You are the first cartoonist we’ve had on the podcast, which is exciting for us, but it also means we know very little about how that world works. At this point, you’re — I don’t want to call you an elder; I don’t want to be insulting — but you are a veteran of the industry, right?

Keith: [Laughing] Oh yeah. I am the old man at the Con.

Rob: Veteran. Good word! Good save, Pier Carlo.

Pier Carlo: Veteran’s better than elder, yes. As you said, you had to come up with a new way to make an income through your art when editorial cartooning was getting close to being moribund. So what needs to happen so that more talented cartoonists have a way to reach an interested audience?

Keith: Well, the next big transition was when newspapers fell apart. You just had to last long enough on the internet until the internet figured out how to make money, like what was the new income way to make money for creators, for cartoonists. And places like Patreon came to be. 

Before that, I just remember a bunch of alt-weekly cartoonists were like, “OK, I’m going to set up a thing on MailChimp. It’s going to be a newsletter and people can subscribe to the newsletter, and then they’ll get the comic before it hits the papers and some commentary and stuff like that.” So we all did that. We all did that. And I still have that.

I put together this newsletter every few weeks that has all the cartoons in it but also commentary, where I’ll be doing my slideshows and where you can find them online. Or interviews. Also some behind-the-scenes photos from “Woke” and different things like that. So people subscribe that way, but also Patreon came about.

I remember, there was this moment in DC, there was a convention of editorial cartoonists, and I was super-excited to go. I was like, “Oh, man, I’m going to learn all this stuff from my elders!” I walk into the lobby where everyone’s having drinks, and all these older guys come over to me and they say, “Keith Knight, how do you do what you do? Because we’re all getting fired. We’re all getting laid off from our jobs that we’ve had for 25, 30 years. I don’t even know how to do Photoshop.” They would just draw their cartoons, give it to an assistant, and that was it. And suddenly they found themselves scrambling, scrambling to figure out this new paradigm. And I was just like [laughing], “Oh no, they are turning to me.”

It was at that moment that I was like, 'You know what? I got to stop listening to people older than me and start listening to people younger than me.' And that was a huge thing.

It was at that moment that I was like, “You know what? I got to stop listening to people older than me and start listening to people younger than me.” And that was a huge thing. That was a huge thing. I just remember someone telling me about Patreon, just like, “Keith, I think this is something that you would really be good at.” Patreon had just started, and so I signed up right away. But the wild thing is, I signed up right away and didn’t do anything with it. I signed up and that was it. 

But then like three or four months later, I saw somebody was making like $9,000 a month on it. And I was like, “Oh no!” I was like, “Are you kidding me?” But the difference was they weren’t doing political cartoons; they weren’t alienating half the audience. So I knew I couldn’t do that. I knew I couldn’t do $9,000 a month, but I knew that I could make up for a lot of the papers that I had lost.

So I got to it, and it’s been a godsend. Patreon is as close to a universal basic income for an artist as you can get without something being a blatant universal basic income, which places are starting to do now, places like San Francisco. I think I have close to 700 supporters, and it’s $3,500 a month. That’s been such a wonderful thing. I think they see my success as one of the things that they want to put forward. They’re always asking me to do other things.

Pier Carlo: You mean Patreon or your supporters?

Keith: Patreon. Which is great, because the high-profile things that they have me do, I pick up more supporters, and it provides more opportunities. It was that move on Patreon. And also my wife and I moved from San Francisco to L.A. I was like, “I have to go try to get this developed for television.” That was the big thing, to leave San Francisco after 16 years, but I was getting that feeling.

I was in my apartment for 15 years and we had great rent control, and I just had this bad feeling of me turning into the bitter, angry old San Franciscan who’s like, “Man, the city used to be cool before the tech people came.” That type of thing. So we got out, and I think it was the best move, as much as I love the city and I’ll always love the city and feel like it’s as much a home to this day as it was when I was there. But I just felt like I had to leave it to succeed.

Los Angeles, you have to be there. Even though I didn’t get the deal until I moved to North Carolina, you have to put in the time there, the schmoozy time to meet people and figure out who is going to work for you. And you have to make mistakes and do all that stuff. When we left to move to North Carolina, I felt comfortable going, “OK, the idea for the project, it’s in good hands.”

Pier Carlo: Oh, so the groundwork was laid by the time you left L.A.

Keith: Exactly. There were producers. Essentially, I found this very young, green, eager producer who was just smart and energetic and really cool. He started working for an actor who’d just started his production company, Eric Christian Olsen from “NCIS: Los Angeles.” He plays Deeks. He plays the cool white guy on “NCIS: L.A.,” and his dad is a retired African American literature professor, I think. He showed his dad my work, and he just said, “My dad said this is the most important project you will ever work on. Don’t screw it up.”

Once I had him in my corner, he just made things happen. They all did. He brought it to Olive Bridge — this is the bigger production company — and Olive Bridge had a deal with Sony. Sony was like, “Yeah, let’s put a pitch together and take this out,” and they set us up with HBO, Amazon, Netflix, Showtime and Hulu. And so I went out and pitched it. They paired me up with an experienced writer. We pitched the concept of this incident happening and triggering this animation, the inanimate objects starting to come to life. They totally dug it, and it just went from there.

Rob: For other cartoonists who may be thinking about broadening themselves, what was that pivot like for you from the routine you’d gotten comfortable with to suddenly moving into the television world?

Keith: It’s really interesting, because there’s a couple of things that set me up for it. I was in a band when I was in San Francisco. Being in a band and being a cartoonist was such a great balance. Being a cartoonist, you do everything by yourself, right? The idea, you develop all this different stuff, and blah, blah, blah, you’re in complete control. Being in a band, you come in with an idea and there’s all these other entities that take that idea, and hopefully they take it and they add to it and make it something that you just couldn’t have done by yourself. And hopefully you just truly dig it. 

I think that’s what working on a television show is like, which is, you have these particular ideas of what you want it to be like but then all these people add so much more to it that it becomes far more interesting than you could ever make it.

I think that’s what working on a television show is like, which is, you have these particular ideas of what you want it to be like but then all these people add so much more to it that it becomes far more interesting than you could ever make it. It was a wonderful experience.

Sometimes it’s tough, especially in the writers’ room, when people are suggesting things, but you’ve got to let those things come out. But it’s tough when the character’s named after you. [He laughs.] There’s a lot of therapy that needs to happen after all this is done.

But it was just an amazing experience. The director Mo Marable, who’s just amazing, came in and said, “I don’t think the innovation should be 2-D. I think it should be of the world. It should be puppetry.” He brought this surreal take on stuff, which I think was the special sauce that really elevated the project. Then what the actors brought to it was amazing. 

And then the music. I helped work on the music with the co-creator, Marshall Todd. We worked with Issa Rae’s company called Raedio, and they were just really great at ... . We really wanted to just have all types of music in it, and they were just great at what they brought to it. Stanley Clark created music for it too.

I wanted to have a hand in a lot of the stuff, so I was in the writers’ room; I was on the sets; I did a lot of the artwork for the show; and picked out costumes and picked locations. So just every aspect of it; I wanted to know all about it. My management was telling me, “Just learn how to do all of it or observe it, because this is what you want to do: You want to produce this stuff.” It was just a wonderful experience.

And my advice to cartoonists is, hold onto the rights of your stuff. There was a big moment ... . This is another transitional moment. I had an early development deal with Nickelodeon. And my first publisher was saying, “Well, they have to come through me. They have to make a deal through me, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And I was like, “Ooh.” After that experience, I just went to them and said, “I want the rights to my work back.” It was a lot of going back and forth and a lot of negotiation. I basically bought my rights back 20 years ago. 

Pier Carlo: Wow, because that’s something that Keef in this series, at least in the first season, doesn’t get to do. He loses control of his material.

Keith: Yeah. And I think that’s going to bite him in his rear end at some point. I think that’s really the difference. The character is sort of the Charlie Brown of activism, so he’s trying to do the right thing, but he’s screwing up the whole way. And I think that’s the thing that makes him the character that the audience goes on the trip with. There’ll be a lot more of that in season two.

Pier Carlo: So now that you have a lot of producing experience on this show and as you’re looking forward over the next few years, in addition to doing additional seasons of “Woke,” what else do you think you have on the horizon for yourself professionally?

Keith: Oh, wow, I definitely have four or five more projects that I would love to try to get produced.

Pier Carlo: All television?

Keith: No, television and film — some of it reality, some of it scripted, some of it comedy, some of it political satire — but all of it with that flavor that I think runs through my work, which is serious issues but done with humor, smart humor and dumb humor.

I hope to do more slideshows and do them live. This has been nice, doing the virtual slideshows, but nothing beats being there in person and hearing stories of people and just that one-on-one, doing signings, and talking with folks, just learning about communities. Because every community has the same story, and everyone comes with just a similar story. There are always people that come up and go, “Wow, I never realized, but this particular part of town has traditionally been the worst part of town, and this is where the Black community is.”

I tell people about how essentially back in the day the government offered people home loans, cheap home loans, to get their first homes, and they didn’t offer them to Black people. And all the red-lining and all that type of stuff. People just don’t know any of this stuff. I talk about the insurrection in Wilmington, NC. And I talk about how slavery was outlawed, but it wasn’t. The one time it is legal is when you put people in prison, and so as long as you put people in prison, you can make them slaves. It’s a lot of stuff that people should know. It’s a lot of stuff that makes total sense when people hear it.

Unfortunately there are a lot of people who don’t want to hear it. But those type of messages, the slideshows that I do, give me a sense of purpose that no other thing does.

Pier Carlo: And of course, as the great comics and cartoonists in the past have taught us, the best way to get a message across to somebody who may not be ready to hear it is humor, right?

I always say we’re the court jesters and we speak truth to power in ways that others can’t.

Keith: Totally. I always say we’re the court jesters and we speak truth to power in ways that others can’t. We sit there and go, “It’s just a comic, it’s just a cartoon,” but we are informing people. And that’s one of the neat things too. Every year I get asked to license my comics for textbooks, [laughing] generally not out of Texas but out of Cambridge, MA. There are so many opportunities for cartoonists that I think a lot of folks don’t realize.

May 17, 2021