That intense early scene sparks the central arc of the Hulu show “Woke,” which makes its debut Wednesday when all eight episodes drop. The irreverent half-hour comedy dramatizes and satirizes issues of race and racism that arise whether Keef is drawing, dating or just trying to “keep it light.” Even during moments featuring animation and puppetry, the character’s adventures are grounded in truth: “Woke” is a semi-autobiographical story based on the popular comics of the show’s co-creator, Keith Knight, including “The K Chronicles” and “Knight Life” strips that feature his cartoon persona and narrative alter ego, Keef.
Knight, the 54-year-old North Carolina cartoonist and multimedia artist, has worked on the show for four years — and has created comics about police brutality for more than two decades — to arrive at a place where his humor and messages can resonate as right on time for the current national conversation. Even the event that triggers Keef’s post-traumatic stress disorder is inspired by what Keith Knight experienced about 20 years ago.
Knight was distributing handbills just outside Golden Gate Park when he was stopped by the police officers, who told him he matched the description of a robbery suspect. What was the description? “A 6-foot Black male,” Knight says. That was it. Soon police cars were rolling up from several directions.
“Even when I was profiled, I was in more of a cartoonist mode, observing everything — the cars going by and people looking at me and trying to catch their eye,” Knight says last month by phone.
“Once the cops picked my number, it was jarring,” says Knight, then a rising San Francisco cartoonist and member of the hip-hop band the Marginal Prophets, about his sense of disbelief. “You almost want to say: ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ ”
In “Woke,” Keef’s White roomie, Gunther (played by Blake Anderson of “Workaholics”), pushes and shouts at police to defend his friend. Even in that moment, Keef “is not thinking: ‘Oh, this is a racially motivated thing.’ He’s still thinking: ‘Man, they got the wrong guy,’ ” says Lamorne Morris (“New Girl”), who stars as Keef.
“It’s when he sees how they [calmly] treat Gunther, the actual drug dealer, that he starts to go: ‘This is different — now I understand,’ ” continues Morris, noting that he has been racially profiled by police numerous times in his native Chicago, including once when he was slammed onto his car because the police didn’t believe he owned it.
In real life, Knight’s White roommate was on the bus when he spotted the cluster of cop cars. “He thought: ‘The SFPD is hassling another Black man.’ As he got closer, he was like: ‘Holy s—, that’s my Black man.’ He just jumped off the bus and got in their face,” says Knight, who remembers thinking: “How is he getting away with that?”
“Woke” soon plays the scene for a laugh, as Gunther boasts of how the two roomies showed the police what’s what (“I can’t believe they did us like that”). But on the show, as in real life, a Black cartoonist is set off on a consciousness-raising journey that challenges what he’ll choose to create.
At first, the art was without social message. Knight, who was born north of Boston, in Malden, drew his versions of Mad magazine-style cartoons when he was young. He also donned a sequin glove and worked as a teenage Michael Jackson impersonator, an experience he’s adapting into a graphic novel. And during his summer breaks from Salem State — where he had a comic strip — he worked as a caricature artist for hire at Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace.
When an artist friend said Knight should check out the scene in San Francisco, the cartoonist headed west after graduation, shortly after the Bay Area’s 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. “There was plenty of vacancies, and rent was low,” Knight says, “and you could put together a career in comics.”
Knight began to get noticed after he published a cartoon concert review of a Beastie Boys/Cypress Hill show. He embraced the city’s indie comics community and was inspired to document aspects of his life in “The K Chronicles,” including such themes as sex, drugs and music.
“I would do a cartoon about race or racism, and then three about other things,” Knight says. But the cartoonist started reversing that ratio, especially after being profiled. “It was unique and I was not seeing it anywhere,” he says. “That got me to where I am.”
Still, Knight didn’t want to become pigeonholed as drawing exclusively about Black themes. “I would only get hired in February during Black History Month,” he recalls. “So I would do the gig on time, do the invoice, cash the check and then say: ‘Thanks for hiring me. I also work the other 11 months of the year.’ ”
Knight creatively reveled in the Bay Area of that era. He gained readership and performed with his hip-hop act, once even appearing in a nude band show at the Fillmore. And after his police incident, his public art grew more provocative.
One inspiration was to put up posters around the city that said, “Black People for Rent,” along with a phone number — an experiment depicted in “Woke” as an eye-opening moment for Keef. “I never wanted to give away that it wasn’t a real thing,” Knight says. “There were people who got it [as satiric commentary]. Some people who didn’t get it — there were people who were racist who called.” Even the San Francisco Chronicle called.
“But the biggest thing was, there were black people calling for work,” says Knight, who saw how his art might challenge stereotypes. He realized about his work: “This is more than a comic.”
Knight says he laughs whenever people remark that the timing of “Woke’s” release is uncanny. “That’s White people saying that,” the creator says. “Black people say, ‘What took you so long?’ ”
“Racism,” he says, “is evergreen.”
Knight began drawing overt political commentary in his feature “(Th)ink” two decades ago, and in 2008 launched his daily strip, “The Knight Life,” which he says ended up proving to Hollywood that he could maintain the long-term writing of characters within a comedy. His pitch for “Woke” got a green light in 2016.
“I don’t see the show as this super-deep thing,” Knight says of “Woke,” which also stars Sasheer Zamata, T. Murph and Rose McIver, and features such voices as JB Smoove (as Keef’s talking pen) and Cedric the Entertainer. “It’s one person’s journey, and we wouldn’t have called it ‘Woke’ if we weren’t making fun of the idea of it, because there are a lot of people who roll their eyes at the term.”
“‘Woke’ is one of those loaded terms that’s like: ‘Oh, I know what that means,’ ” says the show’s co-creator, Marshall Todd (“Barbershop”). “But ask 100 people and it means 100 different things.” Instead, Todd says, “Keef’s ‘woke’ journey is unique to him,” as the show’s cartoonist grows uneasy about syndicating a goofy and milquetoast comic strip, when he could be creating art that authentically reflects his experience as a Black man in America.
One honor Knight finds most meaningful is an NAACP History Maker Award for his police-brutality cartoons — included in such one-man slide-show presentations as “They Shoot Black People, Don’t They?” — that use humor to spark dialogue about racism. In one “K Chronicles” strip about violent force, a White officer tells a Black character that he could avoid such “situations if you would just lighten up!!” The cartoonist says “Woke” takes a similar approach, combining the serious and the absurd.
Knight feels fortunate to have a new show during this cultural reckoning, but he also realizes the weight of that responsibility. “Right now, Black creators are having a moment — the doors are open again and people [of color] are getting in right now,” he says. “But it’s going to take two flops by Black creators for the door to close again. We just wanted to make sure we weren’t one of those flops.”
He wants viewers to understand, too, that “Woke” isn’t aiming to be a game-changer on a large social scale.
“I’m dipping your toe in the water,” says Knight from his Carrboro home near Chapel Hill, where he lives with his wife, German-born illustrator Kerstin Konietzka-Knight, and their two sons. “Depending on how much it means to you, take a deeper dive into all this stuff that we’re talking about,” historically and systemically. The artist refers to getting beneath pop culture-level history as “digging the crates,” as one might do in a vinyl record shop.
“We did it,” he says of the show, “because we wanted to make people laugh first, make people think and just make people want to do something.”