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Lamorne Morris Is Waking Up

With his new Hulu show ‘Woke,’ the former ‘New Girl’ goofball wants to have a conversation with you about racism. He’s brought puppets.

Adam Villacin

These things happen all the time, he says. We all know that now. But there’s still one that stands out to Lamorne Morris. One that still lingers. You never forget your first time, unfortunately.

It was 2005, years before he would play Winston Bishop on New Girl. Morris was taking improvisation classes at Chicago’s famed Second City, one of America’s premier breeding grounds for comedic talent.

“I was with a buddy of mine. In Second City, you had to dress up when you did the shows: blazer, pants, button-up, tie. That kind of thing. And I remember we were walking on the street,” he says. “I’m about to put the key in the [car] door and the police pull up. Guns drawn, and they tell us to get on the car.”

The two police officers searched him and his friend. Morris’s girlfriend at the time was a white, Jewish woman. They didn’t cuff her. They just asked her whose car it was. She kept trying to tell them.

“She was crying going, ‘It’s his car, what are you doing? It’s his car,’” he remembers. “And he was like, ‘Ma’am, are you OK?’ She’s like, ‘I’m OK. I’m telling you, that’s his car. That’s my boyfriend. That’s his friend. What are you doing? We’re leaving Second City, we’re doing a show.’”

There were two officers that day. Morris thinks the younger one may have been a rookie. It may have all just been a training exercise at their expense. Just a hunch, but it’s not like either of the officers were that forthcoming. “[The older cop] was telling the younger cop how to kick my legs apart, and how to search to make sure I had nothing on me,” he says. “When it was all over, one of the officers said ‘We had some car break-ins in the neighborhood so ... all right.’ And then they just walked away, got in their cars and drove off.”

Morris told his brother about it right away. “And my brother goes, ‘Oh yeah, that happened to me the other day when I was leaving your apartment.’”

These things happen all the time, he says. A few days before his encounter with the police, Morris had a party at his house, and as his brother and cousins were leaving, a police officer drew their gun on them and told them all to get on the ground. His brother asked “But why? Can you just at least tell us why?” Morris tells me. “But my cousins are facedown already saying, ‘Get on the ground, what are you doing?’ Like, ‘This happens all the time, just do it.’”

I can hear the resigned tone of his voice as he recounts the incident from his home in Los Angeles. “It becomes a trained response when you see the police, to know the procedure and just get on the ground,” Morris says, “and obviously, as we see it with what’s happening in our world now, even that doesn’t work.”

Morris had mixed interactions with the police since that night in 2005. He was handcuffed last year for videotaping the police as they arrested his friend, who had been punched at a nightclub. Once, he was pulled over for speeding and his entire car was searched. “Why are you in my trunk? Why are you searching my dashboard? Stuff like that is annoying, but …”

He lets the thought linger for a second. Of course, it could have all been so much worse. The systemic violence and harassment of Black people at the hands of the police is nothing new. It’s been around as long as America has. But the idea that this isn’t something people should be used to? That we finally need to talk about it and keep talking about it, even if it makes us uncomfortable? Well, that is new.

In Woke, a new Hulu sitcom that premieres on Wednesday, Morris stars as Keef, an apolitical cartoonist who is about to have his milquetoast strip “Toast and Butter” syndicated. But after getting assaulted by the police, he begins receiving messages from the universe (via talking beer bottles, trash cans, buildings, and other inanimate objects that normally don’t speak) that nag him into using his talents to speak out against systemic racism.

This is the sort of show that would have been unthinkable even five years ago. While public opinion has shifted so drastically in favor of Black Lives Matter that The New York Times reported this June that “by a 28-point margin … a majority of American voters support the movement, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began,” in 2016 the movement was so controversial that protesters regularly accused Hillary Clinton of not truly listening to their concerns during her presidential campaign. Colin Kaepernick was virtually driven out of the NFL for protesting police brutality in 2016; this year, the league will paint “End Racism” in the end zones. So for Woke to arrive this year, at the end of this summer, when the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of the police has begun to spark a long-overdue national conversation about white supremacy and the out-of-control police state? Well, no one is more surprised about the timing than Morris.

“It’s crazy, the shift that has happened in our country, just people being aware. I think a lot of times, maybe people were either in denial or didn’t care, but then now when it’s out there, people are genuinely aware and people care about it, and I feel the conversations that are happening are very productive, whether someone takes your stance politically or not,” he says. “And a show like this, I think, just mirrors the times that we’re in. It mirrors the times that we’ve always been in.”

Lamorne Morris and Blake Anderson in ‘Woke’

After New Girl ended in 2018, Morris decided he’d focus on film for a while, appearing in Jumanji: The Next Level and the Netflix comedy Desperados. But eventually, he began to miss life on a TV set. “I do love spending a lot of time with cast members and getting to know people and playing with the same character over a good period of time.” He asked his agents to send him TV scripts. “All very funny stuff,” he remembers, “but not necessarily saying anything.”

That changed when he read the script for Woke, which is cocreated by and based on the life of the cartoonist Keith Knight, known for the syndicated comic strips “(Th)ink” and the Harvey Kurtzman Award–winning “The K Chronicles.” Having worked since the early ’90s, he’s a bit of a big deal in the underground comic scene, but don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard of him.

“I’d never heard of him before, and once I met him and told my friends about who I met, they knew his work, I was embarrassed that I had never heard of him before. So I dove into his comic strips and the books that he has out. He’s a brilliant dude,” Woke cocreator Marshall Todd says. “But beyond that, we seem to share a brain. … It was the easiest collaboration I’ve ever been associated with.”

Infused with the casually radical politics long associated with the Bay Area, Woke is a sui generis show that defies easy categorization. Picture Boots Riley directing an episode of Bryan Fuller’s cultishly adored Wonderfalls, or perhaps an episode of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and you’re getting close. It’s the sort of weird show that the streaming revolution was designed to nurture, something that even a decade ago would have seemed too niche, too hot, for the mainstream.

But now, Woke is increasingly feeling like a show everyone needs to see, whether they like it or not. Knight and Todd aren’t afraid to jab their fingers directly into the soft underbelly of everything a certain type of white person would like to pretend isn’t there. But they’d also like it if you laughed while they poked.

“I think for Keith especially, it was important for him that it stay funny. A lot of half hours back their way into half-hour drama, and Keith’s vision was always, ‘No matter what we say and what we do, no matter how heavy it is, we must be funny. Because that sells what we’re pushing easier.’ And so that was the mandate,” Todd says. “That we have a situation that’s technically not funny, but we’re gonna find the humor in it, wherever it is.”

Todd credits the pilot director, Maurice “Mo” Marable, for pushing him and Knight away from relying strictly on animation, and instead exploring a more tactile approach. “Mo came in and was like, ‘Fuck that. We need puppets, we need 3D things that share his world, that are in his space, and we could animate on top of it.’” The talkative detritus is animated by Stoopid Buddy Stoodios (best known for Robot Chicken) and voiced by comedy ringers such as Cedric the Entertainer, J.B. Smoove, and Nicole Byer. While “understated” isn’t quite the correct term, the sight of Morris conversing with an actual trash can gives the surreal nature of Woke a lived-in feeling that ultimately only makes everything even stranger. But none of it would work without Morris.

“As written, Keef was really passive and Lamorne injected Keef with a certain amount of naivete, but also self-assuredness,” Todd says. “That made the character more dimensional. Lamorne came in and brought a hipness and a certain humor to it that fills the character out in ways that we didn’t foresee.”

Surrounded by a cast that includes newcomer (and scene-stealer) T. Murph, Saturday Night Live alumna Sasheer Zamata, and Workaholics star Blake Anderson, Morris is enjoying being a leading man, even as it takes some getting used to. “It definitely feels great, and I definitely now feel for Zooey [Deschanel] on New Girl, ’cause she had a lot of heavy lifting to do and for seven years she got to do it. It’s a grind,” he says. He credits castmate Rose McIver, best known for iZombie and The Christmas Prince trilogy, for helping him level up. “We were working late hours, really, really late hours, and I’m pretty much in every scene, so when we had our work together, she would encourage me: ‘I know you’re tired, but you have to prep for tomorrow.’ That’s part of being a lead.”

It’s debatable, the extent to which the old adage “timing is everything” is true. But timing is certainly not nothing, even if it’s nothing you can truly control. But some topics are depressingly, frustratingly timeless. Woke was shot before the COVID-instigated shutdown, and Todd remembers talking to Knight about the timely nature of their show earlier this year, and his belief that “It’s evergreen for us. But as far as it being in the public consciousness, in the forefront, maybe this is last year’s news.” “And Keith actually said to me, ‘No. By the time the show premieres, two or three more Black people are gonna die at the hands of cops because it always happens. It’s an ongoing thing,’” he says. “And sure enough, George Floyd happened. And so, although we shot the show last year, post-George Floyd our show became truly, truly of the moment.”

It’s not the sort of timing you can plan for, or even know how to feel about it. “It’s fucked up is what it is,” Todd adds. “I think the fear is that ... it’s OK for us to be of the moment. I don’t want us to come off as taking advantage of the moment, because that’s not our intention.”

A more positive real-life parallel is that while Keef’s political awakening is based on Knight’s, it mirrors Morris’s own. “I kind of walked the same walk Keef did, not knowing how to speak out about certain things, not knowing if I should, or even caring to, to be honest with you. I was one of those people,” he says. “For the past few years, I’ve started to become a bit more socially active and more socially aware of what’s happening in our world and in our country. Obviously, every day for me is a learning process. For me, it’s all about learning and trying to grow, and then when you learn better, you do better.”

Lamorne Morris and Sasheer Zamata in ‘Woke’

At the moment, Morris is staying put in his Los Angeles home, which is decorated with framed photos of his New Girl castmates and which is currently also occupied by his mother, brother, and writing partner Kyle Shevrin.

“I was one of those really, really overly aggressive, how do I put it, quarantinees, I guess,” he says of the initial days of the pandemic. “The mailman would come by, and I would say, ‘Just drop it off in the street, I’ll get it later.’”

Don’t get him wrong, Morris holds the post office in the highest regard, as his mother worked for the United States Postal Service “for a little bit more than 40 years,” he says. “If I have a package to send or anything like that, she’s like, ‘Only send through the USPS. That’s what raised you.’” Morris grew up on the South Side of Chicago, in a “predominantly Black” neighborhood, before his family moved to Glen Ellyn, in the suburbs. “I remember being kicked out of class a lot for goofing off and telling jokes, and when I was in detention once, the teacher said ‘You’re in here a lot, pretty much a couple of times a week. What are you gonna do after you graduate?’” Well, after graduating from the College of DuPage in 2003, he began taking classes at Second City.

After landing a few commercial gigs and a spot as an on-air personality for BET, he got the opportunity to audition for a show formerly (and provocatively) known as Chicks and Dicks, from a playwright named Elizabeth Meriwether, who had at the time recently written the screenplay for the Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher rom-com No Strings Attached, which had the working title Fuckbuddies. (Meriwether clearly has a knack for capturing the attention of an overworked script reader.)

Meriwether wasn’t in the room for Morris’s first audition, but she still remembers the first time she saw the tape. It’s not something one forgets. “You know how sometimes you put yourself in the room, even though you weren’t there just because you’ve heard it so many times?” she says from her Los Angeles office. “He wore a blond wig and very short jean shorts. There were a lot of jokes in the script about jorts, because jeggings were very popular then. [Chuckles.] I think he just misunderstood and that he just wore these very short, cut-off jean shorts and a blond wig for some reason.

“I think he took his shirt off in the audition,” she adds. “I feel like the first tape I saw of him was so bonkers. And our casting director, Seth Yanklewitz, told him to come back and do it again, because he knew how funny he was, and was just like, ‘This is an insane audition.’”

Morris would audition, several more times, for the role of Coach on the show that would eventually be called New Girl and which would eventually go on to become the ’10s answer to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. One of the central story engines for the show would be that the naive but headstrong teacher Jessica Day (played by Zooey Deschanel, who had grown a bit tired of the one-dimensional film roles she was being offered) would comedically bounce off a variety of male perspectives, including the hyped-up finance bro Schmidt (played by Max Greenfield) and the slovenly barfly Nick Miller (played by Jake Johnson). Coach was intended to be the more alpha male counterpoint, but you know how it sometimes goes with best-laid plans.

“I got offered the part initially through a series of auditions, but I had to pass last minute because I got an offer for another show right before that, literally hours,” Morris says. That show, The Assistants, was eventually not picked up by CBS, but by that point the role of Coach had gone to Damon Wayans Jr., whose ABC show Happy Endings wasn’t expected to return after its first season. “And then obviously,” Meriwether says, “Happy Endings came back after we were very much assured that it wasn’t gonna come back.”

A pilot episode, directed by Jake Kasdan, had already been shot featuring Wayans, and everyone liked it too much to reshoot it, “So we decided to create a whole new character,” Meriwether says. She didn’t want to recast Coach, but she felt that, rule of three and all, she needed a third male roommate in the loft. “And we remembered how much we loved Lamorne in the original auditions and the pilot that he did for CBS didn’t go through. We just went back to him and created the character of Winston Bishop. But it was very difficult to create a character on the fly. I just didn’t have a lot of ideas for a new character.”

Writing a television pilot and creating the main characters and ongoing plotlines that can last years is a months-long process of rewriting and auditioning. Trying to suddenly add a new character into the mix, while fine-tuning everything else about the show once it starts airing (i.e., reacting to the obvious chemistry between Deschanel and Johnson and figuring out how much adorkability is too much adorkability) was a difficult process. No one meant to give Morris short shrift, but as grateful as he was for his first sitcom role, he remembers feeling frustrated.

“I’d read the episodes and I would go, ‘Man, I think I just said like, “Cool” and, “Oh, you’re crazy, Nick,”’” he says. One episode even hung a lampshade on Winston’s lack of identity. Before going out to cruise for gals, Schmidt began hyping up his boys: “Nick, your brand is ‘gypsy alcoholic handyman.’ Winston, your brand is Winston.” But what that meant was unclear to all parties involved.

“For the longest time, I always thought I was gonna get fired,” Morris says. “I was just there filling in dead space, and they kept me informed the entire time, I was never really in the dark. I was more so just confused as to when we were gonna get it together.”

Morris and Zooey Deschanel in ‘New Girl’

The problem, in retrospect, was that Winston Bishop was originally intended to fill the machismo void left by Coach, which proved to be an awkward fit for Morris, a man whose kind eyes belie alpha energy. “The idea that he was this confident, sarcastic guy ... those jokes just never landed. And so, if you notice, the first episode that he’s in, the story line is that he’s the top dog or something,” she says. “And it really didn’t feel right. And then, it was like the more random jokes we would throw at him, the funnier his character got. It finally dawned on us that this wasn’t Coach, this was a completely different character.”

The New Girl writers kept trying different routes for Winston. Some episodes he would act as the voice of reason. Other episodes, he would be completely absurd, but even if it took a while, Morris was down for whatever. “For a while, it felt like I was doing a sketch show ’cause my character was different every week, which is perfect for me, I have a sketch comedy background.” He says it started to turn around for him at the beginning of the second season. “We were in a bar when Jake Kasdan was directing that episode. He was shouting stuff out at me to do, and it became this really interesting back and forth, like shout out a trait and I would do it. He’d go, ‘Be loose, Lamorne!’” Soon, a GIF would be born.

“I’m drinking a fruity drink and saying ‘Look at me being so naughty,’” he says. “At first I was kinda confused as to like, ‘Is that how this works? We just shout out stuff and then we do it?’ It’s weird. But it’s what I prefer. I’d rather be in the moment.” They still hadn’t found the character, but they were on the right path. He just had to roll with it.

Over time, Bishop would cycle through jobs such as nanny and radio host, become an overprotective cat dad to a feline named Furguson, and sing songs from Wicked in the car. Rather than embodying the ultra-masculine role common for Black men in film and television, Morris eventually settled into the unique and fitting role of a sweet-natured, somewhat bashful and awkward character. One with very particular taste in clothes.

“I think somehow the costume designer ended up putting him in a shirt with birds on it, and it really felt right for his character,” Meriwether says. “He has this amazing ability to throw himself into weird situations and be very enthusiastic about it in this way that was so funny. I remember after the bird shirts, my dad saying that Winston was his favorite character. I was like, ‘Oh, we’re definitely hitting it.’”

But Morris and Bishop never stopped growing, and never stopped having growing pains. Eventually, during the show’s fourth season, which aired in 2014, Bishop took a job with the Los Angeles Police Department, which was an idea that Morris pitched, based on his love for movies such as Beverly Hills Cop, Rush Hour, and 48 Hours. “I’d always wanted to play a silly, goofy cop.” But he’d have second thoughts about that before long. Also in 2014, the killing of Eric Garner by the New York Police Department and the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by the police in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked a national uproar. These deaths, which followed the killing of Trayvon Martin and acquittal of George Zimmerman, would lead to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and would lead Morris to begin wondering about what he was saying with his work.

“I just felt like, ‘Damn. What’s going on with the system? Man, that could happen to me,’” Morris remembers. “I was getting a lot of comments from some fans. And surprisingly, not all Black. It was a lot of white fans, a lot of the Spanish, Asian ... didn’t matter, everyone was making these remarks, ‘Hey, Winston. How does it feel to be a Black cop with a cat named Furguson?’” He says, “I couldn’t wear the uniform.”

Meriwether remembers watching protests in Missouri in her office, “And I remember, on my way into work the next morning he called me and he was just like, ‘What are we gonna do? I can’t be a police officer.’ And we just talked about it and out of that conversation came the feeling that, ‘Why don’t we try to address it in some way? And why doesn’t he write it?’” she says. “I’m so grateful for Lamorne, for making that call to me, which I know couldn’t have been easy.”

Morris cowrote the episode “Par 5” alongside Rob Rosell, in which Bishop falls for an activist played by Kiersey Clemons, and is so embarrassed about his job that he pretends he’s not a cop. He later explains his complicated but ultimately positive feelings about the police, and also talks with Miller about the everyday racism he goes through that his friend just can’t understand, and how it makes him uncomfortable when his white friend does things like an Eddie Murphy impression. (And now “100 percent with some of my closest friends I’m having those conversations,” he says, “friends that I never thought I would have to have those conversations with.”)

New Girl wasn’t an explicitly political show, but it has an undeniable feminist bent, and the matter-of-fact ways that people of various races and sexualities accepted each other mark it as a very Obama-era program. But even then, discussing the Black population’s mistrust of the police felt like difficult territory for a light-hearted, comfort-food show, and getting the right tone was difficult. “None of us, including Lamorne, wanted it to feel like it was so outside of the world of the show. The very special episodes from the ’80s have fallen out of favor a little,” says Meriwether. “It was a long, hard process and Lamorne was amazing through all of it. I don’t think either of us felt like we solved it or had done enough, but it just felt like we had to do something.”

The 2020, real-life version of Clemons’s activist, or the various objects that nag Keef, would likely use some variation on the phrase ACAB. That’s not how Morris feels, exactly, but he says, “A lot has to be done within our policing system. We talk a lot about defunding the police, reallocating some of those funds towards better things in our neighborhood, like education. I know we had more of a police presence on the South Side than we had schools,” he says. “Where are the libraries, back when libraries were a thing? We can’t ignore the elephant in the room, you know what I mean?”

Lamorne Morris is a deeply silly man in a deeply serious time. He is adjusting, as must we all.

For most of his time in the public eye, his social media feeds were dedicated to goofy rap songs, behind-the-scenes pictures, and posts about his favorite sports teams. There’s still plenty of those on his timeline, interspersed with grief-stricken posts about the killing of George Floyd, and pleas to get his more apolitical fans to pay attention, with one post asking “While you’re clicking unfollow, just imagine Winston from New Girl begging for his life while publicly having his neck kneeled on. Then imagine them killing Winston. That would be a messed up episode of TV.”

If you are generally a well-meaning person who fancies themselves a progressive, and if you are, perhaps, a white man from a fairly privileged background (ahem) and you make an effort to educate yourself about systemic racism, you will by definition never truly get it. But you will learn, especially if you have a social media account, that it’s not Black people’s job to explain racism to white people. But ever gregarious and eager to help, Morris doesn’t mind, even when he’s literally on the job, doing something that is not his job.

“We had a very politically charged crew. We would have these discussions on a regular basis. Crew members would talk to me about being a cop on the side. Even crew members, transport guys, who think differently than I do politically, we would have these discussions in the middle of the parking lot,” he says of his time on the New Girl set. “These very, very right-wing people would have questions about Black culture. It’d start off as a joke, ‘Hey, Lamorne, why do Black people do this?’ And then I would sit down and I would educate them. Before the day is done, they’re like, ‘Wow. Man, thanks.’”

Meriwether remembers that Morris had “a couple tough conversations” with her about getting more diversity on the crew, well before those ideas became part of the mainstream discourse. “He’s always somebody who is thinking and taking in the world,” she says. “And he’s always been able to stand up for himself and talk about things that are bothering him, but in an open way.”

These days, he’s stuck at home, as are many of us. He’s developing some podcast and animation projects, but everything else is on hold. So he’s been having long conversations with his friends in politics, including his old high school buddy Qasim Rashid, who is currently running for Congress in Virginia. “He’s the most educated guy I know,” Morris says. “If I get a question from someone politically online, I’ll go to him first. I’ll go, ‘Hey man, what’s your opinion on this?’ And then we’ll have an hourlong conversation about it.”

Rashid has given his friend a reading list. After Morris finishes Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, up next are Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. “And just try and ask anybody who knows me: ‘Oh, Lamorne hates reading books.’” He laughs for a bit. “But here I am.”

He’s trying to educate himself to listen, as are we all. Well, hopefully. Seriously, he really hopes everyone is. “Nowadays we’re learning so much about history, especially the history of our country, it can be jarring to people to be like ... if you told me today, ‘Lamorne, you do know aliens are here and they’ve been here on planet Earth,’ I’d go, ‘What!’ [chuckle] It would take me awhile to get used to it,” he says. “So understand when you need to be educated. I think the onus is on white people to take that time to educate themselves as well.”

At the same time, he understands Keef’s original point of view, and the value of keeping it light. But for now, he can keep things only so light. “I’m really good at one thing and I’m OK with that. I’ll keep doing that, and if I can get some messaging in there along the way, I will. It’s like when you were a kid, sometimes you gotta spoon-feed the baby,” he says. “Because if you know you’re fighting for what’s right, or that you’re speaking out on what’s right, just to start a conversation, why would anyone have a problem with that?”

So he’s going to keep trying to have that conversation with us. It may be a lot to ask of a silly man. But he’s going to roll with it.

Michael Tedder is a freelance journalist who has written for Esquire, Stereogum, Playboy. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.

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