Lamorne Morris on Becoming Socially Conscious and His 'Woke' New TV Show

Lamorne Morris
Photographed by Jasmine Archie

In his Hulu series, out Sept. 9, the 'New Girl' star segues from playing a comedic cop to a Black man belatedly coming to terms with systemic racism.

Nine minutes into the pilot of Hulu’s Woke, Lamorne Morris’ character, Keef, is shoved to the ground by a cop for “fitting the description” of a mugger. He looks up to see his irate white friend being coddled by the police. From that moment on, nothing looks the same to him.

A comedy loosely based on the life of cartoonist Keith Knight, Woke is about a Black man belatedly coming to terms with systemic racism and trying to negotiate that newfound awareness with his increasingly public career. It seeks humor in such subjects as blackface, gentrification and police brutality, all seemingly tailored for 2020. The eight-episode run, which drops Sept. 9, is a noticeable departure for Morris, 37, known for playing cat-adoring police officer Winston Bishop on the late sitcom New Girl. But the actor-comedian sees no issue with the dichotomy of these roles. In fact, he'd like to play a cop again.

Were you seeking out an opportunity like this?

Post-New Girl, I’d just come off from doing seven years on a series and I kind of needed a break from the character a little bit. I wanted to dive into something more serious. This show hit me in a way because I walked that same walk that Keith Knight did. I’d see what was happening in our world but, to be honest, I wasn’t activated to do anything. I just went, “Yeah, that sucks, dude.” Just that “shut up and dribble” notion. I’ll act and leave this stuff to the activists. But I think when you have a voice, you have a responsibility to use it.

There’s a moment when your character is essentially told he hasn’t worked long enough to be outspoken. Has anyone ever told you that?

No one has ever said it, but you definitely feel it. Maronzio Vance, this comedian who is a friend, said to me once, “You don’t have the license to say that because the audience, they don’t trust you yet.” You build up enough equity in this business, then you have more license to fail. You have more license to shoot your shot. Look at [Dave] Chappelle. If that was a new comedian who told those same jokes that he did on Sticks & Stones, he’d probably be booed off the stage. "Get the fuck out of here!" (Laughs.)

How are you personally digesting the “timeliness"? Woke would have obviously been timely regardless of the summer we’ve had, but the killings and the unrest add layers to the discussion and, I’d imagine, put some pressure on you to be a kind of spokesperson. 

This has been something that has been happening in our country for a long time. Now that it’s getting amplified, we can put it in everyone’s face and say, “This is what we’ve been talking about.” Now when a show like this does come out, people are more open. I wrote an episode of New Girl back in the day about police brutality and the shame that comes with being a Black cop. I was met with a lot of criticism from some people, saying, “That doesn’t happen anymore.” They didn’t know it never stopped happening.

And this was 2015.

We hate to be in these times, but a show like Woke can add to the message. Hopefully it will change people. The way I perform, the way I think, has been molded by television and movies. Growing up, the entertainment industry plays a big role in informing the way people think, the way we dress, who we associate with, even down to the way we view beauty. I’ll give you an example. Jake Johnson once did a Tampax commercial.

He did?

Yes. And the commercial was like, "Get rid of those old tampons and get these new ones." He was the “before” guy in the commercial. But you put him on New Girl, write some sexy storylines, pair him up with Zooey Deschanel and all of a sudden Jake Johnson is the best lookin’ man I’ve ever seen on planet Earth. (Laughs.) But TV did that. Jake Johnson is a troll, everybody.

How did you feel about playing a cop on New Girl

We needed something for my character to do, so I said, “Oh, I want to play a cop.” It just played because of how silly my character was. If I could be in buddy cop films the rest of my life, I probably would — as long as we keep it honest and address the elephants in the room. If they ever make another Police Academy movie, I want to be in it. New Girl was my audition.

Do you really think audiences will be ready to laugh at cops again?

I think now is the time. There is a fatigue of disliking cops at this moment, even for me. We know it now. The cat’s out of the bag. But I feel like we can’t lose sight of something to balance it. Put the right cast together and the perfect storyline that addresses the times we’re living in, and it could be brilliant. We should be able to laugh at something.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version story first appeared in the Sept. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.