Boondocks: Cosby's Younger, Hipper Son
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Last fall's arrival of The Boondocks represented the opening of a new front in the war on black culture in the form of a show that lampoons the very stereotypes and pathologies that collectively signify the African-American intraracial divide. It is the post-civil rights generation's answer to growing up black in a world where integration has meant that injustice is an equal opportunity employer. Ã€ la Chris Rock's infamous 1996 "black people vs. niggas" riff, The Boondocks airs dirty laundry within the larger black community, but does so with wit, and without letting society as a whole off the hook for falling off the wagon when it comes to racism. The Boondocks: The Complete First Season DVD, released this week, provides a well-packaged opportunity to review a comprehensively funny, clever, well-timed manifesto on the world according to Aaron McGruder.
Everything about the first season of The Boondocks worked. Its animÃ©-lite artwork appealed to a generation weaned on reruns of Star Blazers , and McGruder's jokes were in tune with an audience that reveres Family Guy as high art. Add guest voices ranging from Mos Def to Adam West, and a soundtrack that includes a memorable opening theme by Asheru and Blue Black of The Unspoken Heard, and you have a winning formula. Even finding its home on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim after being turned down by other networks just seemed to makes sense for the show -- The Boondocks wouldn't feel quite right on Fox or The CW.
The Boondocks ' suburban community of Woodcrest is paradise for Robert Freeman, a.k.a. Granddad (John Witherspoon), and purgatory for Huey and Riley (both voices by Regina King). Granddad moved to the 'burbs to enjoy retirement and get the boys out of inner-city Chicago. But grammar school revolutionary Huey and wannabe gangsta Riley have only placid, mostly white neighbors as an audience for their defiant stances on issues ranging from putting a black Jesus in the school holiday pageant to freeing wrongly accused Shabazz K. Milton Berle from death row. They rail against Ruckus (Gary Anthony Williams), the local Uncle Tom who claims to suffer from "re-vitiligo," fictional rapper Gangstalicious, who has a ubiquitous hit song, "Thuggin' Love," and neighbors Ed Wunsler, Jr. (Charlie Murphy) and Gin Rummy (Samuel L. Jackson), gun-toting "wiggas" whose words and deeds mock George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld.
McGruder's caustic takes on African America have been followed by readers of his comic strip for years. With the TV version, he has fully realized satire's potential to lay bare the most acute absurdities about black life in our times. All of the first season's episodes are dead-on when it comes to finding the humor in the juxtaposition of incompatible fragments black culture and mainstream society.
Consider the show's treatment of one of the most irrational chapters in recent pop cultural memory in "The Trial of Robert Kelly," skewering the ludicrousness of the unresolved schism in the black community regarding accused pedophile and R&B superstar R. Kelly. A defiant Riley challenges do-gooding Assistant D.A. Tom DuBois (Cedric Yarbrough) thusly: "I see piss comin' -- I move. She saw piss comin' -- she stayed. And why should I have to miss out on the new R. Kelly album just for that?"
By using the point/counterpoint of the two young brothers, The Boondocks can take on almost any simmering controversy and stew it to comic perfection. While Riley defends R. Kelly to the end, the more sage Huey admonishes, "Every famous nigga that gets arrested is not Nelson Mandela. We all know the nigga can sing, but what happened to standards? ... You want to help R. Kelly? Then get some counseling for R. Kelly, introduce him to some older women, hide his camcorder ..." Like newsprint political cartoons that can wrap up issues like war or famine with one panel and a good line, Huey and Riley can dispatch an unsavory mess like the R. Kelly scandal with a few precocious words.
The DVD set contains a deleted scene in which one of R. Kelly's supporters hurls a piece of chicken at Rosa Parks as she protests alongside Cornel West, Julian Bond and Dick Gregory outside the courthouse where R. Kelly is on trial (a trial that, in reality, remains indefinitely delayed). McGruder's deferential decision to remove that scene is one of the few punches that he pulls in 15 episodes.
The three-disc set also contains a "making of" featurette in which McGruder talks about the cultural space in which his satire exists. He acknowledges that the emergence of Chappelle's Show as a standard bearer for socially relevant comedy helped open up the market and the mind for viewers to be able to digest his brand of humor. He talks about criticism he's received for his show's liberal use of the word "nigger," and about whether or not he primarily crafts his satire to make a statement or to make people laugh. McGruder says, "It's really not just an excuse to have a bunch of ignorant jokes. There really is a point." But he won't go so far as saying that the show is "about changing people's minds politically." That, after all, would be taking himself too seriously.
If there was a best-supporting Golden Globe or Emmy for cartoon characters, then it would go to Uncle Ruckus. Whether he's calling himself "RukÃº" (his maitre d' alias) or taking a tour of white heaven guided by Ronald Reagan, he has some of the funniest and most biting lines. Two different episodes on the DVD can be viewed with running commentary by Ruckus. It's worth watching "Return of the King" (MLK Jr. awakes from a coma in 2005) with the production crew commentary turned on, and then viewing it again with Ruckus' commentary. The crew gives the standard self-congratulatory breakdown of how they got the episode done, with a few shots at Al Sharpton thrown in for his threatened protest of the show when it aired. But with statements like, "Truth is, back of the bus is the best place to sit," Ruckus' commentary essentially gives you double the parody with one episode.
The Boondocks stands as a stylistic counterpoint to Bill Cosby's ongoing commentaries in recent years in which he has lambasted lower-income blacks for alleged failures to capitalize on the gains of the civil rights era. McGruder has jettisoned the family-friendly, "best foot forward" approach that characterized Cosby's career. But as much as they both might hate to admit it, they're more philosophically aligned than not. And in a certain sense, with the TV incarnation of The Boondocks , McGruder bailed Bill Cosby out by using comedy to mount a guerrilla campaign on black issues where Cosby's frontal assault has stalled for lack of street cred, pathos and humor.
In the post-9/11 era, it seems, any topic not directly related to patriotically correct rhetoric about defending "the homeland" dies on the vine of public discourse for lack of nourishment. One of the few ways to bring attention to a myriad of now secondary topics is through satire. It's an idiom that fits Huey and Riley much better than Fat Albert and Old Weird Harold.
By going off on other black folks, Cosby has unintentionally stepped on his own message by leaving out the key ingredient of humor that enabled him to become a black spokesman in the first place. Over the years, he displayed a singular ability to imagistically relate the African-American experience. From his working-class Philadelphia upbringing illustrated in his standup comedy to his canonical portrait of the black bourgeoisie on The Cosby Show , for over 40 years, Cosby humanized the black struggle for progress by making people laugh at themselves. But by changing his style of laughing with you, not at you, into a zero-sum referendum on morals and values, he unfortunately is seen as an out-of-touch curmudgeon.
Clearly, McGruder and Cosby agree that African-Americans are hemmed in by an ethos of materialism and short-term gratification that correlates unfavorably with the level of infrastructure and resources available to the black community. They also agree that many contemporary mores that have gained a degree of acceptance among young black people are self-defeating. The crucial difference between McGruder, the vanguard, and Cosby, the old school, is marked by the absence or presence of jest. And now McGruder has become the spokesman for a generation, and Cosby becomes that generation's Granddad.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to PopMatters and the Charlotte edition of Creative Loafing .