Cartoonist Aaron McGruder has been courting controversy since his satirical comic strip "The Boondocks" debuted 10 years ago in his college paper. His strip has been out of production since 2006, but its characters--militant tots Huey and Riley Freeman and their grandfather--live in on in an animated series on Cartoon Network. Now McGruder shares more than ever with his characters: they're all moving targets. NEWSWEEK's Joshua Alston caught up with McGruder to find out about his show's second season, his penchant for creating controversy, and the future of his comic strip.
NEWSWEEK: It's been two years since your first season, why such a long wait?
Aaron McGruder: We actually started work on season two right after we handed in season one. It just took longer to get the shows together than we had originally anticipated.
You chose to put your comic strip on hiatus. Is there a connection between the success of the show and the hiatus of the strip?
There was definitely a connection between the production schedule of the second season and the hiatus of the strip. I made a decision that it was too much, and I didn't want to do both badly. For my own health and sanity, I did have to put one on hold to complete the other.
But there is a plan for the strip to continue?
If I continue to do the strip, it'll probably be online or wireless, but I don't see it returning to newspapers.
In terms of being controversial and pushing the envelope, is this season more daring? Do you feel a pressure to top yourself?
No, I think it's dangerous when you start trying to top yourself in any other way, like 'Oh well, this time I have to cause more trouble.' That's not a good approach. But we did want to make the show funnier, that's the most important thing, so we concentrated on figuring that out.
You caused some trouble last year with your episode "Return of the King," which imagined a scenario in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. awakes from a coma in the present day after a failed attempt on his life. Was the reaction to that episode about what you expected?
Well, we won a Peabody Award, so we weren't expecting that. But in terms of the public reaction, it was exactly what I expected. I didn't get the impression that there was too much public reaction. Some people wrote pieces in newspapers, and Al Sharpton got mad. Other than that, I thought it was pretty well received, considering the potential for disaster that the show represented.
When you got the Peabody, was that vindicating?
I never felt like I needed vindication. I never felt like I did anything wrong. The award was great to get, just as a person who had just switched careers in a sense and was doing television for the first time. I was really surprised and really happy. But I never felt embattled over that episode, I thought the audience got it, and most of the people who wrote about the episode got it. But there will always be people who get mad, that's been a constant in my career. It wasn't out of the ordinary for me.
I'm sure you're used to getting feedback on your work.
Well I've certainly gotten used to shutting myself off from it. I try not to engage or do too much press. I joined Al Sharpton's protest, though. I put out a press release saying that I was in full support of his efforts [to stop me] and I would participate as soon as I was finished making the show. I wanted to contribute. I have to be stopped, and who better than me to do it?
Your print strip was pulled from newspapers on a few occasions. Do you think the show gives you more latitude to say what you want?
Absolutely. Obviously there are less restrictions on late-night cable than in the Sunday newspaper. We have a great network that allows us all the creative freedom we could hope for, and this medium has more impact. In terms of storytelling, the show has more impact than my strip. Granted, the strip is seen by more people and runs forever, so cumulatively the strip was a big deal. But in terms of developing a character and telling a story, it's a whole different thing when you have music, voices and sound effects.
I know you've been pretty critical of BET in the past, how do you feel about their recent efforts to revamp their programming?
I haven't watched BET in a very long time. I have no comment on BET.
Well, I wanted to ask you about their show "We Got to Do Better," formerly known as "Hot Ghetto Mess." Your show explores a lot of the same themes, but the reaction has been totally different.
The execution is totally different. I will say that [host] Charlie Murphy is a great friend of mine and a great friend of the show, so out of respect for him I would prefer not to comment on that show. I will say in general though, whether it's BET or any other type of black entertainment, it's easy for two shows to tackle broadly the same subject matter, but there's a lot to be said for the quality of the execution.
What did you think about the fallout from the Don Imus scandal? There's been a lot more scrutiny of language and themes in hip hop, and your show is very much rooted in hip hop culture. Do you think the scrutiny is fair?
I find it amusing, and as a satirist, enjoyable to watch. I personally don't believe in censorship in any way. I believe it's a very lazy way to try to accomplish the things that these people are trying to accomplish. Now, again, I do join Al Sharpton in opposing myself, but that's the exception. Everyone else should be able to say whatever they want to say, though I think it's also valid to have a discussion about the impact that has. But I never get mad about anything anyone says, I just get mad when I see bad art. If everyone strives to be a great artist, then a lot of these issues disappear.
There's also hypocrisy in the critique that's coming toward young people. The youth today are talking about the same things that older people were talking about in their youth. I don't think that young people should be scapegoated according to what old white men say. In the show, we poke a lot of fun at youth culture, rap culture and rap content, so I'm not saying that there isn't a responsibility, but the artist's first responsibility is to be a great artist. It's the responsibility of older people to embrace the youth and try to guide them. Working against them is not the best use of their time.
In terms of whether the scrutiny will affect the show, we were lucky in that we were off the air that whole time. But now that we're back, I'd imagine that we'll get more attention.
Is it safe to assume you won't be adhering to the proposed ban of the "n-word"?
There was a ban? I've been so wrapped up. Now here we've gone and done this whole season using the word n----- and now I find out it's been banned. Rats! It's a shame, because we would have changed, we would have used something else. We would have used the word "spear chucker" instead. Is there a ban on that yet?
Not that I'm aware of.
Maybe there should be. But for now, we didn't know there was a ban, so we're using ignorance as our defense.
I wanted to ask about Dave Chappelle, who walked away from a very lucrative contract at least in part, the story goes, because he was uncomfortable with white people's reactions to his show. How do you feel about white fans of your show and what do you think they get out of it?
That's a bit of an oversimplification of Chappelle's situation. But with satire, you have people who get it, and can look around at their world critically, and people who don't get it. I don't think that's a function of race, age or education. For the people who don't get it, the only difference is how they misunderstand it. A black person might misunderstand it differently than a white person. But there are old people, young people, black people and white people who understand the points we're making with the show. If you're the type of person to pick up it, you get it. I'm comfortable with that. I understand that you can't do a show like this and have everybody get it.