Adult Swim’s Black Dynamite has become one of those word-of-mouth shows that develop fanatically devoted cult followings and spawn a thousand imitators. The mix of satire and commentary and the ‘70s Blaxploitation aesthetic are the perfect spawning ground for edgy and irreverent humor, and this weekend fans will get to see our hero Black Dynamite in his first musical special, The Wizard of Watts. The special features the voice talents of artists like Tyler, the Creator and Erykah Badu, and writer Carl Jones explains why a musical makes sense for this particular brand of sometimes-abrasive comedy.
“I was listening to a Richard Pryor album called Bicentennial Nigger,” Jones says. “As I was listening to it, it dawned on me that I was listening to music. There was a rhythm and there was a tone and there was a vibration and a frequency and energy and a feeling that, to me, felt very similar to what I experience when listening to music. When I thought about the show, I always felt like there was a very close relationship between [music] and the type of comedy we’re doing—from the voice performances to the actual timing of the jokes to how it’s edited—it starts to have a certain kind of rhythm. Even Family Guy has a rhythm. It’s not always on-beat [laughs] but it’s got a rhythm.”
Music is a huge part of the tone of Black Dynamite overall—going back to the original 2009 movie on which the series is based. Musical stars like a young Michael Jackson and Bob Marley have been featured (as broad caricatures, of course) and the funky Blaxploitation-esque score comes courtesy of acclaimed composer Adrian Younge. It’s a great mix that Jones says made sense to everyone involved and gets expanded upon with The Wizard of Watts.
“Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Especially doing a show that was set in the ‘70s, so much great music was made in the ‘70s, it would be a crime to not lace the show with a lot of the great R&B and the great funk of that era.”
The Wizard of Watts is obviously a parody of the 1978 musical The Wiz directly and its forbear, the original 1939 musical The Wizard of Oz. Our hero Black Dynamite is transported to the land of “Oz-Watts,” where he’s asked by the Rodney MunchKings to help them against a horde of evil Pigs (led by the Wicked Bitch of the Westside). Over the course of two seasons, the series’ oftentimes racially-charged jokes, frequent use of the N-bomb, and tongue-in-cheek approach to sex and crime have generated criticism. But Jones says that there is a balance in what you are seeing on-screen—and there’s always commentary. With this musical special’s subject matter, given the current climate around the United States in the aftermath of highly-publicized cases of police brutality, it would be easy to assume The Wizard of Watts is tackling the issue head-on.
Black Dynamite’s interactions in the land of “Oz-Watts” feature the not-so-usual suspects: Crow-Hoes, The Fairy Godfather of Soul, a horny dog named Broto, and, Bo Diddley; all punctuated with songs about dope fiends, weak pimps, and beating orphans with extension cords. Police brutality lurks throughout the story—as experienced in the “real world” at the beginning of our tale, and embodied by the Pigs and the Wicked Bitch of the Eastside in the fantastical world Dynamite now finds himself in.
“I don’t see the purpose of doing any art if you’re not going to contribute to something good,” Jones explains. “We do a lot of stuff on the show that some people may consider socially irresponsible. The world that Black Dynamite lives in is not the most PC place to be in. So I feel like there’s a responsibility: if we’re going to explore these realities that are not necessarily positive, I feel like we should also take the responsibility to try to inform people or at least inspire people to think.”
Jones is a veteran of another beloved-yet-controversial animated series on Adult Swim, The Boondocks. On that series, race was at the core of the show’s commentary, and it constantly offered a bevy of scathingly insightful gut-punches to black popular culture and white consumption of and reaction to it.
“It’s always been about being able to find those different entry points for different people so that they can not only relate to those characters but you can engage them that way,” he says. “You can engage them in what you’re trying to say with the storyline, but if you don’t have characters that they can really relate to, you lose everybody. It’s a tough thing to pull off with this type of show because it’s a juggling act. If it’s a little bit off, it’s all the way off.”
“You have to really walk a line—not a line of being so concerned about people being mad or offended; but walking a line in terms of making sure that you’re not compromising your integrity as an artist,” he adds.
“You’re not getting so caught up in one aspect of what we see going on around us. You can still maintain your voice.”
Black Dynamite and other shows like Black Jesus (also on Adult Swim) and ABC’s black-ish seem to represent a slow but steady rise in black television comedy that is told from an unapologetically black perspective. They aren’t trying to water anything down in an effort to appeal to everyone, though they definitely seem to resonate with more than just black people. Black Dynamite invites you into its house, but it doesn’t tidy up for guests.
“I think the types of stories we do are very similar to what happened with hip-hop,” says Jones. “We’re looking at what’s going on in our surroundings and in our communities and we’re contextualizing it in such a way that makes it palatable for everyone—even who may not share that experience. I think a lot of it has to do with the attitude and the energy behind it and the honesty. It’s transcending racial barriers and all socio-economic dispositions, as well—which is a cool thing. All of our fans aren’t black. I think a large majority of our fans are [other] nationalities. We don’t set out to just speak to black people, [but] we try to tell stories that are personal to us and that we’re passionate about and be honest about who we are. If people like it, so be it.”
“The Wizard of Watts is not just about police brutality,” he says. “It obviously wasn’t done with Ferguson in mind because it was done way before that. I don’t want to paint the picture that this is our answer to Ferguson or speaking to Ferguson. There are so many layers to this movie and so many other things that we want to do that we don’t want to be overshadowed by the way the media has a tendency to spin what the show is about just because of what’s happening right now. There are a lot of other things that you can get out of it.”