"Are You Laughing?" Aaron McGruder and "The Boondocks"
The Hippocratic oath is, “First, do no harm.” Aaron McGruder isn’t a doctor, but if he has an oath when it comes to his comic strip The Boondocks, it’s probably “First, make sure it’s funny.”
A genial McGruder participated in a teleconference with the news media on Tuesday to promote the new Boondocks animated show. Six years in the making, the show is premiering on Nov. 6 on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block. On multiple occasions throughout the call, McGruder repeated that his primary goal with the Boondocks in paper or broadcast media is to entertain, with any political or ideological agenda being secondary to the question, “But are you laughing?”
Though the Boondocks newspaper comic strip came first, McGruder said, “I was trying to sell the show at the same time I was trying sell the strip into syndication, so I had been in talks with one entity or another for about six years now. And the deals basically didn’t happen for a number of reasons, but most of them revolved around creative control issues and things like that.”
“What I wanted to do was to have the freedom to write the way I wanted to write and for the characters talk the way that people actually talk.”
A lack of creative control is certainly not something McGruder is complaining about now. McGruder said his team was “given all the leeway we needed to say what we wanted to say” at Adult Swim. He went further, saying that Mike Lazzo of Adult Swim “has a really smart idea of what a network should be, and also works with creators really well, and just lets them make the shows they want to make.”
He continued, “The other thing is that Adult Swim has a genuine appreciation of art and animation, and other places we talked to looked at [an earlier] Fox pilot and said, ‘I don’t think it needs to be this pretty. Can’t you do it simpler?’ I do think that’s what makes Adult Swim the ideal place for this, because they really do ‘get it’ and appreciate everything I’m trying to do here…They were very aggressive and wanted to do the show real bad, and they’ve been completely supportive every day after that.”
The Boondocks comic strip often takes on extremely current events, raising questions about whether the television show, with its much longer lead time, will be able to keep up. McGruder admitted that sending The Boondocks overseas for animation “inherently lessens the amount of control that you have over things, but there’s a tradeoff which is the visual look of the show.” He felt the show could “have the same political punch without being right up to the minute on the news,” and that the longer lead times for animation “just kind of makes you work a little harder to figure out how to get the same points across without dating the show.”
However, he reiterated that, “As important as any of those other lofty goals is entertaining…Any message, whether it’s in the strip or whether it’s in the show, if it ultimately isn’t delivered in a very very funny way, [then] the message is somewhat irrelevant. I think the show will challenge people, and I think the show will make people think about things in a different way. I don’t think you have to be right on top of the news in order to do that.”
The Boondocks strip has been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism, but McGruder stated that he tries “to insulate myself from as much of the feedback on the strip as possible, because it makes it difficult to do the job…ultimately, you go into this knowing that some people just will not like what you do and you can’t let it interrupt the creative process.” He continued, “I just basically avoid it all…I try to avoid the fan mail and the hate mail, just to stay focused on what I have to do.”
McGruder’s thick skin will undoubtedly get a workout after the show’s debut, with upcoming episodes involving fisticuffs between Granddad and a blind old man, the potential for intimate encounters between prison inmates, a plot where “international criminals…with Riley tagging along decide to try and kidnap Oprah (Winfrey),” and an episode which asks, “What if Martin Luther King hadn’t been assassinated, but rather went into a coma after he got shot and wakes up in modern day and has difficulties sort of fitting in to the modern political discourse.”
McGruder stated that plot lines were not selected or avoided based on their shock value or potential to stir up controversy, noting that a Rosa Parks joke was removed in the wake of her passing. However, with a 15-episode season and no guarantee of a second one, he felt it was more important to tell the stories he wanted to tell now rather than avoid ruffling feathers, since he may not get a second chance at it.
Fans of the strip are probably most interested about its ties to the show. McGruder stated that the show allows him to fulfill a longtime desire to break The Boondocks, “out of the very narrow confines of the comic page and go all these different places my imagination wanted to go to.” For instance, the show will give viewers “a chance to see Granddad at different stages in his younger life, including World War II as a fighter pilot…and also in the civil rights movement.” There is the potential for characters to cross from strip to show and vice versa, but McGruder stated that he thinks “it’s dangerous to try to link up too much the show to the strip.”
Balancing show and strip was a challenge, McGruder said. “I think the most difficult period for me in maintaining both of them was this last year…this previous year, where we were figuring out the show and trying to mantain the strip at the same time. We got the show thing kind of figured out now, and so that makes it a lot easier on me. I presume that will be less of a concern as time goes on.” He added, “I don’t illustrate [the strip], and no I don’t miss it,” since it allows him to focus more on writing.
McGruder revealed a strong knowledge of animation, noting that “We associate animation with children’s entertainment in this country, and that’s not really an association that I think takes place in other countries, particularly Japan. I just think we’ve had some big successes with adult animation with The Simpsons and Family Guy and South Park…If you look at Japan, they make every type of entertainment in an animated form, from kids’ shows to pornography, and everything in between…everything you can imagine they do in animation. I think it’s kind of a natural thing, I don’t see where it needs to be just kids.” He also noted that his current favorite animated works currently are FLCL and Samurai Champloo.
McGruder has always had lofty goals for The Boondocks, stating his hope, “that people be challenged and think about things in a different way and question…be introduced to a new idea, or a new thought.” But before that happens, “I think you have to first hope that they laugh…that’s the toughest job, and if you’ve done that, at least you get to survive and do it another day.”
Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks premieres Sunday, November 6, at 11 p.m. on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.