Aaron McGruder: Beyond The Boondocks
Much like the cast of characters that make up his acclaimed comic strip The Boondocks, Aaron McGruder is a man unafraid to speak his mind. Whether addressing America’s racial stereotypes, the absurdity of its government, or the idiosyncrasies of its culture in general, McGruder’s smart and sardonic commentary earned him a legion of followers. Huey and Riley Freeman, characters that respectively represented a culture’s skeptical worldview and near-deification of hip-hop music, resonated with audiences leading to the development of an animated series on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.
Of course, content that edgy is also bound to strike a nerve in more than one way. The comic strip’s political tone led several newspapers to withhold the more controversial strips (or cancel the series altogether), while two episodes from the Peabody Award-winning animated show’s second season were banned from TV due to their heavy criticism of the Black Entertainment Television network.
So it’s worth noting that, at least at this point, very little can hinder the voice of McGruder’s latest endeavor, the Web-based live action sketches from his new Partner Rumble Studio. “We began developing the material with SuperDeluxe.com, but things folded with them right before it was set to come out,” he says from his office in Los Angeles. “We had all this stuff that we were sitting on, so we decided to just put it out.”
While still in its early stages, the existing sketches (viewable at www.boondocksbootleg.com) combine the wit of The Boondocks with a raw aesthetic that’s been missing since the demise of The Chappelle Show. Characters like Black Jesus and gangsta rapper Tubesteak are already destined to be cult favorites, and web video allows McGruder and his team a creative freedom unavailable in the mediums of print or television. “I like the idea of it just being direct to the people. There’s no pitching, no studio meetings, no disapprovals – it’s just do whatever you want. And we can stay up to date with current events because it’s live action,” he says.
Though the specific details of the show’s future are still up in the air, McGruder and company (many of whom are also a part of The Boondocks) are clearly buzzed about the possibilities. “What we’ve got up now is a piece of us trying to summarize what we’d do with sketch comedy. I think that we’re looking forward to a place where I can house all of these other ideas I have that don’t fit with the animated show. In terms of its platform on the Internet, it’s always really exciting to try and keep up with how things are changing,” McGruder adds. “It’s just about waiting to see if the business model holds up and people can start making a living at it. We’re just getting into it. As we really start producing these things, I think you’ll see all types of people involved in it, going through a whole bunch of folks who you’ve seen on The Boondocks.”
Lest fans of that show become alarmed that its creator has shifted his focus to newer projects, McGruder affirms that The Boondocks is still a top priority. “I’m extraordinarily involved in the show. I run the show – I’m literally a showrunner,” he laughs. “I make all of the final creative decisions, I co-write most of the scripts; we have a 90-week production schedule. I’m not involved in every single detail, but it’s the biggest part of what I’m doing.”
As daunting as all of that sounds, McGruder insists that the workload is nothing compared to that of the comic strip, which he ended in 2006. “Anything is easier than that comic strip. I don’t think that I’ll encounter another job more difficult than that,” he says. “When you’re doing a show, you have a lot of people working for you, but the strip was just me. Having said that, the show is certainly unique in that it’s a very long production schedule, and it just goes on and on. Every season feels like we could have made The Lord of the Rings.”
Outspoken as he can be when it comes to America’s touchiest subjects, there are some things that McGruder is, in fact, pretty tight-lipped about; for one, he can’t talk about Season 3 of The Boondocks, beyond the fact that it’s in production and will still be aired on Adult Swim sometime in 2009. And don’t look for any deeper insight on the BET scandal of Season 2, either.
“Looking back at that, I have nothing to say about it,” he says plainly before bursting out into laughter. “I have no comment on it whatsoever. I know, it’s crushing, isn’t it? We made the shows, they got banned, and that’s it. They’re on The Boondocks Season 2 DVD, available in stores now.”
Fair enough. But ask him about Barack Obama’s election into office and the impact that may have on America, and McGruder is a bit more candid. Needless to say, he hasn’t hoisted up the victory flag just yet.
“I think that we can all agree that we’re in a moment of transition in this country,” he states after pausing for a moment. “We had that period in 2004 when Bush got re-elected, and soon after everyone finally figured out, ‘Oh, he’s a bad guy.’ But by that point, that type of material wasn’t funny anymore because there were a million people bashing Bush every day; it was just in vogue. In my observation, this country moves in a pattern between two extremes: you’re either saying something relevant and important when absolutely no one wants you to say it, or it’s a time like the one we’re in now where you can say it, but no one wants to hear it because it’s stale, not interesting, and everyone has already figured it out.”
“It’s exactly like after September 11th, when I started talking about things in the paper, and got people really mad,” he continues [Ed. Note: months after the terrorist attacks, McGruder ran a widely censored strip pointing out that the Reagan Administration directly funded Osama Bin Laden]. “It wasn’t four or five years later before everyone got to where I was – not that I was one of the only people to feel that way, but I was one of the only ones to address it publicly. A lot of people knew what was up and saw what was going on, but got swept up in the excitement of the moment. It was a social thing, an overwhelming feeling that went through most of this country…and that took us to Iraq.”
“Fast forward to this past election. While everybody was partying on election night and watching what took place, we had the biggest financial collapse in our history,” he points out. “I think there’s definitely a lot of excitement around Obama’s presidency. I also think that this is the biggest financial collapse in American history.”
“The truth is, it’s hard to tell people when they feel like they won, ‘Hey, we’re in the biggest financial crisis in American history,’” he says, before bursting into laughter again. “Then you’re just a hater. It is what it is. I understand why people have the need to feel excited. I just hope it goes well. But I’m looking at the news and what I’m seeing is a little troublesome, that’s all I’m saying. Some of it will be on the show. But a lot of it, I’ll keep to myself.”
Then again, he may be able to utilize Partner Rumble as a platform to get that point across. “You know how will.i.am keeps making these election videos? I’m gonna make a video about the biggest financial collapse in American history!” he launches into yet another spurt of infectious laughter that seems to go on for a minute, then catches his breath and composes himself. “It’ll be very inspirational.”
– Sean Kantrowitz
For more Aaron McGruder, hit up www.boondocksbootleg.com!