'Boondocks' Returns After Four Years To An Altered Comedy Landscape

Apr 21, 2014
Originally published on April 21, 2014 7:26 pm

When celebrity chef Paula Deen got in trouble for maybe being racist last year, I couldn't help but think about The Boondocks. The Deen controversy, and all of the comedic potential it provided, seemed to be perfect fodder for an episode of the Peabody Award-winning show that airs on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim.

But the show has been on hiatus for four years. A new and final season premieres Monday night, but since the show last aired in 2010 some of the most groundbreaking black comedy has shifted away from TV and toward social media. (Remember #PaulasBestDishes? A standout was, "You Hear White Folks Talking You Better Hushpuppies.")

Black Comedy Shifts From Television To Twitter

Julian Chambliss is a professor at Rollins College. There, he studies and teaches comic culture and African American history. He says this season of The Boondocks re-enters a comedy world that is more crowded than it was in 2010, particularly by Black Twitter and Youtube.

"When you think about the digital landscape, now you have a lot more YouTube series created and produced and performed by African-Americans," Chambliss says. "We do have a social media universe that is fueled by black people." But he adds, "Despite the great sort of ... creative energy on a YouTube-produced series, how many of those are being translated into DVD? How many of those can you pick up at Wal-Mart? So, this program still does matter."

What makes The Boondocks unique — both the cartoon and the long-running comic strip — are how they portray clashes within black culture. There's young Huey and his even younger brother, Riley. They're two black boys growing up on the South Side of Chicago who experience a culture shock when they move to their grandfather's home in the peaceful, very white suburb of Woodcrest. The old-school granddad butts heads with the two kids, who swing between reflection and rage. Throw in the self-hating Uncle Ruckus, the earnest interracial family down the street and even gangsta rapper Thugnificent, who together represent a diversity of black voices you don't hear in any other show.

That diversity of black voices, paired with stinging critiques of everything from BET to the war on terrorism to Tyler Perry, is what makes The Boondocks important and special. Or, for some fans, what used to make the show special.

Duty, History, Culture, And ... Plenty Of Offensive Jokes

"I felt like there's been sort of a trajectory since the beginning of the second season," says fan Che Broadnax. "It sort of strayed further from the content of the comic strips."

Broadnax says the show used to always have a deeper message behind the bombast. But he's seen that change since the first season; Broadnax says the show is almost laughing at itself now. He's even more worried about the show's fourth season because show creator McGruder won't be involved. "I almost feel like, why bother?" he told me. "Why bother doing the show without McGruder?"

Sony Pictures Television and McGruder both released statements about his absence from Season 4.

Sony says they couldn't find a "mutually agreeable production schedule."

McGruder said that the show was his life's work, but he added, "Hollywood is a business." He continued: "What has never been lost on me is the enormous responsibility that came with The Boondocks — particularly the television show and its relatively young audience. It was important to offend, but equally important to offend for the right reasons. For three seasons I personally navigated this show through the minefields of controversy. It was not perfect. And it definitely was not quick. But it was always done with a keen sense of duty, history, culture, and love. Anything less would have been simply unacceptable."

Broadnax is worried that caricature will continue to replace thoughtful satire in Season 4. "My concern is that without McGruder's hand they're just gonna play up the same thing," says Broadnax. "Like, let's make more jokes about Uncle Ruckus as a self-hating old black guy and let's make more jokes about Riley being thuggish, and let's make more jokes about how this hard-core gangsta is really a gay guy."

I spoke with another fan, Matt Wetherington, who said he's not worried about Season 4 at all.

"I can't help but be optimistic that it will be just as good," Wetherington said. "It's lost its heart, but maybe it's not lost its soul."

Wetherington says whatever changes with the show, The Boondocks will still have something for everyone. Wetherington, who is white, says he sings the praises of the show to all of his friends, regardless of their race or political persuasion. For him, the show's diverse characters and its proven record of tackling just about any topic make it universal.

"They have just as much social commentary about positive and negative race relations, mixed in with positive and negative human condition messages, and positive and negative U.S. policy messages," Wetherington said. "It's going to satisfy you! You'll find a character you can relate to! Whether that's Uncle Ruckus or Huey."

For what it's worth, Wetherington and Broadnax say they'll be watching the season premiere online, not on TV.

Whatever happens with The Boondocks' fourth season, we'll soon see another character straight from the mind of Aaron McGruder. McGruder says he's working on a new live-action show for Adult Swim. It's called Black Jesus. Get ready.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The Peabody Award-winning cartoon "The Boondocks" returns tonight to "Adult Swim." That's the afterhours programming on The Cartoon Network. This will be the fourth and final season for "The Boondocks." It last aired in 2010. Since then, the comedy field has changed and the show is returning without its creator, Aaron McGruder. As NPR's Sam Sanders reports, it raises two questions: Will "The Boondocks" still matter and will it still be good?

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Since its first night on TV in 2005, "The Boondocks" has been pushing buttons. In the show's opening scene, an afro-wearing child named Huey has a dream about giving a speech at an almost all-white garden party.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES "THE BOONDOCKS")

REGINA KING: (As Huey) Excuse me, everyone. I have a brief announcement to make. Jesus was black. Ronald Reagan was the devil and the government is lying about 9/11.

SANDERS: The cartoon show and the long-running comic strip it's based on follow young Huey and his even younger brother Riley. They're two black boys growing up on the south side of Chicago and they experience a culture shock when they move to their grandfather's in the peaceful very white suburb of Woodcrest.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES "THE BOONDOCKS")

JOHN WITHERSPOON: (As Robert Jebediah Freeman) Ya'll need to start appreciating your granddaddy. I went and spent your inheritance on this beautiful house in this neighborhood and all I asked you to do is act like you got some class.

SANDERS: That, in essence, was "The Boondocks," a series of black culture clashes, the old school granddad butting heads with the two kids who swing between reflection and rage. The self-hating Uncle Ruckus, the well-intentioned interracial family down the street, even gangster rapper Thugnificent who moves into Woodcrest as well.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES "THE BOONDOCKS")

CARL JONES: (As Thugnificent) What you to Woodcrest? What's hood in the wood, white folks?

SANDERS: Part of the draw of the show is that nothing is sacred. "The Boondocks" even imagined an irate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reflecting on the state of black America today.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES "THE BOONDOCKS")

CUBA GOODING, JR.: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.) Is this it? This is what I got all those whippings for? I'm going to Canada.

SANDERS: That stinging critique with a deep underlying message is what "The Boondocks" is known for. But some fans say the series has moved away from that edgy thoughtful commentary towards something more one-dimensional.

CHE BROADNAX: I felt like there's been sort of a trajectory since the beginning of the second season, you know. It sort of strayed further from the content of the comic strips.

SANDERS: That's "Boondocks" fan Che Broadnax. He says he's even more worried about the show's fourth season because show creator Aaron McGruder won't be involved.

BROADNAX: I almost wonder, like, why bother? Why bother doing the show without McGruder?

SANDERS: Sony Pictures Television and McGruder both released statements about his absence. Sony says they couldn't find a, quote, "mutually agreeable production schedule." Again, Che Broadnax.

BROADNAX: My concern is that without McGruder's hand they're just going to play up more of the same thing. Like, let's make more jokes about, like, Uncle Ruckus as a self-hating old black guy and let's make more jokes about, you know, Riley just being thuggish, and, you know, let's make more jokes about how this hard-core gangsta is really, actually, a gay guy.

SANDERS: After a four-year hiatus, "The Boondocks" is up against some new competition. Now some of the most groundbreaking black comedy isn't found on TV. Often, it's in a funny pointed hashtag on Twitter or in various YouTube series sensations like "Awkward Black Girl." Julian Chambliss studies comic culture and teaches at Rollins College. He says "The Boondocks" is bigger than those YouTube or social media hits because "The Boondocks" is still on TV.

JULIAN CHAMBLISS: Despite the great sort of creative energy on a something like a YouTube-produced series, how many of those are being translated into DVD? How many of those can you pick up at Walmart? So, this program still does matter.

SANDERS: Season four will matter a lot to fans like Matt Wetherington, in spite of the show's changes.

MATT WETHERINGTON: I can't help but be optimistic that it will be just as good. It's lost its perhaps heart, but maybe it's not lost its soul.

SANDERS: Whatever happens with the fourth season of "The Boondocks," there'll soon be another character straight from the mind of Aaron McGruder. McGruder says he's working on a new show for "Adult Swim." It's called "Black Jesus." Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.