Aaron McGruder wanted to bring to life the characters of his acclaimed and infamous cartoon strip, “The Boondocks,” from the moment they graced the pages of major newspapers in 1999. Today, more than 350 newspapers nationwide feature the still-framed satire of the dysfunctional Freeman family – Huey, Riley and granddad Robert. This Sunday, McGruder’s dreams of breathing life into the Freemans’ stories will become a reality when “The Boondocks” joins the Adult Swim lineup on the Cartoon Network at 11 p.m. with the series premiere titled “Garden Party.”
Like the strip, the show focuses on the two black Freeman brothers – 10-year-old Huey and 8-year-old Riley – who are forced to live in the Chicago suburbs when their granddad becomes their legal guardian. Huey, a young leftist revolutionary, and Riley, a wannabe thug, inevitably clash with their predominantly white neighbors, creating material ripe with humor, as well as social and political commentary.
McGruder said that compared to the comic strip, the format of the show has been very liberating creatively. Developing the characters and creating more complex story lines are just a few examples of what the new, more open medium will allow him to do. The only real limitation to the television format, in which episodes can take months to reach the screen, is the challenge posed by maintaining relevancy while focusing on issue or event-based jokes.
“Whenever you’re doing something tied to real life and the news, even though you try your best, you’re throwing curveballs,” McGruder said. “Unpredicted things happen and you just got to deal with it.”
Therefore, jabs at pop culture icons and other public figures will occur less in the show than in the strip, although McGruder said they’re still trying to get in a few when they can. For instance, in the premiere episode, an unintelligent, gun-toting, trust-fund-dependant character named Edward III is intended to be loosely representative of President George W. Bush.
“We didn’t want to tell a bunch of Bush jokes that would date the show,” McGruder said. “So this seemed to be kind of a funny way to accomplish the same thing without being right on top of current events.”
In much the same way, many of the heavier points made by “The Boondocks” fall more on the subversive side. Overall, when it comes to crafting comedy versus encouraging dialogue, McGruder said comedy comes first.
“We don’t sit around thinking, ‘Gosh, what do we want the young kids talking about today?'” he said. “We always start in the place of ‘OK, what’s going to make the young kids laugh?’ because I do think, at any point in your life, you’re watching TV for entertainment, and the politics and the satire and the points and all of those things, ultimately, have to come wrapped in a whole lot of jokes.”
Since the launch of his cartoon strip, many media outlets have portrayed McGruder as a representative political voice for young black people. This is a classification he feels unprepared to take on. In fact, he said his audience often takes his work far too seriously. He’d rather let black political leaders, who he believes are lacking in numbers, take on the responsibility of true political dialogue.
“I think we’re too quick to turn to entertainers to fill that void,” he said. “It used to be we had politicized entertainers and then actual political leaders. We had both. So, James Brown could make a political song, but he wasn’t a political leader and nobody mistook him as such.”
Additional pressure has fallen on McGruder to create a show that will follow in the footsteps of “Chappelle’s Show.” However, this is a task he is more willing to take on, and he believes “The Boondocks” will achieve audience expectations.
“What (Dave) Chappelle did was set a really high bar, but there’s nothing wrong with that,” McGruder said. “He did a great show, and I think people loved it for a reason. And that audience is out there now, and I think it should expect something of that same quality.”
“The Boondocks,” with its emphasis on race and pop culture, falls into the same category as “Chappelle’s Show.” Although this type of satire also exists in adult cartoons such as “The Simpsons,” “King of the Hill” and “Family Guy,” it is this unique hybrid of presentation and subject matter that McGruder believes will propel the show’s success on Adult Swim.
In addition, a number of stars have signed on to bring vocal life to “The Boondocks” family. Regina King, known for her roles as Margie Hendricks in “Ray” and Marcee Tidwell in “Jerry Maguire,” will voice Huey and Riley. John Witherspoon, who played father Willie Jones in the “Friday” film series, will voice Granddad. Cedric Yarborough, who plays Deputy Jones on Comedy Central’s “Reno 911,” will voice several supporting characters, and guest appearances will include hip hop artist Mos Def and Charlie Murphy from “Chappelle’s Show,” among others.
When asked how he will respond to criticism of the show, which has already raised some eyebrows with its abundant use of “the N-word,” McGruder seemed unaffected. He said he doesn’t need to be criticized in order to be motivated and instead tries to shut out audience input entirely. He is even-handed in his ignorance, disregarding fan mail and hate mail alike, and plans to take a similar approach with responses to the new series. He understands criticism and confusion of his work comes with the territory.
“When you decide to become a satirist, you’re deciding to be misunderstood by a lot of people,” he said, explaining that the only way to avoid that is to not make anything at all. “I’d hate not to create out of the fear of being misunderstood or misinterpreted. It’s not worth it.”