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In the sleepy, tranquil nursing home that is the daily comics page, Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks is a scowling B-boy with a boombox blaring Public Enemy. McGruder's strip, about two angry black kids who move into their granddad's suburban home, has always divided readers. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, some of the strip's strongest criticism came from fans who accused McGruder of abandoning the thematic and visual sophistication of the strip's early days and turning it into a crude soapbox on which to fire direct shots at the Bush administration. Admirers, meanwhile, hailed McGruder's more confrontational direction, praising it as a vital source of dissent that brought urgency back to comic strips.
For the past few years, McGruder has juggled the daily strip with regular engagements on the lecture circuit and attempts to adapt The Boondocks for television. The Boondocks finally hit the small screen as part of Cartoon Network's cultishly adored Adult Swim block with both its confrontational, hip-hop-derived sense of outrage and anime-inspired look intact. The A.V. Club recently spoke with McGruder about being typecast as an angry guy, why the American political system is hopelessly broken, and why being one of People magazine's 50 Most Eligible Bachelors isn't all it's cracked up to be.
The A.V. Club: You've been developing this show for four or five years. What took it so long to finally make it onto the air?
Aaron McGruder: I don't even know if it's that abnormal. Some shows just take a really long time. In my case, it was just finding the right home. We went around with several places over five or six years until the deal with Sony happened, and then Fox and Adult Swim. But, you know, it was largely creative-control issues.
AVC: What kind of creative-control issues?
AM: Well, just not having it. That's an issue. It's not the norm when creators have any protections with regards to creative control. And so it took some time, I think, for the strip to gain enough popularity where I had enough leverage to come in and say, "It has to be done in a certain way or it's not going to be done at all," and then have people willing to put up with that who were ultimately paying for it. You know, for them to be willing to kind of concede those kind of things. It just takes time, you know?
AVC: What happened with Fox, specifically?
AM: We did our best to do a Fox show, but, frankly, I don't think the difficulties we had at Fox would be exclusive to Fox, I just think broadcast television in general is a very restrictive place. It's tough to be funny, because there's so many eyeballs and there's so much money at stake that I think everything is just kind of over-thought. And it's tough to be daring and do something different, either with regards to content or even structure. It's really a rigid landscape. And you can honestly see it in the show.
AVC: How is the show as developed for Fox different than the Adult Swim show?
AM: I think it's a different show. We did the best we could to do a good Fox show for Fox, but obviously you're bound by the restrictions of Fox and primetime and all of that. And so I think we tell a lot more interesting stories and I think we do it in a more interesting way on a cable show. And then, obviously, there's a million things we're allowed to say on late-night cable that you're not allowed to say on a primetime broadcast.
AVC: Within the first minute and a half of the first episode I saw, Huey talks about Jesus being a black man, Ronald Reagan being the devil, and the government lying about Sept. 11. Kind of throwing down the gauntlet there, eh?
AM: I think people were a little bit too concerned about what I would or would not be allowed to say. So let me just get that out of the way and get on to the business of telling, you know, a story, or two, or three, or 15. And also to say, "Okay, look. Here it is, don't worry about it. The restrictions and the watered-down and all the stuff that you thought was gonna happen really isn't the case." So we done got that out the way, and now we can just kind of move on.
AVC: On the show, Huey and Riley look and sound adorable. Do you think you can get away with more because they're so cute?
AM: I think that's always been part of the thinking behind the script, that–and I really tried really hard to impress that upon the staff of the show, the animation staff–to try to get them to understand that we would only be able to get away with what we were writing if the visuals were appealing enough that it was like a balance, and even people who didn't like what they were hearing would still not want to turn away because what they were seeing was so nice. So that was kind of my hunch, and I think it worked. I'm hoping it does.
AVC: What was the hardest part of adapting The Boondocks for television?
AM: I think it was going from working completely by myself to working with, not just a team of people, but really, several teams. Writers, producers, the artists, the illustrators, the designers, and, you know, overseas. I mean, it's small compared to what we would need to do the kind of show that we tried to do, but even at small numbers it's way more people than I'm used to working with.
AVC: Reginald Hudlin is one of the executive producers of The Boondocks. What do you think he brings to your partnership?
AM: Uh, we don't have a partnership anymore. Reginald Hudlin left the show at the end of the Fox pilot. He is now running BET, and I have not spoken with him in over a year. We have a contractual obligation to give him a credit.
AVC: So what are you feeling angriest about these days?
AM: I'm actually kind of angriest about the fact that everybody keeps saying how angry I am.
AVC: You feel like you're kind of pigeonholed in that respect?
AM: I do the interviews and then I read about myself. I understand it and I get what it is. But there's so much stuff that I say, either jokingly or lightheartedly, that gets printed like I'm dead serious. I'm kind of conscious and aware of how ridiculous everyone involved with politics or talking about politics, especially on television, is–all the shouting matches and the screaming and the over-the-top personalities, and everyone's just playing. It's like WWF for news, almost. It's really ridiculous and I really don't want to be a part of it, and I'm not trying to put on this persona of this angry revolutionary to get people to follow me.
I just tell jokes, and I think a lot of people take it too seriously. It's not that I don't have things that I'm angry about in the world, and I think most decent human beings are upset about things, and even upset about things in their own country, but I'm not a particularly unhappy fellow. I think I'm happy with the show, and I think it's funny and I'm optimistic about it. What's on my mind, what's kind of bugging me, is clearly visible in the strip and in the show, but I still manage to joke about it. [Laughs.] I really get a little bit confused by all this "angry angry angry" talk when all I do is tell jokes and at least some people find it funny.
AVC: Do you feel like the comic strip is a dying art form?
AM: Yeah, I've always felt that way. I felt that way when I got in it, and I was fortunate that I was able to get in before it died. But I do think comics are a dying art form because newspapers are a dying medium. But it's not to say that in the next generation, where there's people getting their news electronically, comics won't survive. Right now, they're still largely attached to the newspaper world. And the more they can break away from that, the more they have a chance to live on.
AVC: How do you feel about living in Los Angeles?
AM: I think there's a lot of good and bad to L.A. One of the things you have to consider is that you can, if you're lucky, make a decent living here. That's a big plus. That's pretty positive. The weather is OK. I don't like the smog very much, but there are some days when L.A. is just very, very beautiful. I hate the traffic, but I don't really commute very far, so that doesn't bother me too much. The biggest thing that I don't like about L.A. is the sort of 2 a.m. shutdown of everything. It really kind of stagnates the nightlife. It's very hard to casually have fun in Los Angeles. If you want to go out and have fun it's like a full-time job, you have to really prepare, and call ahead, and get on a list, and know somebody... It's really rough to relax here.
AVC: Right, right. Culturally, how do you feel about it?
AM: It may sound weird, but I don't really look for culture, particularly in an American city. I went to Havana, and I was like, "Wow, there's culture everywhere!" I don't think the American government has a lot of respect for culture. That was one thing that I did notice when I went to Cuba was that artists are paid to be artists, and poets are paid to be poets, and musicians are paid to be musicians by the government. The government–and I'm not saying that the Cuban government's perfect–but the government does place a value on culture. Much more so than here, where culture is just a matter of commerce. So, you know, I don't really look for that, and I don't expect to find it in any city. You know, I'm not crazy impressed with New York. I mean, I don't buy into that whole thing: Everyone in New York is all sophisticated, and they're into art and sophisticated things, and everyone in L.A. is just shallow entertainment people. I think people are just shallow across the board.
AVC: You mentioned going to Havana. What was it like meeting Fidel Castro?
AM: It was really cool. It's cool because it's Fidel, and it's a world leader, and there's so much history behind the man and who he is in this hemisphere. And then at the end of the day, he's, I think, just like a big mayor. There's only, like, 11 million people in Cuba. He's a big mayor. He just talked a long time, and he talked and he talked and he talked and he talked... and he talked. I think it was about four hours. But I guess that's part of the Castro spirit. But, you know, it was cool, and Cuba was fantastic, at least just in terms of... Not to romanticize or glorify it, but just seeing a place that had not really been touched by the hand of American capitalism. Because it's a genuinely different place. A lot of times when you travel, things start to feel the same from place to place to place, because the same people own everything all around the world, you know?
AVC: It seems like the Republicans, as a party, are self-destructing, yet people don't seem to be particularly angry about that. Why do you think there's not more of a sense of outrage?
AM: I think because ultimately both parties share the guilt. And so I think everyone's kind of just whistling and pretending everything's OK. At the heart of this is the cover-up, and the misleading the country to war. And quite honestly, I don't think they actually did a particularly good or sophisticated job, but I think everybody wanted to be fooled. I remember being on the Bill Maher show talking about how ridiculous this was before the invasion. And, you know, a lot of people, even Democrats, had been so easily thrown into this fear frenzy that they lost common sense. And now all of that is coming back on us, and we've got 2000 soldiers dead, and if the 10-to-1 figure is true in terms of injuries to deaths, there's probably been 20,000 injuries. And we found no weapons.
And I just feel like the country is guilty. I think we should be deeply ashamed for what we've done there, and we've gotta reconcile that, and we've gotta find some way to make peace with this, and we can't do that until we acknowledge what took place, and ultimately, I think that's the poison that is killing this administration. And I think there's a lot of people in the country who are guilty of allowing themselves to be duped in a very sloppy, sloppy manner.
AVC: Do you think that Republicans have sort of lost their sense of shame?
AM: They lost it some time ago. What's scary is when they lose their sense of good planning. Like dude, you know, if you're gonna lie, really... It's a big thing to fake your way into a war. Like, think it through. Do a better job at the lie, if that's what it's gonna be. Do a better job–I mean, whatever your goals were in invading Iraq, it couldn't have been this. This can't be all part of some master plan. Something went wrong. Whether their intentions are good or evil–I pretty much assume that they're evil–but no matter what, man, when the people in charge make giant mistakes, everyone suffers. Even if they do have good intentions, when you make giant mistakes, it's a bad thing.
Well, if your intentions are already bad, and then you still make giant mistakes, it seems like things just get worse. I get little joy seeing this, because what I don't see is the public saying, "Wow, those guys are really bad, maybe we should re-evaluate everything." I don't see that response with the scandals, I don't see it with the indictments, I don't see it after Katrina, I don't see the public going, "Wow, let's really re-examine the entire direction this country is going." I read an article that pointed out that the people that are probably gonna benefit most from this is, like, McCain. And Powell. And like, you know, those kind of Republicans. But I don't see the left really winning anything out of this.
AVC: What do you think the Democratic Party could do to become relevant again?
AM: I think they need to disband. I think the two-party system is a complete sham; I think it is designed so that the voters can feel like they have the satisfaction of "throwing those bums out of office" every four to eight years, but without the direction of the country ever significantly changing. I think it's all a sham. That's not saying there's not a bunch of good Democrats. I'm sure there's a lot of people who still haven't figured that out yet or simply don't want to have that pessimistic of an outlook, but I think the Democratic Party is completely worthless. We don't need a two-party system. We need something else. Because at this point, the two-party system is really just a one-party system. And that one party is crumbling. And let's think about what that really means–there is no opposition party. And the party that is in power is falling apart. Doesn't that kind of mean the country's falling apart? I don't wanna be accused of being an alarmist, but if there's nothing to replace the government with in terms of an opposition party, and you see it all falling down around you, well doesn't that mean that we're all kind of screwed? It kind of feels that way to me. And I'm pretty worried about it, to be honest with you.
AVC: What could that "something else" be?
AM: I think we need... I don't know. Perhaps it's time to start examining countries that have made democracy work while still having some kind of the same relationship in covenant with their population. Perhaps we need to look at the Scandinavian countries, or Canada, or something else, but whatever we have now, I think we just have to acknowledge, ain't workin.
AVC: That reminds me of your, Kyle Baker, and Reginald Hudlin's graphic novel Birth Of A Nation, where people actually secede. Can you ever see something like that actually happening? Another American revolution? Or do you think people are just too apathetic to feel one way or another?
AM: I think revolution is always a little bit possible. I think it won't look or sound anything like what we would expect. But I think revolution is very difficult, and I'm not optimistic for any kind of dramatic change. You know, I think... I don't know what the future holds. It seems to be going in a really bad, bad place really quickly, and I don't have the answers and I don't have the solutions and I don't know what's gonna happen to change it. But the continued apathy will only lead to a worse situation for everybody.
AVC: Did you vote for Nader in the last election?
AM: No. It was interesting, and I saw Nader shortly before the election and–I voted him the time before, because I liked the sort of long-term strategy of building a viable third party. So, okay, we'll get enough votes, you get a little bit more money, and maybe, if there's continued growth, then maybe eventually there's hope for a viable, legitimate third party. I think the reason why I didn't vote for him last time was because we tried that and it didn't work. Ralph Nader is a very smart guy, and I think he's got a lot of good ideas...
I think, to a certain degree, they ignore the entertainment element of politics. I think you have to play the game on every level. If you need a friendly, charismatic, good-looking guy to be the mouthpiece, then so be it. And maybe Nader should just be behind the scenes telling that guy what to say. But I don't see the strategy. I see the heart being in the right place, and I see the sophisticated thinking and the progressive thinking, and the desire to do right for the world, and all of that is good, but I don't see the strategy as to how they're gonna make those things happen. And I would really like to see that again. And now, don't get me wrong, it definitely ain't the Democratic Party either. They're so bad, I mean I'm actually starting to believe that Kerry was just token resistance, that he literally was down with Bush. It was just such a horrible, horrible, horrible thing to see, that campaign. So, you know, I don't know what's going on. [Laughs.]
AVC: And it seems like an incredible paradox that all of Hollywood was mobilized for Kerry, and yet they still did such a terrible job conveying their message to the American people.
AM: You can call it a conspiracy theory, at this point I'm starting to not even care... I guess I was a conspiracy theorist when I said "no weapons." Now they call that history. Maybe he just threw the damn thing. I actually don't even think Kerry lost, to be honest with you. Once I heard about the electronic voting machines, and how they weren't gonna be audited, and no one would be able to go in and verify what the votes were. And then the exit poll thing–wasn't that kind of weird? How the exit polls didn't match up to the voting... I feel like, you know, they dropped a couple lines of code in here and there, and swung a couple states in their direction. When you're young you say... Like, at least when I was young, in high school: "Eh, voting doesn't mean nothing." You don't really know that to be true, you just say it. Then you get older, and responsible, and you go, "Oh heck, let me vote." And then you vote and you go away. I was actually right when I was 16. Because it really doesn't mean anything. I wish I could say something different, but I think it's kind of a sham.
AVC: Where would a change come?
AM: I think the people should demand accountability on the voting. I think there's no point in voting if you're not gonna demand fairness and be able to verify each vote. And other countries can do this fairly easily. So I don't think you really want democracy if you're not willing to take that first step. So when they come out and they go, "You can have all these electronic voting machines, they're made by Bush supporters, and no, you can't verify what the votes are," you don't really believe in democracy if you go and vote under those conditions. You're just kind of wasting your time. So that's the first thing, for people to actually value the vote itself before it's ever gonna mean anything. But then... the population has to be educated about how the government actually works. Anyone will acknowledge that there's a lot of people other than those who are elected who run the government, and who are in permanent positions, and long-term positions, appointed positions–not voted in by anybody. That kind of gnaws away, I think, at the idea of democracy. The two-party system, again, is an issue. What we see is no desire on behalf of anyone to begin to address these problems.
But the flip-side is–and this is what I have to remind myself–I think the population of the United States has been subjected to the most sophisticated form of propaganda and mind control that any group of people has been exposed to in a very, very long time. It's difficult for people in this country to get any kind of factual information and to make intelligent decisions based on them. And it's not difficult in the sense that the information's hard to get, it's difficult in that it's hard to overcome what you're getting beamed into your brain by the television every day. The worthlessness of journalism today is just making the country confused and bewildered and lost.
AVC: Do you think there's not a truly free press?
AM: Well, yeah. I mean, look at this Judith Miller thing. Isn't that problematic? Like, she's getting fed information from the White House and she's feeding it to her editors and then it's in the Times and then the people at the White House can quote themselves? And it's the New York Times! And, you know, I would have people laugh at me and go, "Yeah, do you really think the government is calling the New York Times and the Washington Post and telling them what to run?" Yes. [Laughs.] Yes I do.
AVC: You almost have a nostalgia for a time when the government was better at deceiving people, and was better...
AM: Yeah, we call those the Clinton years.
AVC: Could you see yourself retiring from day-to-day cartooning anytime soon?
AM: You know, I tell myself I'm gonna quit every week, but it's been six years now. Not anytime soon, no. I think this year was probably more difficult than it will be moving forward, now that the show is up and running and set up. It won't be like starting from scratch again next year, so it'll always be a challenge. It's always tough to fill that space every week. But, for now, I'm trying to hold on to it as long as I can.
AVC: Are you still finding it satisfying as a creative outlet?
AM: Yeah, I think so. I think, ultimately, the problem with something like this is that you actually have so many more opportunities to say something than you actually have things worth saying. And then, as an artist who doesn't want to do bad work, gosh, how do you fill up all that space when you really don't have anything actually worthwhile to say? And that's what makes the job tough, because the fans get mad–"That's not funny," or "You've been sucking for several months now." And you go, "It's not my fault! I'm trying." When there's things worth talking about is when it gets fun again, and when the news is slow, or when there's just so many other responsibilities bearing down on me that I don't have the time to do it right, that's when it gets frustrating. As an artist, you just don't wanna put bad work out. So when you have to do it seven days a week, you're just gonna have some bad days and bad weeks and bad months and bad years. If I could just pick and choose which days I did it, that'd be great. [Laughs.]
AVC: There was a long New Yorker piece about you a few years back. How did you feel about it?
AM: That was awful. It was a really bad piece. And, you know, I'm not gonna completely blame the New Yorker, but it just... It's one of those things where you're like, "Man, I know how much time we spent together, and I know I didn't come off like that." At the time, I was killing myself, trying to get this pilot produced and maintain the strip. And I'm just trying to figure out how to get it all done at once, when nobody can do it all. And it kind of made it seem like I was really cavalier and lackadaisical about it, and just didn't care. And that kind of bothered me. I don't remember grabbing myself at The Nation dinner, but the writer wasn't there, and he didn't really, clearly let people know he wasn't there. But it was a rough time for me, and I'm sure I was... It's like I said, I can't blame the New Yorker as much as I'd like to, but I do think it was a really kind of really kind of messed-up article. But at least I looked good. And I got to meet Richard Avedon, and that was a very cool thing.
AVC: What bothered you most about it?
AM: Well, like I said, I think it was the... At the end, I just kind of felt like they made it seem like I just was really cavalier, and I just didn't care about the strip. And I was just trying to figure any way possible to get everything done, because there just wasn't really any help. At the time it was just really, really hard on me. So, you know, it's all subjective. But I think the New Yorker article actually just taught me a really good lesson, which is–and now that I've been feeling stressed again, I'm reminded of it–it's all... None of this is actually reality. This is all interpretations of reality. You know, one writer's perspective, and you accept it for what it is, and you have to keep all of that stuff–everything regarding celebrity–at arm's length. Fame is not your friend. It ain't necessarily your enemy. It is what it is. You're here, people look at you and point at you and ask a bunch of questions, and then they'll move on to something else. And that's kinda it.
AVC: How do you handle the pressure of doing both the show and the strip?
AM: You collapse a few times, and you put your head in your hands, and you say, "Oh my god, how am I gonna get through this?" You have a few of those nights, and then you get over it and you keep it moving. And those nights... As you get more used to the strain, I guess those nights are fewer and farther between. So that's the best you can hope for. It's a tough job and it's a lot to pull out of your brain. And then, on top of that, I think, being a public figure–which, I have to admit, I guess I'm largely responsible for, in terms of going out and putting myself out there–comes with its own burdens, and its own things that cause you stress, and its own worries. So it's been an interesting six years and I think I've learned a few things. But I'm glad I got through it, that I got to this point. Because I'm happy with the show, I'm really proud of what we've done, and I'm glad we made it this far.
AVC: So, speaking of being in the public eye, what was it like being one of People's most eligible bachelors?
AM: What, in 2001? It didn't really do much for me. I thought I was gonna, you know, be mobbed by women when I walked down the street, people would go, "AAAAHHHHH!" and they would just run up to me screaming with their magazines, and none of that happened. [Laughs.] It's a nice story to tell. I used to try to use it to pick up chicks. That didn't even work. [Laughs.] So, you know... It's weird, I mean... It's not bad, it's just kind of silly. It's an ego boost for about five minutes, and then you think, "Man, I bet all the other guys in the magazine are getting a bunch of chicks right now," and I'm not. So, damn, maybe this is just another blow to my self-esteem. [Laughs.] "I thought this would be a good thing. I thought I was gonna be Hugh Hefner, man... I'm gonna have people lined up trying to get married and throwing their panties at me," and... Nope, none of that.
AVC: But having your own television show couldn't hurt.
AM: Uh... No, I ain't running the streets chasing females... I'm all out of that, got me a girlfriend, all settled and old. [Laughs.] Yeah, yeah, yeah.