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D.L. Hughley has always delighted in controversial material, but even he probably couldn't have predicted that a single joke told on The Tonight Show in the wake of the Don Imus scandal (Hughley said of the Rutgers basketball team, "Them are some of the ugliest women I've ever seen in my whole life") would lead to a summer spent defending himself against angry protestors.
Still, the star of the recently cancelled Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip is unrepentant about the backlash—an attitude reflected in the title of his upcoming HBO special, Unapologetic—and he continues to tour the country while promoting his new BET show, S.O.B.: Socially Offensive Behavior. Along with sharing his thoughts on the end of Studio 60, Hughley recently spoke with The A.V. Club's Austin editor about the controversy that refuses to die and offered a response to Gina McCauley, the Austin, Texas woman spearheading the protest against him.
The A.V. Club: Were you surprised at what happened with Studio 60?
D.L. Hughley: No. I think that like most things that are highly touted—the number-one draft pick—we crumpled under the weight of expectations. I think that's a fairly common phenomenon.
AVC: What do you think it could have done differently?
DLH: I think we could have not taken ourselves so seriously. We pulled back the curtain too much. It's like when you go to a restaurant: It can be the best restaurant in the world, but I just want to eat the meal. I don't want to know how they make the steak. I think we spent so much time explaining and making what we did "important." We weren't inclusive enough. We had conversations with ourselves to hear ourselves.
AVC: While you were still filming, did you have any sense of a backlash?
DLH: Absolutely. I don't think that any of us were shocked. The pilot, I thought it was some of the most well-written television I'd ever seen, and it was the reason I was excited about doing it. But then we just became too aware of ourselves. It's tough to have a show be about a medium that you love and respect—meaning comedy—and see people It's like seeing a pretty girl with somebody else, and they just don't treat her right. It kinda hurts.
AVC: Dave Chappelle said one of the reasons he walked away from his show was that he felt it was helping keep stereotypes alive. Do you ever worry that Socially Offensive Behavior—which also mines stereotypes for laughs—is helping propagate stereotypes?
DLH: Stereotypes existed hundreds of years before me or Chappelle or BET, and the only way they ever go away is to shine a light on it. There's a distinct difference between observing a joke and becoming one. I think that the greatest people I've ever seen involved in this art form—from George Carlin to Pigmeat Markham to Redd Foxx to Dick Gregory to Lenny Bruce—have all done what we do now, which is take a look at the things around us. I love to push people's buttons and watch people deal with the shit they have in their head.
AVC: And now you're being protested for that.
DLH: This isn't the first time this has happened to me, or to comedians. If you look at what happened to Lenny Bruce or George Carlin or Richard Pryor or Redd Foxx, they've all had this happen. This art form survived McCarthyism. It can survive somebody with a mouth and an e-mail page.
AVC: Is the title of your new HBO special, Unapologetic, a direct challenge to those protestors?
DLH: Actually, we had the title before this ever even happened, but no, I don't think any person, regardless of what they say, should ever apologize unless they mean it. In the last few years, we've seen people say exactly what they mean, and then some publicist makes them apologize. And I think we pretend to be more offended than we really are. When Mel Gibson made an anti-Semitic remark, he had a number-one movie, and his Q rating went up. Michael Richards made his statement, and sales of Seinfeld went up 70 percent three weeks in a row. Isaiah Washington made an anti-gay slur. Grey's Anatomy has never been stronger. Don Imus, his numbers went through the roof.
AVC: In the case of Michael Richards and Don Imus, though, aren't their careers more or less screwed? Sales of Seinfeld went up, but surely that was because of the new DVDs that came out that week.
DLH: I don't think that's true. And I think Don Imus will be back on the air in the next couple months, and his numbers will be better than ever. I watched Don Imus for probably seven or eight years, and I watched him make remarks about everybody. I watched him support Harold Ford and Barack Obama. I also watched him take politicians to task for their treatment of Katrina victims. I have a bit of context. And it would be hypocritical for me to deny somebody else the right to express themselves the way they see fit.
AVC: So when you've called your protestors "clowns" and "buffoons"—
DLH: I think they are! I think they're clowns. In this country, 93 percent of black people are killed by other black people. One in three black people in this country can't read right now. There are more black men in jail than in college. AIDS is growing in the black community at an unprecedented rate. And you're worrying about what a comedian is saying? If you're an activist, do something about the shit that you claim is important! Me saying or not saying something is never going to change our station in the world. I've talked about any number of issues. I've been in front of presidents and I've been in front of plumbers, and I've been consistent. I believe what I believe, and I don't have to defend myself. She can say whatever she wants to say—that's her right, and I respect that right. But I will not now, never, or at any time defend myself or apologize for the way I see the world.
AVC: One thing Ms. McCauley has stated is that she isn't looking for an apology. She's said this is more of a "consumer education" demonstration.
DLH: You think she's educating them about something they don't know? The people that come see me know what to expect. I've talked about presidents, I've talked about kings, floods, fires, AIDS, war, drugs—and my career's supposed to come to a screaming halt because I said something about nappy hair? Which I have? I'm the son of a nappy-haired mother and a nappy-haired father, and I have nappy-haired children. This argument is nonsensical.
AVC: Beyond the "nappy hair," though, she believes your comments are part of a continuing "open season" on African-American women.
DLH: The facts don't bear that out. You know who the fastest growing middle class and wealthy in this country is? Black women. One of the most powerful women in the country is Oprah Winfrey. One of the most powerful women in the world is Condoleezza Rice.
AVC: But a lot of the anger has to do with your comments about them physically, that there seems to be a continuous attack on the way black women look that's damaging to their self-esteem. Ms. McCauley believes you have a problem with black women in their "natural, untouched" state.
DLH: She has no concept of who I am or what she's talking about. I have a black wife I've had for 23 years. She's pretty untouched. I come from a black mother. I have three black children. I play for black audiences. How can she pretend to know who I am or to know what I believe?
AVC: You've said before that this is a free-speech issue.
DLH: Yes. I agree with the French playwright and poet Voltaire. "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
AVC: Ms. McCauley has challenged you to recite the first five words of the First Amendment.
DLH: Look, I don't know all the words of the Bible, but that doesn't mean I don't believe in God! [Laughs.] I don't know all the words of the Constitution—that don't mean I'm not entitled to it. I've got a GED, so there's a lot of things I don't know, but what I do know is, I'm one of the best comics in this country, and I'll keep being one of the best comics in this country. I challenge her to cite one example of me not loving black women in their natural state! Here's the truth of the matter: I know women, and I know hoes. I know black men, and I know niggers. I know bitches and I know friends. I do! And I won't pretend that I don't. My gig is to call it like I see it. So she knows the first five words, so what is that? What does that accomplish?
AVC: The point she's trying to make is that while you have the right to say what you want, she also has the right to vocally disagree with you. So you agree with that.
DLH: Of course I do! I don't negate her right to say what she said. But look, people like her have systematically killed an industry. Every year, a television show comes on, black activists get together and go, "This show is stereotypical. We don't want it on." Anything from The Secret Diary Of Desmond Pfeiffer to Homeboys In Outer Space to Booty Call to Barbershop to whatever. Now studios don't even make black television shows any more, because they're so tired of this controversy. This is the same woman who had a problem with Hot Ghetto Mess—the whole purpose of which was to be satirical, to get people to look at themselves and go, "Wow, we don't want to be that." I don't see the world the way she does. My gig is to call it like I see it, and I'll do it until the day before forever.
AVC: So you don't worry about the studios getting tired of the controversy around you?
DLH: [Laughs.] I promise you I'll laugh a lot longer than [the protestors] will. And if my opportunities were to stop coming along, I would still look up and say, "I did something I believed in." I'm not fucking around. This ain't some bullshit publicity stunt. It's funny that of all the people in this, they sent letters to Al Sharpton, to Bill Cosby, to the girls at Rutgers. Did any of them ever respond? No! Who the fuck takes this—I mean, we got people dying on bridges, and this is a four-month-old story, and people are still worried about it?
AVC: Actually, they did get a response from Al Sharpton.
DLH: And what did Al say? You know what, I don't care what Al said. I honestly could care less what he thinks. I think these cats are just opportunists. I don't see where they've made the world any better, or actually taken a stand about anything that matters. I think in the quest to be relevant, they've put themselves in the bin of obscurity. Al Sharpton's been on my TV show, and he's sat in front of me, and I've said the exact same things.
AVC: It's funny that you call Sharpton an "opportunist," because his letter says your joke was an "obvious attempt to create publicity" for yourself, and that it's sad that you would "stoop to behavior that is disrespectful to women as a means of self-promotion."
DLH: Al Sharpton's actually gonna say "self-promotion"? Al Sharpton?! C'mon, man, let's be real. How many people really respect what Al Sharpton says, really? He doesn't show up unless there's a camera around. I'm one of the best in the country at what I do, and I don't need to pretend to be anything else. I'm not pretending to be a preacher while going all over the country getting involved in bullshit fights. I don't go to Duke University and accuse people of shit and then when I found out I'm wrong, not apologize. I don't pretend to be a leader and then do the most asinine shit. I don't pretend to ban the "n" word while watching people starve. The only difference between me and Al Sharpton is that I'm paid to make people laugh. And when his tally is said and done, if the fact that he got Don Imus off the air is his greatest accomplishment in civil rights? If Al Sharpton's mad at me, I think I've done something right. [Laughs.] That's the fucking truth.
AVC: So do you have any regrets?
DLH: Honestly, what would I regret? That somebody didn't like the joke I told? Look at the quote and tell me one thing I said that was untrue.
AVC: In all fairness, isn't it just opinion? You're saying that these women are ugly.
DLH: Let's be real. I don't know many men who think female basketball players are attractive. And so what? Being ugly don't mean you bad! So everybody's beautiful? Everybody's smart? Everybody's warm and loving? How could I be a comic if that was what I talked about? I don't live in that world. I'm a comedian. I cuss and drink, and I go to clubs where people smoke, cuss, and drink. All I do is make people laugh while they're eating chicken wings and drinking Budweiser.
AVC: Would you take the opportunity to talk to any of the Rutgers women?
DLH: I didn't talk to the Reagans when I made fun of them. I didn't talk to Anna Nicole Smith when I made jokes about her. I haven't talked to Paris Hilton when I made jokes about her. I haven't talked to George Bush when I made jokes about him. What's the difference between all the people I made jokes about and them? Stevie Wonder fired me from a radio station he owned. I was brand new and joking around, and I said, "I bet this place wouldn't look this bad if you could see." And he fired me. That's asinine to ask me to apologize to everybody I ever talked about. What is the difference between them and the Rutgers girls?
AVC: To the protestors, at least, one key difference is that people feel like it's not just these women you're talking about, but all black women. Obviously the joke came at a very sensitive time for black women—
DLH: It's ironic to me that I'm listening to a white reporter tell me how black women feel. It's one chick who's upset and who's pretending to speak for a lot of other people. On her blogs, she's got a couple thousand people. Okay. I'll do that in a weekend. Even if they're all protesting tomorrow, what are they hoping to accomplish with this?
AVC: Her stated goal is to see that you're reduced to playing small clubs and not selling tickets.
DLH: Okay, well, go on my MySpace page and see where I'm playing. Call BET and ask them how badly it's hurt the show. Call New York or Houston or Miami or anywhere I've been in the last six weeks, and ask them how bad they've been hurt. Oh, I dare her to keep it up! Hurt me like she's been hurting me, please! [Laughs.]