It’s hard to be funny when you’re angry.
D.L. Hughley: The Endangered List is intended to be funny. It sketchily narrates Hughley’s attempt to get black men listed on the EPA’s endangered species list. Hughley uses his obviously fake effort as an opportunity to discuss the inherent racial inequality in the American system. It’s a valuable lesson, even if it’s one you’ve learned already. And Hughley can be funny, splicing in a drop-dead hilarious one-liner into otherwise mundane conversation.
But the comedy special lacks necessary focus. And it’s because Hughley is angry. Why shouldn’t he be? As the statistics shown at the beginning observe, black men are much more likely to die due to gun violence, much more likely to go to prison, and much more likely to be in poverty. These are not just coincidental issues—this is a product of institutional racism. Hughley, though, has chosen to address this by making it jokey and casual, in an attempt to make it approachable. Though the impulse to do so is understandable, considering the difficulty of the subject matter and the desire to spread the message to as many people as possible, it makes for uncomfortable television. The tone is either blithe or patronizing: At times it is unclear whether or not Hughley is preaching to the choir or teaching a social studies class.
As a result, the final product is erratic and disjointed. Touching interviews with young, besieged gang members sit next to farcial interviews with bigots, which in turn are juxtaposed with Hughley’s own standup and his attempts at infiltrating the policymaking process. Each fragment is too separate from all the rest. Alone, they are interesting, and sometimes thought-provoking, and even less often, funny. But when strung together, the program comes off as lazily constructed.
Perhaps in response to this, Hughley’s own voiceovers runs through much of the hour, tying together the various elements with simple declarative sentences that make the resulting conclusions a little too easy. The voiceovers are the weakest aspect of the program—a very unsubtle guiding hand through the material that doesn’t respect the viewer or the content much. Narratively, the voiceovers point to bad construction; journalistically, they reveal an obvious agenda. It’s hard to get journalistically aggressive with a comedy special, of course. But Hughley invites the criticism by straying so far into documentary territory, with the air of a Sunday-night news special. But the agenda is a little too obvious, and the research is scattered, focusing on a few different people and their experiences to paint a very broad portrait of the black experience.
What Hughley is probably trying to do, in the conception and execution of this hour-long special, is produce the African-American analogue to Sacha Baron Cohen’s film franchise. Cohen is a master of the faux-documentary that inserts the comedian into the wild, capturing the contradictions and hypocrisies of modern society in raw footage. The way Cohen does it, it’s hilarious—because the comedian pretends to have no idea what’s going on. Borat, Bruno, and his other characters are naïve insertions into the world, using the public space as a vast improv stage.
Hughley does some things very well, but he doesn’t do this. His style is more suited to standup than to performance art. At all times, he projects his force of personality into the scene. The audience, in turn, can never fully suspend the disbelief necessary in order to buy into the premise. As a result the whole program falls apart.
This is even though Hughley pursues interviews with people he must despise: For example, he interviews both a homophobic minister and, obviously, a white supremacist. Both men are so loaded with their own hypocrisies that they trip over their own sentences, trying to maintain the party line. Hughley takes the opportunities he can to have fun with them. When the white supremacist argues that he does for white people what Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton do for black people, Hughley asks: “So, you annoy white people?” Then they go to a deli and split a black-and-white cookie—you guessed it—right down the middle. But Hughley doesn’t have the blank-stare, naïve poker face that Cohen has perfected, that total immersion into the character. So even tough there are funny moments in the interviews, the overall effect is of contention.
In short, Endangered List is comedy with an agenda. And that’s tricky. Comedy is hard enough; combining the dual purposes of making someone laugh and trying to teach them something usually means that some way, somewhere, something’s gotta give. D.L. Hughley has put together a mildly amusing, mostly educational hour of television that is too profane for schools and not funny enough to reach the mainstream. It’s a topic worth revisiting, but mostly it serves to show how this topic is one that deserves better treatment.
- All of this aside, D.L Hughley is a great comedian, and a wicked observer of human frailty on both sides of the color line. Somehow, the scene of the sorority girls browbeating people into signing the petition is hilarious, perhaps because unlike most depictions of sorority girls, the women themselves are very complicit in mocking the men who stop to talk to them.
- “I am Bro-Life!”
- Hughley gets the white half of the black-and-white cookie. Read into that what you will.