Though he has offended readers for years, Aaron McGruder never fails to be surprised by the outrage "The Boondocks" sometimes generates -- and expects more controversy now that the comic strip is coming to television as an animated series.
"I've never been able to predict what people are going to get mad at," McGruder said. "I've tried and I've always been surprised."
Some viewers will probably be mad at McGruder when "The Boondocks" premieres on the Cartoon Network on Sunday night. Based on the syndicated comic strip that has been banned in some newspapers, the show focuses on the adventures and political musings of 10-year-old Huey Freeman, an afro-wearing, self-styled African-American radical, and his foul-mouthed, 8-year-old gangsta wannabe brother, Riley, as they adjust to living with their grandfather in the predominantly white Chicago suburb Woodcrest -- the boondocks, in their eyes.
A Frequent Lightning Rod for Controversy
McGruder's strip, which is carried by more than 350 newspapers, has not veered away from controversy since its launch in 1999. Fans and critics of "The Boondocks" loved and hated the strip for the same reasons: its cutting-edge humor and unapologetic, sometimes unpopular, views on various issues, including race, politics, the war on terrorism and the Sept. 11 attacks.
After Sept. 11, "The Boondocks" generated a heated backlash when Huey suggested that the U.S. government's -- particularly the Reagan administration's -- past relationship with Osama bin Laden laid the groundwork for assaults. Newspapers such as New York's Newsday and the Daily News refused to carry the strip, while The Dallas Morning News opted to take "The Boondocks" off the comics page and put it in the paper's Living section. In 2003, The Washington Post also chose not to carry "The Boondocks" when, in a series of strips, Huey and his dreadlocked best friend, Caesar, concocted a plan to get Condoleezza Rice a boyfriend, thinking that would change her support of the war in Iraq. And last year, several newspapers refused to carry the strip when, to Huey's dismay, Granddad became enthralled with an African-American version of "The Apprentice" called "Can't A N---a Get a Job?"
Through Huey and other characters, McGruder, 31, has been an equal-opportunity critic. Rice, President Bush, Queen Latifah, Cuba Gooding Jr. and African-Americans in general have all been the object of Huey's wrath, for self-hatred, narrow thinking and bad TV-watching habits, among other issues.
"He's been pretty wide-ranging in the people he's gone after," said Mark Naison, a professor of African-American studies at Fordham University in the Bronx, N.Y. "I like his targets. People like him, Dave Chappelle, and [New York Times] columnists go after people, not matter how unpopular, and take them to task on issues they believe need to be dealt with. That's what I like about it ['The Boondocks']."
'Ronald Reagan is the Devil'
"The Boondocks" doesn't lose any of its bite on the small screen.
Because of its language and subject matter, the series will be shown at 11 p.m. as part of the Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" programs for mature audiences. The pilot episode, entitled "The Garden Party," will likely generate some outrage from viewers for some characters' use of the N-word and Huey's insistence to a predominantly white crowd at a party in a dream that the Sept. 11 attacks were a part of a government plot and that Reagan was the devil. (Huey bases part of his theory on Reagan on the fact that his first, middle and last names each has six letters.) Grandad's rather physical discipline of Riley and irreverent takes on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks in subsequent episodes may also invite some viewers' ire.
McGruder, who has co-written the episodes on the show, admits he is purposely provocative -- he wants people to talk about the strip and show and watch and find them funny. But he also wants people to talk about issues they wouldn't otherwise confront and go beyond racial issues (such as the use of the N-word).
"This isn't the n---a show," McGruder said. "N---a, n---a, n---a, n---a, n---a. I just wish we would expand the dialogue and evolve past the same conversation that we've had over the past 30 years about race in our country. … I just hope to expand the dialogue and hope the show will challenge people to think about things they wouldn't normally think about, or think about it in a very different way."
Looking Beyond the N-Word ... or Exploiting It?
"The Boondocks" follows a long tradition of comedians and shows that have used humor to confront issues of race. From Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor and Chris Rock to "All in the Family," "The Jeffersons" and "Chappelle's Show," race has fueled some of the most provocative programs on television.
But does its entertainment value overshadow the discussion it may intend to provoke? Does the use of the N-word lose its power -- and therefore become more acceptable -- if the audience always laughs, or doesn't respond at all? Some of McGruder's critics have wondered whether his primary intent is to entertain instead of provoke real dialogue, and whether he is just capitalizing on hot-button issues.
"When you're dealing with the entertainment business, a business that deals with marketing and ratings and profit, you have to be suspicious," Naison said. "You get ratings by touching on stereotypes, the titillating subjects people talk about -- their anxieties, fears, longings and desires. That's why hip-hop sells. But at the same time, I don't believe in censorship."
"The Boondocks": Eventually Coming to a Theater Near You
McGruder is just happy "The Boondocks" has become a TV series.
He initially pitched a pilot of the show to Fox -- and it was rejected. It has come a long way since he began writing the strip in 1997 while he was a student at the University of Maryland. McGruder now has a growing empire that includes -- in adition to the strip and TV show -- four books and an agreement with Sony Pictures Animation to produce an animated film version of "The Boondocks."
For all the controversy his show and strip may continue to spark, McGruder is aware he may also draw praise from both longtime fans and critics. However, he tries not to dwell too much on any accolades.
"I try to insulate myself from any feedback to the strip as [best] I can, because it just makes it easier to do my job," McGruder said. "It would just interfere with the creative process."
So it seems that McGruder is also an equal-opportunity critic -- on himself. Even he cannot escape Huey's wrath.