My favorite Aaron McGruder moment comes during this ABC Nightline interview. First airing after his incendiary "Return of the King" episode, host Cynthia McFadden sets up a clip in which a returned-from-coma Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. airs out the black community: "I had a dream...lo and behold some four decades later what have I found but a bunch of trifling, shiftless, good-for-nothing niggers." McFadden then asks, "Mr. McGruder, you have Martin Luther King saying 'the n-word.' It's going to be offensive to many people. Why?"
McGruder immediately cracks, "Well actually, we had him say 'nigger,'" and then chuckling in smug defiance, "we don't use 'the n-word' on our show."
My second favorite McGruder moment goes back to the day Saddam Hussein was captured (you remember 12/13/03, right? yay!), incidentally the same day Aaron was invited as a Guest Speaker at a five-hundred-dollar-a-plate dinner celebrating one hundred thirty-eight years of The Nation. In lieu of stroking egos and accepting "coronation as one of their guys," Aaron would instead channel the militant cynicism of Huey Freeman and lay into the room of three-hundred "big rich white leftists" for essentially "feeling too good about themselves." And then when all "the old white faces" decided to clap back by heckling their guest speaker, for example thanking him for Bush (cause he voted Nader), McGruder turns Riley Freeman (the thuggish brother) and [allegedly] offers the old hood standby for ending debates since time immemorial: "try these nuts."
So what can I say? Ballsy balls balls. After researching for an interview with the writer/director/producer in advance of his first live-action series Black Jesus, I'm deeply profoundly in love with Aaron McGruder's balls. It took balls to start a controversial race-oriented comic strip in a field of bland white funny pages. It took balls to get that strip more national traction by getting frisky with the tragedy of 9/11 when most were afraid to go anywhere near it. It took balls to keep that strip firmly on the neck of Bush-era politics all those days and weeks through two administrations. I hope he still has them. I hope they're still big, brown-black (caramel?) and confident enough to show up anywhere at anytime. I hope they're sufficiently protected from the steel-toe boot of criticism, and the sharp bedazzled talons of Rihanna-wave feminism. We dem balls. You ain't about this ballsy balls ballin' on some free ballsy baller shit. Let's everyone put their balls on the table. Balls out this time. Let's go balls-out with our balls out! [(I think I'm supposed to say something here, in parentheses, something to protect my sexuality, something about the line that came before this. Something that addresses the subtext when someone talks about another man's balls a lot. Let's pause to try and remember what I should add here...)]
On The Boondocks immature outbursts that lead to testicular references, or grabbing, would be labeled "a nigga moment." On Chappelle's Show such incidents were framed as "When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong." Perhaps now in 2014 we simply acknowledge it as reality; that impenetrable aspect of our human condition which, for better and worse, refuses to grow up. In the same New Yorker profile where we learn of the "Metropolitan Club melee" McGruder later tells writer Ben McGrath in a more dignified and articulate fashion, "I want to do stuff that has a moral center… But I'm not trying to be that guy, the political voice of young black America, because then you have to sort of be a responsible grownup, for lack of a better word. And it's like—you know, Flip Wilson said this, he said, 'I reserve the right to be a nigger.' And I absolutely do, at all times."
(It's a little funny to think about the legacy of black celebrities who have stridently, viciously fought for the right to, basically, have a meltdown or tantrum when they so choose. To fight not for survival, but for privilege and entitlement. And god bless them for it. It's like children throw tantrums; but we American adults learn to reserve the right to behave miserably should circumstances demand. Is not psychology the beginning of all vice? Whither the spirit when your childlike creativity, purity, and honesty is honestly crowded out by all the grown thoughts?)
McGruder's anxiety, traced back to Flip Wilson and beyond, also echoes across color/gender lines today with say, Miley Cyrus, who has explicitly reserved her right to be seen as a slutty hoebag and shrugged off any perceived responsibilities to young m'lady America. Or by a Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, or Abbi and Ilana of Broad City who, much to our delight, indulge all sorts of youthfully ignorant moments in their respective zeitgeist-y shows because they feel genuine or relevant despite not necessarily abiding all the Feminist Terms of Service rules and regulations. Even Louie CK has ostensibly reserved the right to be some entitled privileged strain of Chris Rock-certified "white nigga" and let the pathos and angst from that drive his most recent season of critically lauded television.
And of course nowadays there's a word for sampling this schizo self-anxiety, flipping it, and then repurposing it into a maximalist celebration of human ambition: the word is "Kanye."
Which brings us back to Black Yeezus, err Jesus. That we might call our new current landscape of identity politics something like "post-Kanye" or "post-Obama" and be kinda-sorta understood is the huge generation-sized x-factor in speculating on the quality of McGruder's new show. The smug defiance, the militant cynicism that defined his rise to becoming "America's most radical cartoonist" now feels a bit anachronistic. Not that we no longer need a "daily foot in the ass of the man" but the art, the content, the agenda which constituted the satire boom that rose to power and became establishment during the aughts—I'm thinking The Daily Show, Colbert Report, South Park, along with outlets like The Onion, filmmaker Michael Moore, even the more socially-conscious hip hop acts like The Roots, Mos Def, Common and baby Kanye et. al—were united by a common enemy: Worst President Ever(™), George W. Bush. But ever since he stumbled off stage right, increasingly it seems the enemy is ourselves, and our satire has adjusted its tone and sightlines accordingly. [The philosopher] Wittgenstein once described his talent as "originality belonging to the soil rather than to the seed." One wonders whether McGruder will be as sharp without all the fertile material he had to work with in the early to mid-2000s.
Watching the premiere of Black Jesus last night (Adult Swim, 11 p.m.) it's clear none of this is lost on McGruder. The show first and foremost seems to be feeling out the balance between the "Negro" jokes and set-ups you would associate with the provocative but-not-exactly-original premise (even The Boondocks had a "Black Jesus" episode the first season) along with what Variety notes as "sweetness underneath its scabrous, sacrilegious exterior."
As for a review, beyond this setup I don't have much to add beyond what the New York Times, TIME, and NPR have noted. (Of course, as to be expected, some tight-ass moms and Christian zealots are trying to petition their way into the picture.) Most critics are acknowledging the premiere as uneven, but also respecting the promise given the pedigree of the players involved. The extended trailer gives you a sense of where they're going—a motley crew of eccentric urban Los Angeles characters anchored by the central accessible "what if god were one of us" conceit. This interview with comedian/actor Corey Holcomb also offers hope as he points out how live-action allows comic-actors like himself and Charlie Murphy to dig into characterization and eventually steer the show to… wherever it's going. But they're not there yet. The rules of the world are a bit muddy—sometimes Jesus has miraculous powers (water to cognac!), sometimes he is at a loss; sometimes Jesus is magnanimous, sometimes he's bogarting the weed—and it's unclear whether the stakes will remain as low as Charlie Murphy's apartment complex manager mucking up Jesus and his modern-day apostles just having a little courtyard barbecue.
But in 2014 it seems clear television will need to continue to (re)focus on development, and get comfortable with giving more rope to creators, auteurs they see as having the talent and balls to deliver. Writers need time to find their voice and develop a world, audiences need time to find those shows and get lost inside them. Meanwhile balls need time to grow into full-fledged live-action human beings that lead with kindness and grace without sacrificing their POV and commentary on a world that still scans as a fixer-upper.
And if not, whatever. Try these nuts, nigga. Amen.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]