For more than six years now,Aaron McGruder’s comic strip “The Boondocks” has made a beautiful habit of throwing off complacent readers of the funny pages by taking aim at political hypocrisy, race relations, misapplied American spirit and the oeuvre of Vivica A. Fox. His sense of humor sometimes comes off as artfully tossed darts (puncture wounds from which can be found on Ms. Fox and any so-deemed purveyor of subpar black entertainment), but in the post-9/11 era it’s mostly been well-aimed cannon fire at the targets McGruder once described as “Bush and Bush and, well, Bush.” Adding to the disorientation is the wonderfully absurd construct that all the crafty barbs, cynical rants and black-nationalist harangues emerge from a steely-eyed, headdress-fro’ed 10-year-old kid honorifically named Huey. And, of course, his base of ops is the leafy, suburban enclave he’s forced to live in with his retired, don’t-bother-me-I’m-happy grandfather.
McGruder has become a pop-culture rebel hero for his unapologetically firebrand creation, which is routinely yanked from newspapers for days at a time by scared publishers, as if they and McGruder are engaged in a kind of hand-slap challenge.
Now, though, with the debut of an animated series based on his strip, McGruder is angling for franchise-king status, and the inevitable question is whether fans will note a diluting of the satirical fury of “The Boondocks” to attract a wider audience. There are many ironies attendant to that worry. One is that McGruder reaches far more people with the strip — more than 350 papers so far, and perhaps 20 million readers — than a late-night cartoon on basic cable ever will. Another irony is that no one can be too topical in TV’s ink-animation world, where every episode can take nine months to produce. The last irony is that the taboo of bad language and hot-button “n-word” usage in a family paper isn’t a problem in the edgy world of post–prime time that McGruder has just joined.
The lines, then, have been drawn. You want McGruder’s up-to-the-minute thoughts on the Katrina fiasco? Check your Los Angeles Times. You want generalized, profane swipes at R. Kelly, white idiocy and rap culture? Check out the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, Sunday nights at 11 p.m.
The first two episodes made available for review, though, make apparent the difficulties in translating the vibrancies of one medium to another. The timing of a TV show is a different animal from the punchy joys of an in-and-out three-panel strip, and there’s a clunkiness to the pacing of this new Boondocks incarnation. I suspect part of this has to do with the stylized, animé-influenced look that is a crossover from the way the strip is drawn. The sharp lines, jagged edges and painterly tableaux make for impressive static images, but the jerky movement can kill the pacing of a loose, quick-witted exchange.
Then there’s the matter of meeting expectations as to what Huey, his 8-year-old thug-loving brother Riley, and Granddad all sound like. While Friday actor John Witherspoon is pitch-perfect as the boys’ cranky guardian, I’m not sure Regina King was the way to go with our pintsize fight-the-power heroes. King is a great actress — Ray is all you need to see to know that — but her high pitch gives Huey and Riley the bleat of breathy, whiny girls instead of snotty boy revolutionaries. She doesn’t tweak her voice enough, the way Nancy Cartwright and Pamela Segall do to characterize animated boy characters Bart Simpson and Bobby Hill, respectively. It’s a problem probably easily solved with some direction, but for now it makes for a weird disconnect, like hearing Snoopy meow.
The first two episodes, written by McGruder and Rodney Barnes, also have wild swings in quality. Sunday’s debut, in which Granddad is befriended by Ed Asner–looking, Ed Asner–voiced town banking magnate Ed Wuncler and goes to a snooty garden party, has many funny streaks of insouciance. Huey does his best to disrupt the polished, white party-goers with an anti-Reagan diatribe but only receives applause for how cute he is; meanwhile, Wuncler’s just-back-from-Iraq grandson is portrayed as a doltish wigga who brags — in scatological detail — about his fear of combat. And not one to be outdone by Dave Chappelle’s hilarious blind white supremacist who doesn’t know he’s black, McGruder has a new recurring character called Uncle Ruckus, a growly, unkempt Wuncler slave — er, employee — who despises African-Americans and trusts in all things white.
Things dip with the mostly unfunny episode two, in which Granddad doesn’t realize his new girlfriend Cristal is a prostitute. The tired ho and bitch jokes could make you think you’ve stumbled upon a hacky Def Comedy Jam also-ran or the kind of sitcom the strip version of Huey would have given a “most embarrassing” award. There’s a lot of good will in wanting to see Boondocks succeed as it makes its way into pop-culture ubiquity à la The Simpsons or “Doonesbury,” because McGruder’s biting wit, political sensibility and idol-pricking have been so valuable as we’ve bombed our way into the 21st century. But I somehow imagine the folks at perennial “Boondocks” target Black Entertainment Television — or, as Huey calls it, Black Exploitation Television — watching the “ho” episode and smiling in recognition of an easy slice of pandering TV.
Chris Rock, like Aaron McGruder, may be a treasure trove of frustration-filled political humor, but his UPN show Everybody Hates Chris — about the comedian’s experiences as a teenager in the Bed-Stuy area of Brooklyn in the early ’80s — is gently funny, something like clear-eyed, warm-hearted survival humor set to a sweet Earth, Wind & Fire song.
The family-comedy element isn’t of the upper-middle-class parenting-lesson variety like The Cosby Show or the everybody’s-wacky vibe of recent sitcoms like Malcolm in the Middle, it’s about the family as ecosystem: How what happens to beleaguered little Chris (Tyler James Williams) at school affects what goes on at home, and vice versa. Every episode of Rock’s series, co-created with Emmy-winning partner Ali LeRoi, looks at the careful equilibrium that keeps a mother, father and three kids from letting the harsh realities of life — money, money and money — disrupt a smoothly running, if occasionally volatile, domestic engine. It’s a household where the temperament of Mom (Tichina Arnold) is scarier than that of the two-jobs dad (Terry Crews), and a school where being the only black kid can mean you’re assumed to be able to play basketball (which Chris can’t) and to have beaten the school bully in a fight (which Chris didn’t).
Even with the series’ terrific performances — especially from Williams, who can throw a “my ass is grass” look that is both hilarious and heartbreaking, and Crews, a big man with a farceur’s timing — Everybody Hates Chris wouldn’t feel nearly as original without Rock’s lively narration, which at times feels like a soundtrack of choice standup riffs: “My brother didn’t take karate lessons. All he had to do was see somebody do something, and then he could copy it. Today you’d call that a music producer.” At its best, though, Rock’s electric, preacher delivery has the comic power of somebody offering up an impromptu response to the action onscreen. Watching his TV dad reluctantly hand back hundreds of dollars in pre-paid rent to a mysterious boarder that Mom decides she wants out, Rock chimes in with, “You don’t know how much that’s killin’ him right now. I’m cryin’ just lookin’ at it.” So far, Everybody Hates Chris has felt like a textbook example of how you fold a comedian’s sensibility into a familiar TV genre. At this rate, I’d give his angry side its own sitcom, too.