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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 07/22/2008

The Interview: 'Boondocks' Creator Aaron McGruder

By Michael Cavna

"I'm way too invested in" this presidential election, says "Boondocks" creator Aaron McGruder. (AP Photo/Sony Pictures Television, Kyle Christy)

Let the record show that The Washington Post, on occasion, withheld Aaron McGruder's now-defunct syndicated strip "The Boondocks" back in the day -- before Huey and Riley and Granddad became a mainstay on Adult Swim's television lineup in 2005. For that, Comic Riffs offers the only kind of professional reparations it can: an open forum now for McGruder, 34, to speak his mind about politics, entertainment, the creative process and, naturally, rapper Gangstalicious. We caught up recently with McGruder -- whose strip was birthed at the University of Maryland's Diamondback paper -- and did the smartest thing we could: Turn over the metaphorical floor to him ...

MICHAEL CAVNA: So do you have any particular satirical influences these days?
AARON McGRUDER: My favorite thing is [Comedy Central's] Stephen Colbert -- he's a genius. It's great to watch Colbert and think: How does he keep that pace up? That's an amazing amount of work. He's really doing something special. This particular election, it keeps you sane [to watch him], when watching TV news makes you want to throw out your television. ... This [election] has become like a reality show that I'm way too invested in.

How difficult was the transition from a static newspaper strip to your animated show?
McGRUDER: I went in knowing the show couldn't be the strip, aside from the topicality. Those jokes don't "land" at all on television. We didn't re-create the strip on TV -- we wanted to keep the characters the same but make it stand on its own. That's hard -- we certainly didn't get it right away. We struggled with Huey for a long time. Granddad just worked right from the bat. A lot of those Season One episodes were really rough. ... That first season was rough. it almost killed me and everyone around me.

The transition from "The Boondocks" comic strip to the TV show "almost killed me," McGruder says. (Aaron McGruder / Adult Swim)

What responsibilities, if any, do satirists have to their audience? Are they obligated to deliver a message while also making us laugh?
McGRUDER: I don't think anyone can define the rules for satire. We operate with the message -- that's the easy part. Everyone sits at home with their political opinions. The important thing is making it as funny as possible and knowing when to pull back on the message for the sake of the message.... It's indulgent to turn off the audience for the sake of preaching -- the goal is not to turn off the viewer. ... But it can never just [be about the jokes] for me. I'm not like a funny person. I'm not like a comedian. I have things I want to say. ... Bill Maher does find a nice balance between the jokes and tackling the serious issues. So few outlets [offer] those issues in a serious fashion.

Do you think a satirist can influence public opinion, be it a viewer or a voter?
McGRUDER: Good satire goes beyond the specific point it's trying to make and teaches you how to think critically. Even when your favorite cartoonist retires or Colbert wraps it up, you're not left believing everything they're telling you. That's probably what you're hoping for as a satirist.

So how do you go about balancing the message and "the funny"??
McGRUDER: You try to pull inspiration out of everywhere and surround yourself with people who have critical insights. It's not hard to formulate an opinion on things. It's hard to make the viewer or reader [feel] validated. You've got to give them the jokes. Funny is a rare gift.... Early on, I erred on the side of message-driven. Those are the mistakes you learn from. The second season of the show, we tried to make that adjustment. ... Depending on the audience, you've got to really recalibrate. This generation of young people and pop culture has been pretty anti-intellectual. That's a hard thing to overcome. I was careful about not turning off the young kids. They got the Rosa Parks jokes, but the kids love Gangstalicious.

So what's satire's role at the end of the day?
McGRUDER: It's still about imparting a message about the lies a society tells itself. We can all live in collective denial. We can lie to ourselves pretty easily. It's a challenge. Satire is the least commercially viable form of comedy. ... There really is a distaste for being preached at. People have a very low tolerance for it -- newspaper audiences have a way higher tolerance for it than others. But it's tough on TV.

NOTE: Read Michael Cavna's related article on satire's influence in this historic political year

By Michael Cavna  | July 22, 2008; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, The Animation  
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Sorry to read that the artist went to TV. I recently found the strip on WAPO, but quit reading once I figured out it was just re-runs. I don't have time for more TV.

Posted by: MSchafer | July 22, 2008 11:22 AM | Report abuse

I couldn't help but think of McGruder when, in an early "Boondocks" episode, Huey was preaching against the evils of the system and all the old white people did was smile and tell him how "articulate" he was while the content simply didn't register. Maybe that's why he got out of cartooning, I don't know.

Posted by: Daniel J. Drazen | July 22, 2008 2:06 PM | Report abuse

I love Boondocks! I got season one for my husband for Xmas!

Posted by: richelle | July 22, 2008 3:08 PM | Report abuse

McGruder is a disgusting filthy racist. And an unfunny one at that. It irks me to no end that he's succeeded as he has and a far superior talent that was birthed at the University of Maryland's Diamondback paper - Jeff Kinney's Igdoof - never took off.

Posted by: twasneva | July 22, 2008 4:02 PM | Report abuse

LOVED Boondocks, sorry it left the paper!

Posted by: alex | July 22, 2008 6:26 PM | Report abuse

If there were going to be so many vague, repetitive questions about satire, at least a question should have been asked about why the New Yorker/Obama magazine cover failed at satire. As for the interview overall - needs less use of the word "satire".

Posted by: John | July 22, 2008 6:57 PM | Report abuse

When I was in the states, I loved Boondocks, it had become my favorite comic strip. Then it disappeared. I've still been enjoying it in reruns, but wished for more!! Now, joy, joy, joy!!! I will look for the cartoons!! Thanks for connecting me with this missing piece of Americana, WAPO!! You've made my day!! And I hope Aaron McGruder enjoys what he's doing and keeps on doing it forever (well, as long as i'm around).

Posted by: PatrickInBeijing | July 22, 2008 7:46 PM | Report abuse

I only wish McGruder had been asked about Obama's candidacy and how he would have dealt with it in the strip were it still around. Huey, with his Black Nationalist leanings, would have been very conflicted about Obama and the fact that he is literally an African American (father from Kenya, mom from Kansas.)

Posted by: Jack | July 23, 2008 10:31 AM | Report abuse

To wasneva:

McGruder isn't a racist just because he discussed racism in his strip---he had the guts to take on issues VERY few mainstream comic strips do, particularly topics that concerned black people---there's isn't anything racist about that. It kills me how some people lke yourself would rather jsut kill the messenger than listen to the message, which is pretty ignorant in itself.

The reality is, is that racism is STILL something people of color have to deal with---believe me, it didn't go away when civil rights laws were finally passed---in fact it's coming out even more in the open since we're going to have a black President for a change. Exactly why is McGruder a racist for bringing racial topics up? Just because you can afford to stick your head in the sand and think racism doesn't exist because it's nothing you ever have to deal with, doesn't mean people have to act like it doesn't exist---I experienced it myself recently while doing outreach for an activist group I'm working for, and it surprised the hell out of me, because it was so unexpected and uncalled for.

Posted by: michelle | July 23, 2008 3:23 PM | Report abuse

and no one can accuse mcgruder of not going after--for example--condi rice. remember, called her a that was "lethal."

Posted by: remember the strip | July 23, 2008 7:17 PM | Report abuse

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