The Interview: 'Boondocks' Creator Aaron McGruder
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.
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 ...music 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
| July 22, 2008; 10:30 AM ET
Categories: Interviews With Cartoonists, The Animation
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