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New comic strip show questions 911 { October 30 2005 }

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October 30, 2005
The Comic-Strip Revolution Will Be Televised
Los Angeles

FANS fearing that "The Boondocks," the wildly scathing, racially charged comic strip, will lose its bite when it appears on television next week need not worry. Within the first 10 seconds of the new show of the same name, viewers will be offered the following Molotov cocktail of social criticism: "Jesus is black, Ronald Reagan is the devil and the government is lying about 9/11."

Since its national debut six years ago, the strip, about two black children living in white suburbia, has slaughtered its share of sacred cows, eviscerating everyone from Condoleezza Rice and Strom Thurmond to 50 Cent and Ralph Nader. President Bush has been a frequent target. As a result, the strip has been suspended, banished to editorial pages and dropped from some newspapers (it currently appears in more than 300).

Trying to translate that incendiary spirit into great television will be a challenge, an expensive challenge at that. Cartoon Network pays Sony Pictures Television, producer of the series, an estimated license fee of $400,000 per episode. Add to that the millions the network has spent on marketing, including many billboards in New York and Los Angeles trumpeting the show's premiere on Nov. 6 in the late-night "Adult Swim" block, and "The Boondocks" becomes the most expensive show the network has made.

"We don't have a lot of money, so we decided that for this year, we're going to put every dime we have into 'Boondocks,' " said Mike Lazzo, senior vice president of programming and production at Cartoon Network.

It remains to be seen if the anime series will become a phenomenon like Dave Chappelle's "Chappelle's Show" or sputter and die like "The PJs," Eddie Murphy's animated series about life in the projects. (Both shows satirized African-American culture and the culture at large.) "I figure it will either be a big hit or a massive flop; there is no room for in between," Aaron McGruder, creator of "The Boondocks," said one recent afternoon in the windowless warehouse space that serves as his studio here. "I work presuming horrendous failure and I do my best to prevent that."

Like the strip, the series follows the adventures of Huey Freeman, a 10-year-old militant with the soul of a Black Panther, and his baby brother, Riley, a cornrow-sporting potty mouth who idolizes gangsta rappers. The boys live in the suburbs with their stern but loving grandfather. Played by John Witherspoon (best known for his role as a sartorially challenged father in the 1992 romantic comedy "Boomerang"), Granddad is partial to corporal punishment and exercising in the nude. The actress Regina King ("Jerry Maguire") gives voice to both Riley and Huey. (The singer Alicia Keys was originally cast as Huey but dropped out citing scheduling conflicts.) Unlike the strip, Mr. McGruder said, the series will not be topical. "We cannot make a show that's going to be dated," he explained. "It has to survive into syndication and be watchable in 10 years."

Still, it would not be an Aaron McGruder production if it were not controversial and "The Boondocks" is sure to inspire heated conversation. One episode imagines the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. emerging from a coma, only to find that his pacifism doesn't play well in the post-Sept. 11 world. No longer a beloved national hero, he lands on the cover of Time magazine as a traitor. Even worse, a film about him, directed by Oliver Stone and starring Cuba Gooding Jr., tanks. Another episode has a self-loathing black man praying to get into white heaven. In "Guess Hoe's Coming to Dinner," Granddad dates a young gold digger who turns out to be a prostitute. And an episode poking fun at the R&B singer R. Kelly, who is facing child pornography charges, ends with Huey declaring, "We all know the nigga can sing, but what happened to standards?"

Mr. McGruder is unapologetic about the use of the N-word in his series - it appears more than 20 times in one episode, even. "I use it," he said. "A lot of young black people use it and a lot of old black people use it. At a certain point it starts to feel fake if you're not using it."

The furor over the word "speaks to how juvenile racial discourse is in this country," Mr. McGruder said.

Mr. Lazzo said he was not bothered by the provocative content of "The Boondocks." "I'm 47 and I grew up with 'All in the Family' and I remember that show made people laugh and think and that's what good television does," he said.

Still, Mr. McGruder is willing to make certain concessions to more delicate sensibilities. When Sony executives asked that he heavily edit an episode that featured Oprah Winfrey being kidnapped by two thugs, he did not protest. "They were scared of Oprah, which is O.K.," he said. "We should all have a healthy fear of Oprah."

"Oprah has the power to lay waste to entire industries with a mere utterance," Mr. McGruder said, quoting one his show's characters. "That's a power that you have to respect. And ultimately I respect it."

That doesn't mean he's gotten softer, though; he views the very suggestion as a kind of trap. "The same people that question me about getting soft to get me to say something crazy about Oprah will turn around and be like, 'Look at what this crazy fool just said about Oprah!'"

Standing just over 5 feet 7, Mr. McGruder is a slight, handsome man with small features and slim hands. Dressed in jeans, a Stevie Wonder T-shirt and horn-rimmed glasses, the cartoonist could easily pass for a bookish high school sophomore. Unlike his alter ego, Huey, whose face is all furrowed brow and self-righteous scowl, Mr. McGruder is quick to smile. One afternoon this month, he was brimming with opinions. Mr. McGruder on Senator Barack Obama's chances of ever sitting in the Oval Office: "He's not even going to be able to smell the White House unless he's a member of Skull and Bones or any of those close-knit secret societies that really aren't so secret anymore." Regarding the rapper Kanye West's recent remark that Mr. Bush doesn't care about black people: "If you're black and you don't know that by now, you're in trouble. I think it's time that poor whites start realizing that George Bush doesn't care about them either and he will let them die too."

Those who work with Mr. McGruder say that his passion for politics is infectious. "Since meeting Aaron," Ms. King said, "I've started listening to NPR. He inspires you to want to go out and learn more."

Born on the South Side of Chicago and raised in the middle-class suburb of Columbia, Md., an area that bears more than a passing resemblance to the bucolic Boondocks, Mr. McGruder began drawing as a child. In high school he listened intently to the black nationalist-inspired rhymes of rap groups like Public Enemy, X-Clan and Poor Righteous Teachers. During his years as an African-American studies major at the University of Maryland, Mr. McGruder said, he flirted with the idea of becoming "a spokesman for the people." The life expectancy of that gig, however, proved an insurmountable deterrent. "Usually if you're doing that job well, you're dead by 34, which is not in my plans," he said.

Instead, he set out to create a spokesman who could not be assassinated: an adorable, opinionated, elementary school kid with not-so-elementary insights about race, class and culture. The first person to put "The Boondocks" in print was a college student named Jayson Blair, who was then editor of The Diamondback, the campus paper at the University of Maryland. Mr. McGruder proudly recalled persuading Mr. Blair to pay him $30 per strip, $17 more than his fellow cartoonists were receiving at the time. Years later, Mr. Blair, hired by this paper and then resigned after fabricating stories, would be lampooned in the strip he help put on the map. "You can actually look at Jayson Blair and say, 'Wow, you set black people back,' " Mr. McGruder said, shaking his head. "A lot of people are accused of that, but he actually did it."

"The Boondocks" went national in 1999 and its creator quickly became a personality. Books of his cartoons, like "Birth of a Nation" and "A Right to Be Hostile," soon followed.

This is not the first time Mr. McGruder has tried to turn his strip into a television show. From the fall of 2003 to the summer of 2004, he worked on a six-minute pilot for Fox. He described the process in a word: "hellish." "It was an incredibly difficult time for me," he said. "I was worked half to death all the time. I was a zombie. I was mean. I was miserable."

Mr. McGruder said he had seriously contemplated walking away from his strip. Or getting himself fired: "I didn't want to quit, but if they threw me out then I'm a martyr," he reasoned. As it turned out, however, the angrier and more frustrated he grew, the better his work got. "Going as far as I can with my own creative instincts has generally only paid off," he said with a rueful shrug.

When Fox passed on the show, Mr. Lazzo contacted the cartoonist and asked to look at the pilot. "It felt networky," Mr. Lazzo recalled. "Aaron's voice felt watered down." Because cable is less restrictive, he said, "we were able to say, 'Make the show you want to make, Aaron.' "

These days it is not uncommon for Mr. McGruder and his illustrator, Carl Jones, to write a week's worth of comic strips in one day. "We're juggling so many things," Mr. Jones said. "You have no idea how crazy it can get." Already Cartoon Network has asked Mr. McGruder for another season of scripts. When not working on the strip or the series, Mr. McGruder is fiddling with a movie script about black fighter pilots in World War II.

Friends and family rarely see him. "Sometimes he works so hard, he gets sick," Ms. King said. "Like a big sister, I'm always asking Aaron if he's getting any sleep." The answer, he said, is not yet. "I made the decision early on that I was going to work myself to death now, so that I don't have to wait until 65 to enjoy my life," Mr. McGruder said. "I'm trying to live well, and there is no freedom in America if you're economically bound to the system."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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