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Reginald D Hunter: “Old and middle-class people, if you scare them, they vote”

The comedian talks about race, Republicans and why stand-ups shouldn't be nice.

Should good comedy challenge the audience?
It can do many things. If anybody says that it "should" be this or that, that's the first step towards extremism. Some nights, I'm pissed about something political; some nights, I'm pissed about something personal. Some nights, I'm thrilled about something weird.

You're from Georgia but you've worked mostly in Britain. What is it like going back to the US?
Recently, I did a lot of the black comedy clubs in LA and New York and they have a whole different value system to white, middle-class audiences. They feel like, "I don't have much money and I spent my money coming to see you. The least you could do is wear some nice shoes." And they mean it.

Do Americans see you as quite anglicised?
No. They think I'm this odd, Jamaican-looking dude who sounds really well-educated. People are comfortable with recognisable types, so I had to give them a few minutes. I had to open by saying, "I'm told I'm weird-sounding but suffice to say I'm a bit of country, a bit of 'nigga' and a little bit of Europe."

And did that relax them?
Stand-up comedy is about breaking that wall of polite company - calling out the elephant in the room. The audience didn't come to see you be nice; they can do that themselves. They came to see you do something they can't do.

How do you gauge how far to go with that?
With comedy, you can talk about anything you like. The deftness lies in how you talk about it. If a joke moves you, then work backwards and find a way to say it to uptight people who want to hear it but don't have the nerve to admit it.

You tour nine months of the year. What is that like?
In the US, I have to pull back on a lot of subject matter. Because of talk-show culture, we're conditioned to talk a lot but we're conditioned not to talk about anything. It's one of the reasons why we haven't made any headway with race issues. We talk in soundbites. There's no discourse between races.

What do you think of the Republican Party's challengers to Barack Obama?
The Republicans are suffering the aftermath of being infiltrated by something that looked like them, sounded like them and had a lot of money but didn't share their core values. Genuine Republicans love a certain vision of America and, to that extent, they're patriots. But something came into their churches and screamed, "Praise the Lord! More jails! The Mexicans are coming!" and it scared them. It happens in this country, too. Old people and middle-class people - if you scare the shit out of them, they vote.

So, you're no fan of politicians.
The political process has become absurd: I can only reach the highest levels of office if I can prove I've never done anything wrong, never said anything wrong. There's an insistence on getting perfect people to represent us, even though we admit we're not perfect.

What was your first stand-up show like?
It was only as the MC announced me that I realised I didn't have any jokes. All I had was an attitude and an accent. By the time I got to the microphone, I'd come up with my first joke: "I'm in Britain because I've gone against everything my family wanted me to do. They keep trying to control me. So I keep doing the opposite . . . That's why I joined the Ku Klux Klan." It got a big enough laugh to carry me through.

Do you have a comedy philosophy?
I see comedy as an art form. If you approach it with head, heart and balls, you'll be OK.

That must be a problem for female comics.
Oh, I know some female comics with balls! One of the troubles is that women are socialised to want to be seen as nice. Also, women are more insistent on having a life, whereas men are more, "Fuck it, man, I'll just tell jokes."

How do you deal with hecklers?
The trick is trusting that you have an innate ability to handle assholes. Some people, you have to drop the hammer on them. For that moment, in the auditorium, you're their dad.

Was there a plan?
I trained as an actor but I didn't love it.

Do you love comedy?
Yes. It's my religion. I feel like I'm part of an order of travelling monks.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
Every night I'm alone in a hotel room, I'm remembering old gigs, jokes that fucked up.

Are we all doomed?
Systems are crashing all around the world - Islam, Christianity, even weather systems. I don't think seven billion people are too much for the earth, but it's too much for our social systems, and people haven't made the connection with the right to create a human being just because they're drunk and lonely.

Defining Moments

1969 Born in Albany, Georgia
1988 In court on shoplifting charges. His lawyer gets him acquitted, then hires him
1996 Travels to England to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art
2002 Nominated for the Perrier Award
2005 Makes his television debut in Blackout, shown on Channel 4
2006 Wins Writers' Guild Award for Pride and Prejudice . . . and Niggas. Posters for the show are banned from the Tube

Reginald D Hunter is appearing at the HMV Apollo in Hammersmith, London, on 24 and 25 June. Tickets here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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The secret anti-capitalist history of McDonald’s

As a new film focuses on the real founder of McDonald’s, his grandson reveals the unlikely story behind his family’s long-lost restaurant.

One afternoon in about the year 1988, an 11-year-old boy was eating at McDonald’s with his family in the city of Manchester, New Hampshire. During the meal, he noticed a plaque on the wall bearing a man’s face and declaring him the founder of McDonald’s. These plaques were prevalent in McDonald’s restaurants across the US at the time. The face – gleaming with pride – belonged to Ray Kroc, a businessman and former travelling salesman long hailed as the creator of the fast food franchise.

Flickr/Phillip Pessar

But this wasn’t the man the young boy munching on fries expected to see. That man was in the restaurant alongside him. “I looked at my grandfather and said, ‘But I thought you were the founder?’” he recalls. “And that’s when, in the late Eighties, early Nineties, my grandfather went back on the [McDonald’s] Corporation to set the history straight.”

Jason McDonald French, now a 40-year-old registered nurse with four children, is the grandson of Dick McDonald – the real founder of McDonald’s. When he turned to his grandfather as a confused child all those years ago, he spurred him on to correct decades of misinformation about the mysterious McDonald’s history. A story now being brought to mainstream attention by a new film, The Founder.


Jason McDonald French

“They [McDonald’s Corporation] seemed to forget where the name actually did come from,” says McDonald French, speaking on the phone from his home just outside Springfield, Massachusetts.

His grandfather Dick was one half of the McDonald brothers, an entrepreneurial duo of restaurateurs who started out with a standard drive-in hotdog stand in California, 1937.

Dick's father, an Irish immigrant, worked in a shoe factory in New Hampshire. He and his brother made their success from scratch. They founded a unique burger restaurant in San Bernardino, around 50 miles east of where they had been flogging hotdogs. It would become the first McDonald’s restaurant.

Most takeout restaurants back then were drive-ins, where you would park, order food from your car, and wait for a “carhop” server to bring you your meal on a plate, with cutlery. The McDonald brothers noticed that this was a slow, disorganised process with pointless costly overheads.

So they invented fast food.

***

In 1948, they built what came to be known as the “speedy system” for a fast food kitchen from scratch. Dick was the inventor out of the two brothers - as well as the bespoke kitchen design, he came up with both the iconic giant yellow “M” and its nickname, the “Golden Arches”.

“My grandfather was an innovator, a man ahead of his time,” McDonald French tells me. “For someone who was [only] high school-educated to come up with the ideas and have the foresight to see where the food service business was going, is pretty remarkable.”


The McDonald brothers with a milkshake machine.

McDonald French is still amazed at his grandfather’s contraptions. “He was inventing machines to do this automated system, just off-the-cuff,” he recalls. “They were using heat lamps to keep food warm beforehand, before anyone had ever thought of such a thing. They customised their grills to whip the grease away to cook the burgers more efficiently. It was six-feet-long, which was just unheard of.”

Dick even custom-made ketchup and mustard dispensers – like metal fireplace bellows – to speed up the process of garnishing each burger. The brothers’ system, which also cut out waiting staff and the cost of buying and washing crockery and cutlery, brought customers hamburgers from grill to counter in 30 seconds.


The McDonald brothers as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

McDonald French recounts a story of the McDonald brothers working late into the night, drafting and redrafting a blueprint for the perfect speedy kitchen in chalk on their tennis court for hours. By 3am, when they finally had it all mapped out, they went to bed – deciding to put it all to paper the next day. The dry, desert climate of San Bernardino meant it hadn’t rained in months.

 “And, of course, it rained that night in San Bernardino – washed it all away. And they had to redo it all over again,” chuckles McDonald French.

In another hiccup when starting out, a swarm of flies attracted by the light descended on an evening event they put on to drum up interest in their restaurant, driving customers away.


An original McDonald's restaurant, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

***

These turned out to be the least of their setbacks. As depicted in painful detail in John Lee Hancock’s film, Ray Kroc – then a milkshake machine salesman – took interest in their restaurant after they purchased six of his “multi-mixers”. It was then that the three men drew up a fateful contract. This signed Kroc as the franchising agent for McDonald’s, who was tasked with rolling out other McDonald’s restaurants (the McDonalds already had a handful of restaurants in their franchise). 

Kroc soon became frustrated at having little influence. He was bound by the McDonalds’ inflexibility and stubborn standards (they wouldn’t allow him to cut costs by purchasing powdered milkshake, for example). The film also suggests he was fed up with the lack of money he was making from the deal. In the end, he wriggled his way around the contract by setting up the property company “McDonald’s Corporation” and buying up the land on which the franchises were built.


Ray Kroc, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

Kroc ended up buying McDonald’s in 1961, for $2.7m. He gave the brothers $1m each and agreeing to an annual royalty of half a per cent, which the McDonald family says they never received.

“My father told us about the handshake deal [for a stake in the company] and how Kroc had gone back on his word. That was very upsetting to my grandfather, and he never publicly spoke about it,” McDonald French says. “It’s probably billions of dollars. But if my grandfather was never upset about it enough to go after the Corporation, why would we?”

They lost the rights to their own name, and had to rebrand their original restaurant “The Big M”. It was soon put out of business by a McDonald’s that sprang up close by.


An original McDonald restaurant in Arizona. Photo: Flickr/George

Soon after that meal when the 11-year-old Jason saw Kroc smiling down from the plaque for the first time, he learned the true story of what had happened to his grandfather. “It’s upsetting to hear that your family member was kind of duped,” he says. “But my grandfather always had a great respect for the McDonald’s Corporation as a whole. He never badmouthed the Corporation publicly, because he just wasn’t that type of man.”

Today, McDonalds' corporate website acknowledges the McDonalds brothers as the founders of the original restaurant, and credits Kroc with expanding the franchise. The McDonald’s Corporation was not involved with the making of The Founder, which outlines this story. I have contacted it for a response to this story, but it does not wish to comment.

***

Dick McDonald’s principles jar with the modern connotations of McDonald’s – now a garish symbol of global capitalism. The film shows Dick’s attention to the quality of the food, and commitment to ethics. In one scene, he refuses a lucrative deal to advertise Coca Cola in stores. “It’s a concept that goes beyond our core beliefs,” he rants. “It’s distasteful . . . crass commercialism.”

Kroc, enraged, curses going into business with “a beatnik”.


Photo: The Founder

Dick’s grandson agrees that McDonald’s has strayed from his family’s values. He talks of his grandfather’s generosity and desire to share his wealth – the McDonald brothers gave their restaurant to its employees, and when Dick returned to New Hampshire after the sale, he used some of the money to buy new Cadillacs with air conditioning for his old friends back home.

“[McDonald’s] is definitely a symbol of capitalism, and it definitely sometimes has a negative connotation in society,” McDonald French says. “If it was still under what my grandfather had started, I imagine it would be more like In'N'Out Burger [a fast food chain in the US known for its ethical standards] is now, where they pay their employees very well, where they stick to the simple menu and the quality.”

He adds: “I don’t think it would’ve ever blossomed into this, doing salads and everything else. It would’ve stayed simple, had quality products that were great all the time.

“I believe that he [my grandfather] wasn’t too unhappy that he wasn’t involved with it anymore.”


The McDonald’s Museum, Ray Kroc’s first franchised restaurant in the chain. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Despite his history, Dick still took his children and grandchildren to eat at McDonald’s together – “all the time” – as does Jason McDonald French with his own children now. He’s a cheeseburger enthusiast, while his seven-year-old youngest child loves the chicken nuggets. But there was always a supersize elephant in the room.

“My grandfather never really spoke of Ray Kroc,” he says. “That was always kind of a touchy subject. It wasn’t until years later that my father told us about how Kroc was not a very nice man. And it was the only one time I ever remember my grandfather talking about Kroc, when he said: ‘Boy, that guy really got me.’”

The Founder is in UK cinemas from today.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.