Black humour

Television - In US comedy, race has often been taboo. Not any more

In 1999, a self-proclaimed "anti- capitalist revolutionary" student at Maryland University named Aaron McGruder tried to sell the idea for a comedy series about a pair of articulate young black brothers who move from Chicago's rough, overwhelmingly black South Side to a genteel, largely white suburb. The television series got nowhere, but Mc-Gruder turned the idea into a daily comic strip, The Boondocks, which proved so successful that it was soon syndicated to papers across the United States.

As with Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury, the brooding and laughless remarks of McGruder's brothers, Huey and Riley Freeman, sit uneasily on the funny pages, and in the US the strip is considered so caustic that it is sometimes exiled to the op-ed page, whose readers are presumed to be less shockable. Its international reception, however, has generally been favourable. In 2000 the Guardian hailed The Boondocks as a guiding light for "the way the United States may change in the new century".

Now the television idea has come full circle and McGruder is monitoring the production of 15 specially written animated episodes of The Boondocks for Cartoon Network US. Business is so brisk that McGruder, whose daily strip continues to appear in about 350 papers, has had to delegate the drawing to others.

McGruder is aiming high. He hopes the antics of his dysfunctional Freeman family will define African Americans in the same way that The Simpsons personified the American nuclear family. Racial satire from an African-American perspective is little-explored territory for comedy in a country where there is a self-imposed silence on racial issues. To suggest that African Americans stand outside mainstream America is to invite opprobrium. The billionaire black comic Bill Cosby, for example, has been condemned for telling blacks they must behave responsibly or reinforce negative stereotypes.

McGruder is dismissive of what he calls the "Bill Cosby thing, the older generation being terrified that the younger generation is going to make them look bad in front of white folks and that the young generation has got all types of moral issues". Once described as "the angriest black man in America", McGruder is most at home poking fun at African-American totems. In his TV show, for example, he puts the rap artist R Kelly on trial for possession of child porn. In the original version, Rosa Parks shows up in court and is repeatedly told to sit down. "Sit down!" screams one woman. "That's what you're known for, anyway." References to Parks were removed following her death in October, however. Oprah Winfrey is portrayed as a kidnapping victim, and even the near-sacred Martin Luther King, Jr is lampooned. McGruder imagines that rather than being shot dead in 1968, King enters a coma from which he recovers and resumes his civil rights battles. Invited to suggest a suitable response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, King quotes Christ: "Turn the other cheek and love thy enemy." Americans find King's promotion of Christian forgiveness too radical. In McGruder's world, he is denounced as a traitor and termed a terrorist sympathiser, and loses his livelihood.

But nothing has caused more offence than McGruder's use of the word "nigger". African Americans often call each other "nigger" as a term of affectionate abuse, but it remains controversial: last year the liberal Boston Globe spiked several Boondocks strips in which the word appeared. McGruder's continued use of "nigger", in both his comic strip and TV show, has prompted accusations that his work denigrates blacks. He thinks all this a fuss about nothing, evidence that instead of improving their lot African Americans remain stuck in semantics. "What I wanted to do was have characters be able to talk the way people actually talk," he explained.

As he himself becomes something of an icon, McGruder seems to have abandoned the political ambition that once motivated The Boondocks. As he told an interviewer recently: "I've always said the strip is not the revolution. I don't pretend like I'm Che." Compromise with big business does not appear to discomfit him. "You wouldn't get to see the strip if wealthy white corporations didn't allow you to see it." Has the once radical commentator on black America become a false prophet, an apolitical corporate entertainer, who does not even draw his own comic strips? "This is a show," he said. "It's really, really just a funny and inappropriate show."

For details see tv/shows/boondocks/

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This article first appeared in the 12 December 2005 issue of the New Statesman, We achieved next to nothing