Carl Jones is Thugnificent, literally and figuratively. The Executive Producer and Head Writer of Adult Swim’s hit series “Black Dynamite” not only gave voice to the popular rapper parody from “The Boondocks,” his professional and personal life has pushed him to create compelling entertainment out of inconvenient truths.
“I’ve always had a passion for creative writing. That was one of thew few classes I actually passed in H.S,” the native of North Carolina says of his stint at Westover Senior High. “I was just writing things, creating my own stories and tossing them in a box. I didn’t go to college, I was kicked out of H.S. and ended up going to a school for bad kids and tried to redeem myself. But I got kicked out of there too.”
To make ends meet Jones literally took the street to become, in his words, “the Nino Brown of the bootleg movie game.” Numerous road trips in rentals between NC and NY to procure pirated copies of Blockbuster bargain bin fillers like Double Team and Kazaam helped line his pockets until the MPAA sent the goons in blue.
Fortunately, a chance meeting with a fellow comic book head in NC lead to his first legitimate job with Roc-A-Fella records.
“Before ‘The Boondocks’ I was developing an animated show for Roc-A-Fella films with Beanie Sigel and State property called ‘The Playpen.’ That was my first official job in animation,” he recalls. “It was ‘Rugrats’ meets HBO’s ‘OZ,’ the State Property crew as babies. These kids were in daycare prison/ nursery school. I was in the development stages and doing the artwork and working with the producer Brian Ashe, who also is writing the ‘Black Dynamite’ comic book.”
But in almost Shakespearean fashion the project was derailed by some street sh*t. “The show didn’t go anywhere because Sigel went to prison for attempted murder, so we had to kill the cartoon.”
Fast-forward to 2014 and Jones’s illmatic dreams are fully realized. After writing and produced “Freaknik The Musical,” and voicing various characters on “The Thundercats” reboot, he is in the midst of his second season of creating and producing “Black Dynamite” an animated satire of the ‘70s era of Blaxploitation inspired by the live action movie. Michael Jai White voices the titular hero along with Kim Whitley, Tommy Davidson, a host of guest stars and Jones himself. It’s daring and smart TV which reminds viewers what parody is supposed to look like in an era when fake news sites manipulate stories for shock value in the name of satire.
WatchLOUD had the pleasure of talking to Jones about balancing his art with a message and knowing how far is too far.
WatchLOUD: “Black Dynamite” is easily the most racially charged show on television right now. Do you ever get scared?
Carl Jones: Nah, I never get scared man. For me as a writer, a storyteller and a satirist I believe it’s kind of our job to tell stories that speak to not only the human condition but society as a whole. I feel like whenever you do that you run the risk of putting people in an uncomfortable space, which I like to do. I think the more we challenge the mind of the audience, the better the content. The content is better used when it can challenge the mind of the viewer. There is a lot of stuff you can watch with your brain turned off. You can laugh when they tell you to laugh and think the way they tell you to think. Where as the stories we tell I like to really provoke thought, not how or what to think. We’ll create villains you care about or root for. I never liked the idea of everything being black and white, cut and dry. That’s one of the really smart thinks Stan Lee did when he stepped on the scene. He created superheroes and villains with angst and motives. So you see a guy like Spiderman who really didn’t want those abilities and now he’s struggling with the responsibilities he has, as opposed to being a character with all of these super powers and can save the world. That’s very one-dimensional. So I feel it’s our job to create characters and tell stories that push the envelope and make people decide for themselves how they feel about stuff. And when you do that you always risk pissing people off and offending them. But if I keep thinking about people being mad about something it will compromise the integrity of the stories we’re telling. Because then you’re just trying to craft a story to make people feel good. To me that’s not satisfying as a writer.
For the second season of “Black Dynamite” you opened with the image of MLK sitting on a ‘whites only’ toilet. I admit that I had a visceral reaction until it clicked. What was the thought process going into it?
Whenever you have a joke like that, especially with somebody as sacred as MLK, you can literally put him on a ‘white’s only’ toilet– which was literally what he was fighting for–then figuratively put him on a ‘white’s only’ toilet and show it figuratively. It was a rare opportunity. When those two things line up it’s perfect. It goes back to the honesty of the stories we’re telling. That is really what happened. Somebody would say ‘that’s wrong to have MLK sitting on the toilet,’ but isn’t that what he fought for? Against Jim Crow? Like you said, it takes you a minute to figure out how you feel about it. ‘I know this is right but it looks wrong.’ It forces you to make a decision. When you look at lot of TV and films there is a structured way that people are being pushed emotionally to feel and to think, down to the score. They want you to be scared before it’s time to be scared. Regina King’s show ‘Southland’ had no score so things would come out of the blue. But there was so much more impact from that. You end up watching the entire episode on the edge of your seat because you don’t know when there will be these surprises. That suspense is so much more valuable. We just want to try and tell stories a different way.
A lot of the comments on Twitter are that “Black Dynamite” reminds them of the first season of “The Boondocks,” which you worked on. What do you think of the comparisons?
A lot of it was the brevity and the honesty. I really think it’s that. When we worked on ‘The Boondocks’ we took a lot of risks, poked a lot of beehives and talked about topics that are somewhat taboo. No one does anything about Tyler Perry. Race is always touchy and Boondocks went at race head on, especially with a character like Uncle Ruckus. Because we found a very honest, gloves-off approach to race I think that’s one of the biggest similarities.
Are there any real people that you think about when you created these characters for “Black Dynamite”?
Not consciously. But subconsciously there’s tons of people. There’s so many things that inspire the personalities of these characters. From my own family, extended family, my friends and extended family to stuff I grew up on. Red Foxx, Rudy Ray Moore, Monty Python, Eddie Murphy, even Dave Chappelle. My taste is so broad. You’ll see a little bit of everything come through in a different way. There are some idiosyncrasies and funny quirks about Woody Allen that I try to incorporate in a character like Black Dynamite. He’s this larger than life character that has his balls out, it’s fun to see when he has some kind of hangups about certain things or becomes neurotic about things. It’s refreshing to see him as a real person sometimes. I go back and forth and pull from all kinds of things that inspired me growing up.
Speaking of his flaws, in the ‘Black Jaws’ episode I was cracking up at the idea that Black Dynamite couldn’t swim, but had a mental hiccup thinking “Wait, I could’ve sworn he swam in the first season.” Then you made fun of that observation with Cream Corn.
That’s the same thing that happened to us. We were in the writers room and said ‘wait a minute’ and decided to tackle it head on as a joke. Hopefully people would think it was funny enough people would let it go. We tried to get around it but then we’d have to change the whole plot. It was such a big part of the story that we had to come up with a reason. So we just wrote it off as a joke saying “that was last season.”
I thought it was brilliant how you tied in the stereotype of Black people not being able to swim with the triangular slave trade. What are you smoking to come up with these connections?
I don’t think anyone smokes on this show, “The Boondocks” was a different story. [laughs] I’m not gonna dry snitch on the weed smokers. I can’t even describe the process. These things just happen out of having good conversations with the right people and having the right energy in the room. What we did this season—which was a little different from last season—is we got a writers room for a bout two weeks. I got a group of funny people together, people that I’ve worked with in the past and some new people, and we got in a room and started going through these episode ideas and fleshing out the bigger ideas. A lot of it happens in the room. It’s like when you’re hanging out with your friends, some of the funniest stuff comes when you’re not working, when you’re just kicking it with your people. Thats the type of atmosphere we try to create in the writers room, so it don’t feel like w’ere at work and stuff just kind of comes together magically.
I loved the Honey Bee/Bob Marley episode, what can you tell me about this upcoming one with Bill Cosby, “Sweet Bills Badass Singalong Song”?
Basically what happens is Melvin Van Peebles is about to shoot the biggest, blackest Blaxploitation movie that’s ever been done and Bill Cosby is against it. He tries to talk to Melvin but Melvin is not trying to hear it. So Cosby takes it upon himself to kidnap all the black stars, Jim Kelly, Rudy Ray Moore, Pam Grier and Antonio Fargas and he’s trying to turn them into the Huxtables.
Respectability politics in action…
Yeah, but he’s militant with it. Like the movie Drop Squad.
In season 1 you had an episode called “The Race War” which I’m sure gave the sensors a fit. What do you remember about making it?
There was a lot of stuff that didn’t make it into that show. After the first draft the network was saying ‘go more racist.’ But when we did they said ‘You can’t go that racist.’ We had Woody Allen in one scene where he has 6 million Jews in an ashtray, and while he’s driving he empties it out the window and all the ashes from the Jews fly into the mouths of the Palestinians and they crash their car. And they said ‘You can’t put 6 million Jews in an ashtray. You can’t do that on TV.’ And I said ‘What about all the ‘n*ggers’ and watermelon, etc?
Yeah, that’s pretty bad, but I find myself saying that about a lot of the show. What is the line?
I guess we can’t cross lines that will get us kicked off the air. We can cross any line we want to as long as the people on the other side don’t have the power to kick us off the air. Al Sharpton coming after us is a good thing. I don’t think the network is afraid of Al. It actually just brings more [attention] because he came at us on ‘Boondocks’ as well, but he’s never gotten an episode pulled off the air. I feel like if everything is done in the right tone there’s a way to take some of these harsh ideas and turn them on their backs. If it’s silly enough I don’t think anybody’s really gonna get offended. That’s something we try hard to perfect. Even with Michael Jackson, he’s the biggest star in the universe and we didn’t get any flack for that Jackson 5 episode. People will say stuff but nothing real. The last real beef I can recall was when we spoofed Tyler Perry on ‘The boondocks.’
What’s the most fun part and biggest challenge of doing a show like this?
All of it is fun to me. But there’s a love/hate relationship with writing. I love the writing process but the deadlines make it kind of miserable to do. You never really want to let a script go until it’s the best it can be, and it seems like it never ever gets there. I have a tough time letting go of a script. Sometimes you’re just in a dry spot and all the ideas might not be flowing at the moment. The creative process is so elusive. It’s hard to just push a button and say ‘it’s time to write.’ But it is fun.
There isn’t a show quite like “Black Dynamite” on TV right now, where do you see its place in television?
I don’t really pay a lot of attention to the genre and categories, how it’s categorized. I just try to tell stories I’m really passionate about. It’s not always the same. Some episodes we do there is more drama and heart. The tone of the Richard Pryor episode [in season 1] was kind of serious and dramatic. Looking at Richard as a victim of this world he’s submerged in. You see things from the point of view of someone who is tormented by their own ability and how it’s pushed them into this space, drove them to self-medicating and finding ways to cope with these pressures. The type of comedy Richard did I think it was therapeutic for himself. He would talk about his heart attacks, his drug addiction, his womanizing. He’d put it all out there. That story had a darker tone. Each of the stories are kind of their own movie and there’s definitely a common thread. But I like to look at them each as a separate movie.
Speaking of that, will there be an animated “Black Dynamite” movie?
Yeah, it’s funny that you ask that. We’re kicking some ideas around now. We’re definitely looking into the possibilities.
The show is set in the ‘70s but are you ever tempted to jump in a time machine and bring BD into the future?
We definitely plan to do some stuff with him in the future. We break the rules a little bit. My intention was always to turn the ‘70s into a universe, not necessarily a time period. Even when we go back in time and you see young Black Dynamite it’s still in the 70s. So we’ve made the ‘70s like a planet. This season you’ll see there are times where we break the rules and bring in some characters that are more relevant to today.
“Black Dynamite” airs on Adult Swim Saturdays at 10:30 pm