The Black Experience is TV’s favorite subject of 2015. Shows like Empire, The Carmichael Show, and Blackish engaging mainstream America on the issue of race have become the norm on airwaves desperate to begin making up for lost time; and what better time than now? Between the still-growing Black Lives Matter movement pushing back against the deaths of unarmed PoC across the country and the threat of Ben Carson actually winning the presidential bid in next year’s election, I think we’ve earned some comedic dressing down. The media’s newfound interest in socioeconomic issues is at least a baby step in the right direction, but satirist Aaron McGruder was shoving our faces in the mud a whole decade ago with The Boondocks.
And it all started with a garden party.
At least where the TV series, celebrating its 10th anniversary today, is concerned. First beginning life as a comic strip in 1996, criticizing racism and then-contemporary Black life with equal lack of chill, McGruder sold the rights to Sony Home Entertainment, who brought the show over to Adult Swim, where even the stingiest of newspaper editors couldn’t condemn it to the op-ed section. The strip’s satire was “shotgun blast to the face” levels of blunt to be sure, taking shots at everyone from Condoleezza Rice and Al Sharpton, to 50 Cent and Vivica A. Fox, but the TV premiere “The Garden Party” allowed McGruder’s uncompromising vision greater range to fry some nerve endings through Adult Swim.
Before you stop me, I know that “The Trial of Robert Kelly” was technically the first episode of the show produced (production code 101) as opposed to 103 for “Garden Party,” but it’s still such a powder keg of a series opener, that a man literally lighting himself on fire in disbelief of Huey’s proclamation that “Jesus was Black, Ronald Regan was The Devil, and the government is lying about 9/11” *isn’t* even the craziest thing about it, though it’s the closest thing to a mission statement that can be gleaned: present an opinion through satire and exaggeration and wait for the wilding to commence.
After Huey awakens from his dream to a slap upside the head from his ex-Civil Rights activist Granddad (“You’d better not even dream of telling white folks the truth”), many of the recurring themes and character traits of the show come to light: The flagrant use of “nigga,” Huey’s radical views as a blatant author insert for McGruder, Riley’s ghetto posturing as a critique of kids enraptured with – but not really about – that life, Granddad as a critique of the old-school’s insistence on taking credit for something that they might not have experienced themselves, the cage of white privilege dropped by the hilariously wealthy Wuncler family, and of course the infamous Black self-hatred of Uncle Ruckus (no relation). “The Garden Party” is the catalyst for all of it.
Where do I start? Throughout “The Garden Party,” Granddad argues with the boys about saying “nigga” after they drink his daily supply of orange juice, attempts to win over Ed Wuncler with cheese while he prods him about having gay and Muslim friends, and blackmails the boys into being good – and that’s all before they even get to the garden party. Eventually, we meet Ed Wuncler, III, an Iraq war veteran with the voice of Charlie Murphy doing his best Eminem impression. And McGruder’s animation style, given an anime-inspired spin by character supervisor LeSean Thomas, granted the series a sense of hyperreality that gave the satire extra punch.
As opposed to Dave Chappelle, who constantly had to wrestle Comedy Central for control of Chappelle’s Show, The Boondocks remained completely within McGruder’s control, and because of that, the show managed to build on the foundation that “The Garden Party” started over the course of its first three seasons (McGruder left the series after season 3 to work on the live-action show Black Jesus, and we just don’t talk about season 4). Huey’s annoyance at the partygoers’ refusal to listen to his message about Regan smoothly translates to his anger at indifference toward his friend in prison during the season 1 finale “The Passion of Reverend Ruckus.” Granddad’s dubious position as a Civil Rights activist revealed near the beginning of the episode brings a stinging irony to he and Riley’s campaign to sue an elementary school teacher for calling Riley “nigga” in “The S-Word” from season 2. Riley’s truncated view of “gangsta life” is given a huge reality check when his favorite rapper Gangstalicious (brought to life by Mos Def) turns out to be fronting on multiple levels in both parts of the cross-season “Story of Gangstalicious.” Uncle Ruckus’ seething self-hatred manifests in more ways than I can count, but hits its peak when Ruckus’ racist shenanigans earn him a reality show on BET in “The Uncle Ruckus Reality Show.”
The show’s timely subject matter and delicate balancing act between sympathy and criticism for Black America opened my 13-year-old eyes to a world of comedy I didn’t know existed, but as I watched a rich red-haired wanna-be gangsta white man get shot out of a second-story window by an 8-year-old while people stared and clapped, it all began to make sense. Looking back on “The Garden Party” 10 years later, in a time where Spike Lee’s latest movie looks like an episode of The Boondocks instead of the other way around, it’s even easier to see how ahead of its time McGruder’s show was – and how those insights inform a TV climate where Hakeem on Empire is the closest thing we have to a Gangstalicious.
“I am not a prophet,” Huey says as the episode begins. Look at TV today and say that again with a straight face.