Aaron McGruder, who has pushed more than a few hot buttons with his stinging “The Boondocks,” is gearing up for his “come to Black Jesus” moment.
But as his new live-action series “Black Jesus” premieres Thursday, Aug. 7, on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim late-night slate, don’t get it twisted. Just because McGruder’s show revolves around a weed-smoking, tough-talking African American Jesus Christ kicking it in Compton with his “disciplez ’n the hood” doesn’t mean he’s trying to stir up trouble or take a wicked poke at traditionalists such as Fox News’ Megyn Kelly who maintain that Jesus is white.
On the contrary: Like his title character, McGruder, once labeled the angriest black man in America, is coming in peace.
“This show is not an exercise to offend people,” McGruder says of the comedy. “It has lots of heart.”
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He hopes that viewers get past the coarse language and humor to grasp the show’s morality lessons and penetrating inquiries about the state of modern society: “I want people to judge the show for what it is, not what they hear about it or the title.”
The open-arms pitch that McGruder is throwing for the launch of “Black Jesus” stands in sharp contrast to the outspoken artist who in the 2000s regularly skewered BET, the Bush administration and the Democratic Party in his nationally syndicated newspaper strip “The Boondocks,” about two young African-American brothers transplanted from urban Chicago to the suburbs. The strip’s later incarnation as a Korean-drawn anime series on Adult Swim also was never short on targets, political and cultural.
Serving as a platform to express his frustration with politics and the state of black culture, “The Boondocks” also established McGruder as an activist eager to take on all comers. He sparked rock star-style worship before young fans at Comic-Con. He is perhaps the only creative force to score both an NAACP Image Award and harsh criticism from black leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton for his liberal use of the N-word in “The Boondocks” TV series.
“Black Jesus,” created with fellow executive producer and director Mike Clattenburg, reflects McGruder’s raw-edged comedic sensibilities, flavored with a barrage of bleeped-out expletives and even more instances of the N-word than “The Boondocks.” The robe-wearing Black Jesus (Gerald “Slink” Johnson) wanders around a rundown Compton (the series was actually filmed in Wilmington), trying to get his followers to listen to him with little success.
“You know I died for you (expletives),” says Black Jesus in one exchange. He encourages his flock to start a community garden to grow their own vegetables — and marijuana. God is “Pops.”
The series is the first McGruder-related project since he parted company with “The Boondocks” earlier this year under what continues to be mysterious circumstances. (When asked if he had any clarifying thoughts or final words about the franchise that launched his career, McGruder bluntly said, “No.”) He also recently signed a first-look development deal with Adult Swim. The first project under the agreement is a futuristic live-action-adventure pilot, with the working title “Hooligan Squad,” about an American insurgency in Japanese-occupied San Francisco.
Adult Swim head Mike Lazzo praised “Black Jesus,” calling McGruder “a genius.”
“Aaron time and again has presented us with interesting concepts, and then executed them,” Lazzo said. “What our audience thinks means everything, and they have shown they’re interested in Aaron and want to see more.”
But as the McGruder brand gains momentum, the artist, who has maintained a low profile in the last few years, is retreating further from public view. He is doing little promotion for “Black Jesus” and declined to be photographed for this story. If “Black Jesus” stirs up a hornet’s nest of controversy, don’t expect him to join in the debate. Although he made regular appearances on “Real Time With Bill Maher” and other shows during the heyday of “The Boondocks” strip, McGruder has lost his taste for the limelight.
“I became a celebrity, and that was my fault,” he said. “That was a mistake I made. The nature of fame has changed dramatically. I don’t see a dignified way to be famous anymore. For me, it was not a life I wanted to live. The world has changed, and it changed more than I did. I looked around and said, ‘This isn’t for me anymore.’ ”
He added: “ ‘The Boondocks’ was always going to be noisy and controversial, and that’s what people wanted from me for a long time. At the end of the day, ‘Black Jesus’ is likely to be noisy and controversial. It’s going to make its noise, and I’m happy to let that happen. The work can stand on its own.”