Aaron McGruder has been called a "genius" and "the angriest black man in America" as he skewered everything from the Bush White House to Black Entertainment Television.
Even Rosa Parks almost took a hit in the new TV version of McGruder's popular comic strip, "The Boondocks. After the civil rights icon died Oct. 24, McGruder deleted references to Parks from a scene that showed her scuffling with fans of alleged child pornographer R. Kelly.
But the fact that Parks was included in the first place demonstrates that McGruder's show, which premieres Sunday at 11 p.m. EDT on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, will retain the edge that has periodically gotten the strip pulled from newspapers.
"The Boondocks" follows the adventures of junior revolutionary Huey Freeman and his hip-hop obsessed younger brother, Riley, who live in a white, middle-class suburb with their cantankerous grandfather.
While the series won't tackle current events (the 15-episode order took 18 months to complete), it's certainly not lacking in irreverence. In one show, Granddad starts dating a younger woman, oblivious to the fact that she's a prostitute, which leads to a discussion between Huey and Riley on whether all women are "hoes."
Another episode centers on the resurrection of Martin Luther King Jr., whose nonviolent message is ridiculed in a post-9/11 world by media outlets such as Time Warner's CNN and Time magazine (and yes, Cartoon Network is a division of Time Warner).
"Anyone who is familiar with the comic strip knows that 'The Boondocks' is anything but soft," says actress Regina King, the voice of Huey and Riley. "Aaron McGruder is not scared of taking on anybody."
McGruder began writing the strip in 1997 while attending the University of Maryland. Now it's carried in about 350 newspapers, although some have moved it to the editorial page.
A few papers temporarily pulled the strip for its attacks against the war in Iraq in 2001. And earlier this year, several papers dropped it for a few days because of its use of the n-word — which, not coincidentally, is sprinkled throughout the TV series.
"This is a country that celebrates Richard Pryor as a genius and still we wonder if we should be using the word 'nigga' in entertainment," says McGruder, 31. "It's a conversation that hasn't gone anywhere in about 30 years."
Bringing "The Boondocks" to television took several years. Fox made a pilot two years ago, but McGruder says the network's plethora of "rigid creative rules" made the experience a nightmare.
Cartoon Network "is letting me do the show I want to do," McGruder says. And network senior vice president Mike Lazzo is making "The Boondocks" the centerpiece of the three-hour Adult Swim late-night block, which pulls in more of the coveted 18- to 34-year-old male demographic than Jay Leno, David Letterman or John Stewart.
Working in the vernacular
A longtime fan of "The Boondocks," Lazzo believes McGruder's voice is vital to television — N-word and all.
"Aaron is working in an American tradition which is a vernacular (of) how he wants to represent this world," says Lazzo. "(UPN's) 'Everybody Hates Chris' has done this. People are expressing themselves creatively now in the manner you saw with 'All in the Family,' with social issues and racial identity issues addressed head on."
"I'm shocked at what he's allowed to get away with," laughs comic John Witherspoon, who voices Granddad. "Like this trial of R. Kelly and the use the n-word, (although) Dave Chappelle got very wealthy off of it. But I think this is going to set a precedent for cartoons."
Audiences seem to be ready.
"People want to see good television where issues are being spoken about, even if it is in an animated series," says Cedric Yarbrough, who voices the Freeman's milquetoast neighbor Tom DuBois. "I was just watching 'All in the Family' and was like: Wow, we could never talk about that on sitcoms now. It's all about not being offended."
"Through often well-meaning attempts to keep things comfortable, we in the media don't always say things the way things are," adds Jill Talley, the voice of the show's only regular white character — Tom's wife, Sarah. "Aaron's saying smart, pointed things by using kids. In a kids world, you say what you think. Most people can identify with it, because you feel the same way, but would never dare say it."