'Black Dynamite' Writer Carl Jones on Bill Cosby and the State of Black Comedy
He thinks that the world needs to have more empathy for Bill Cosby, even in the face of the 13 rape allegations that have lately made him a target of criticism.
When I sat down to interview Black Dynamite writer and executive producer about Bill Cosby (and an upcoming episode of his show where Cosby is portrayed as an over-the-top villain), the last thing I expected was for him to come out and vehemently defend the alleged rapist.
It didn't occur to me until later the power of celebrity in the black community. From OJ Simpson to Michael Jackson and beyond, African-Americans have a tendency to support their own in lockstep. The attitude is often that any attack on a black celebrity must be some kind of diabolical scheme cooked up to destroy a successful minority figure. As such, an "us versus them" mentality often colors scandals with prominent black figures. A threat to one of us is a threat to all of us. But is that true? As defensive and territorial as black folks can be, the heinousness of the crimes that Cosby is accused of cannot be denied. Why do we automatically side with the "brother who made good"? What makes someone continue to idolize a man despite the very real possibility that he's a sexual deviant? I re-read this interview, hoping for answers, but all I felt was perplexed by our collective lack of understanding for the severity of the crimes Cosby stands accused of.
VICE: A lot of people have been talking about Bill Cosby, both for good and bad. Tell me, why now?
Carl Jones : Well, in our show specifically, the 70s is always now, so the beauty of doing a show that is set in the 70s is our hindsight is 20/20. We're able to look at the character or events or people who we know today and tell our story, or our version of how they became who we all know. But, you know, it's funny because we didn't target Cosby because he was in the mainstream media or there was stuff going on with these legal cases—it was just seriously like a story that I wanted to tell, that I wanted to tell for a while. When we did the first season of Black Dynamite, we had a lot of show ideas that were left over because we only had a ten-episode order, so we always wanted to do something with Cosby, even at the beginning of the show's inception, but it just didn't make it into the first season.
What does he mean specifically to you as someone who grew up in that time?
He's a hero to me, obviously. I don't even know that I would want to do cartoons if it weren't for Fat Albert and the Gang. I enjoyed his movies with Sidney Portier, and his standup, and even his TV show that he had back when I was a kid. I'm a huge, huge fan of Cosby, and I think over the course of the years he's become very critical about our culture in general. I understand where he's coming from, but I think there's also a lot more dimensions to the type of content that our people are making and also the culture—I know he's very critical about hip-hop culture and what it's done to the youth, but that's kind of like giving somebody Tylenol who has cancer. Hip-hop is just an expression of other things—other ills or woes in the community that are underlying our whole socioeconomic disposition. I think going after hip-hop and the youth because of the way that they're expressing how they feel and their attitude is not really, to me, the right way to circumvent the problem, or to bring any type of healing—but I understand where it comes from.
It comes from a place of frustration, especially when he's someone who tried really hard to lay down a fertile ground for us, as creators and storytellers and writers and just black people in general. If you look at The Cosby Show, he was trying to set a standard. He was trying to give us another perspective on the black experience, which we never saw before, because most of our content hinged on the fact that the character was black. We'd rarely seen a show that didn't touch on race at all, so he has to be given props for being able to do that. It took a lot of courage, and it turned out to be one of the biggest shows in history—not just with black people, but with people in general. So I understand when he looks at the state of entertainment and popular black culture today, it's probably disheartening. But the reality is, it's necessary. I look at it as a part of what we're going through in terms of our evolution. It's necessary, and even the critical dialogue that happens between Cosby and the youth is necessary.
I was talking to the director of Dear White People a few weeks ago and we spoke about how there's this weird thing where there has to be a binary in black culture—you either assimilate or you are fiercely militant, and I think that kind of came out in the episode, and just in general with Bill Cosby. He's kind of on the side of assimilation. Maybe not completely, but he's saying, Tone it down—you don't need to wear your pants this way, or you don't need to wear your hat this way. You need to talk like this and not like this. Why do you think there's such a need, even going back to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, to divide black culture this way?
Well, it's interesting because when you go back to the Civil Rights era, we were put into a situation where we thought we were fighting against injustice, but we were really fighting for the right to be like the people who were oppressing us. That, really, is just as bad as being treated unequally—meaning, we were striving to become the very same people, or the culture and society, that put us in the predicament we're in. So it became real important—especially during Bill Cosby's era and his prime—it was a big deal how white people look at you. It's a big deal how white society views our culture, and our standards were set by that. I remember growing up it was like, Well, we're in the grocery store, don't embarrass me in front of these white people, and that was the whole attitude across the board. You're supposed to be conducting yourself in a "civilized manner," so that they won't look at us in a certain light and believe that we are not valuable enough to have access to the same things that they have, which is wrong—that steers us off in a wrong direction, so now that's what it's all been about.
And that's why I think a lot of the criticism is being rejected by the youth, because they don't really see it as a true concern or care, because it sounds like you just want us to create an image that is sufficient to white society, and that makes them not feel threatened. The attitude in the music and the aggressiveness in the music and the culture gave the impression that we weren't going to put up with bullshit, and we don't give a fuck what you think. And that's pretty scary, especially if they become informed about why they're in the predicament that they're in—then they're going to start looking for who's responsible. That's a very scary thing, and then so you have people—even black people are scared, because they don't want that kind of chaos, like, I've got a good job, I'm comfortable where I'm at, now you're stirring up the pot, we don't need that. And I think that's—at least I feel—is where it's coming from.
Bill Cosby has always represented the fantasy of what black culture could be like, but blaxploitation films like The Mack or Superfly or Shaft or Coffy, were trying to be about what it's really like—these are the people who are trying to make something of themselves. Is that why there's so much pushback against Bill Cosby? Even back in the 80s when Eddie Murphy was talking shit about him in Raw and Delirious?
You know what's funny? Both of them are right. You know, Cosby is right—we don't have to portray ourselves like that. We can make a good, clean, wholesome show about black people that doesn't have anything to do with race, and we can also make those shows that are portraying things that are going on on the other side of the tracks, right? It's unfortunate that we only feel like we have a small sliver or room to express ourselves so that we can't have a large variety of different perspectives. We don't have a Steven Spielberg and a George Lucas and a Judd Apatow and a Tarantino.
We've got two black directors at a time, basically.
Yeah, and they're putting out the same type of shit. So what happens—even this morning I was on Twitter and this girl said she didn't like the show because of the way it was portraying black people, and I was like, man, it's so unfair that all the responsibility—because we're the only black cartoon on the air now since Boondocks is gone—it's like all the responsibility falls on our shoulders to project the right image to the world, so you can't be honest if you're trying to just make everybody happy with the image that they see. But unfortunately, when you tell stories that speak to the human condition—I'm saying black, white, whatever—it's going to be fucked up because human beings are fucked up, so that's the truth of the matter. We just hate to look at ourselves, so I always just try to tell stories that are honest, regardless of what perspective, what race, culture, whatever. If it's an honest story, it's an honest story, and I try not to focus too much on that great responsibility of projecting a specific type of image and idea to the world like that. As a writer, I don't think that's my responsibility.
It seems like a lot of black filmmakers, writers, and directors reject that responsibility, but Bill Cosby has been the one who has always said, I will be the icon for black culture—get on my back, I'm going to carry you up the hill. It's really just Hannibal Buress who has said anything, and he made a huge splash just talking about it. Do you think that people are afraid to criticize him in that way?
It's weird. I was just talking to Hannibal the other day, and he was like, "Dude, I'm so over the Cosby thing. I don't want to do anything else about Cosby." It's tough when you're being critical in public, because it's this scenario when you have a little brother, and you'll talk shit to your little brother and you'll beat him up, but you don't want anyone outside of the house fucking with him. They can say the same shit that you said to him, but if they don't live in the house that you live in, you take it personally.
Because I have a love for Cosby, just like a lot of other people who I'm somewhat critical of, but I wouldn't want to [criticize him] in front of the world because—it'd be different if we had hundreds of role models, people who we can aspire to be like, but we don't have a whole lot of them in that space, so I'd hate to come out and crush the image that he worked so hard to build. But at the same time, I think we have to be real and look at things for what they really are, and this is why comedy is such a dope tool because you can do satire, you can talk about certain issues, but with the right tone and the right jokes, you're able to look at it.
I find that that's the only way you can swallow it, really, and I think we've done a good job of—like Michael Jackson, we did an episode about Michael Jackson, and everyone's like, What happened? Did the Jacksons try to get you? Did Joe come after you? Nothing happened, but I think that was because the tone was right and because it was silly enough to where it provoked thought, caused some dialogue, it made you laugh and also take some things from it. So anytime I'm critical of Bill, I definitely want to do it in a joking way because he's obviously like a giant, and I think we should keep him standing tall as much as we can.
Is it because of his place within the black community? How do we respond as people who looked up to him, who see him as important? What do we do then?
I don't know how many of the people who are saying stuff really care about it, you know? Because my thing would be—I want to make sure that I'm very clear about this, so it doesn't sound hypocritical—but what I'm saying is, if you really cared about him, if you truly cared about him—as much energy as you're putting into criticizing him for being a human being, because these things that he's doing a lot of people are doing, but they're not in the limelight, so you just don't hear about it.
But anyway, I'm saying that obviously if he's involved in some debauchery that he supposedly doesn't stand for, there's a lot of places that you can take punches at him, whatever. But I guarantee you none of these people tried to reach out to him and see if there's something they could do to help him. I think they took the opportunity to either get some attention or I truly believe sometimes it's just in us to see other people fail, especially when they reach the top. When they're at the bottom, you root for them. As soon as you cross a certain threshold, then suddenly you don't really want to see them do well anymore. It's a weird psychological thing that human beings have.
He's a villain in this episode, but like I do with all villains, I make them human beings first. There used to be a time when you saw villains as just evil, hellbent on destroying the world just because they're villains, they're just evil. The first person I ever saw change that was Stan Lee—he created villains and superheroes that even had angst about their own powers and abilities. You rarely saw that.
For example, I watched this movie called The Woodsman with Kevin Bacon. He was a pedophile in the movie, but I found myself rooting for him, because he was ostracized in his own community. They didn't want him living certain places, they treated him wrongly at his job, leaving stuff in his lockers. He was treated basically like a nigga, so I kind of related to him instantly. When he was struggling with it, I was perplexed: Do I want him to molest a kid? It was a weird feeling—I was rooting for someone who did something that was so horrible, you know? And that's human beings, and I think villains are the same way, and I think some of the great villains had that element, where you see them turn to that side. They didn't always start off like that. There were certain events and certain things that happened that traumatized them and brought them to that point—you don't see that a lot, especially with black villains.
It's always been, Cosby's perfect, he's a perfect guy, and now maybe it's like, Oh, he's not perfect, he's kind of fucked up. Because the criticism has always been, he's uppity and he's been telling us what to do and he's whitewashed himself and he's constantly wagging his finger at people.
I think the only way it'll go away is one, he continues to ignore it or two, he just owns up to it and says, So what? I guess what I'm saying is, they poke him because they want some bees to come out, and if he doesn't give them anything—it happens with a lot of entertainment, Jay-Z as well, like he's one of the best that never really responds when people start poking him. Eventually it goes away, because there's no attention they can get from him. The moment he tries to say, Well, no, I didn't—that's when it gets real messy, I feel. But I think this will die down and it'll be someone else's head on the chopping block. Maybe Katt Williams, he seems to come back around every now and then.
You made the point that Black Dynamite is like the last black-centric cartoon on television. Where do you see black comedy going? Because Hannibal is obviously coming up, and Eric Andre, Jerrod Carmichael, and all of these comedians who are doing great work, but no one has broken out in the way that Chappelle did. So what's next, as someone who's working in the business?
Well, I think there's a lot of funny comedians—the question is, are there a lot of funny comedians with a very distinct point of view? Because it's easier to tell jokes, it's harder to have a point of view with your jokes. There are a lot of guys in this town who had pilots and just never went anywhere because they didn't have the point of view, and Dave was one of the very few people who had a very strong, strong, strong point of view. Like, when you watched the show, it all felt cohesive to his perspective, it was very, very specific.
Today, I think more comics are more like hos in a way, like they'd rather—and I'm not saying anybody specifically—but they'd rather just kind of prostitute themselves. Like, the cheap joke and the low-hanging fruit is always there, and usually if it's hard-to-get work, you end up going for it, and so you find yourself doing shit that you normally wouldn't do and compromise your own integrity, and it's especially difficult today because you have Tumblr, and Instagram, and Vine, which is really killing the game, so like if you were going to create a sketch show, I don't even know how you begin to approach a sketch show competing against Vine, because these kids are amazing.
It seems like it's becoming a good time for black comedy, but there isn't that political element yet, except for your show. Kevin Hart is huge, but he's not doing that satire that's been so important to black culture. Flip Wilson was really doing a lot of edgy satire, Eddie, and all these people, but it's not really there right now. It's more like—it's as splashy and mainstream as hip-hop is right now.
I agree, I definitely agree. People want satire, it's just harder. I find personally, it's more challenging or harder for black people to get satire. I created this character named Tubesteak and it's just kind of making fun of the state of hip-hop. I saw an interview with Uncle Murda one time and he was talking about how somebody shot at him and apparently they just grazed his head, so he did a whole video about how fucked and weak they are because they only grazed his head. Like, If you was a real nigga, you would've shot me in the head. He was mad at them for missing. And that's the culture—it wasn't a joke. So I decide to create a character, I tried to go extreme with that idea, but because it's so close to reality, a lot of people didn't get it. Most people thought it was real, and not only did they think it was real, but they wanted to be like him.
Follow Dave Schilling on Twitter.