We made a pilgrimage to the set of Adult Swim's controversial new comedy series to bear witness to the gospel according to Aaron McGruder, creator of <i>The Boondocks</i>
Black Jesus premieres tonight on Cartoon Network, and he's straight outta Compton. Photos courtesy of Adult Swim
“Look, if we go back 2014 years ago to Judea, that was the hood,” Robert Eric Wise, executive producer of Black Jesus, tells me on set of the new television show, which premieres tonight. “In fact, Judea was so much of a hood that Rome sent Pontius Pilate, the biggest thug governor in the empire, to manage it. Which means Compton right now is nowhere near as rough as Judea back then, and—even though it sounds funny to say—the real biblical and historical Jesus was born and raised in the hood.”
Wise first envisioned Black Jesus as a comedic proposal back in 2008, while working on BET's Sunday Best, which—in response to my blank stare—he describes as “American Idol for gospel singers.”
“I don't know why, but one day I just thought about how funny it could be for Jesus to return in contemporary times as a black man in the hood. But real Jesus. So he's got to be good and hood.”
Shot on location in South Central Los Angeles for Cartoon Network's increasingly dominant late-night Adult Swim lineup, Black Jesus doesn't retell Bible stories, mock the faithful, condemn the skeptical, or traffic in easy, cynical laughs. Instead, the series uses biting humor to ask hard questions about humanity, spirituality, divinity and the true meaning of belief.
“What Aaron has done, and I feel this in my heart—he's made Jesus cool,” Wise says. “I don't feel judged by this Jesus. I actually want to hang with this Jesus. And I don't have to rush to church and throw on a suit and pray for forgiveness for running late.”
Aaron, of course, is Aaron McGruder—creator and former show runner of The Boondocks , which entered its fourth and final season this April without his involvement. Wise first met McGruder at a mutual friend's apartment on September 11, 2001. He didn't know a thing about The Boondocks, something of a lightning rod thanks to its no-holds-barred portrayal of black culture in America, but despite the seriously unpleasant circumstances, the two formed an instant bond.
“I thought Aaron had the right touch,” Wise explains when I ask why he went to him with the idea for Black Jesus. McGruder said yes right away. Initially, that just meant developing the character via a half-dozen shorts that aired to profound indifference on Super Deluxe—a long since defunct Turner Media web portal. But even in those decidedly rough early sketches, the concept’s awesome potential was made apparent.
“The shorts were mostly just Jesus sitting around with his homeboys running his mouth,” McGruder acknowledges, after Wise introduces us during a brief lull between takes. “We went out and got a $20 Halloween costume, and then just started doing a lot of riffing and ad-libbing to find the character.”
This new series takes that seed, plants it, and nurtures it into a fully realized world for Black Jesus to inhabit. Starting off living in a van on the streets of Compton, he spreads a gospel of peace, love and forgiveness to all the lost souls around him—with decidedly mixed results. For instance, in the next scene to film, Jesus (they don't call him Black Jesus on the show) will attempt to play peacemaker in a dispute over control of a community garden that just happens to produce divinely inspired, THC-infused tomatoes.
“It's not a preachy show, but Jesus preaches all the time, because he's Jesus,” McGruder reveals, laughing. “And as much as it may seem to be a completely upside-down depiction, the more we do it, the more it feels honest, sincere and actually grounded in what Jesus is supposed to be about. It's only because this story has been hijacked for so long, that the idea of Jesus as an actual poor person seems crazy. So really this is a show about people who are just like anyone else, except they don't have shit. And in many ways, Jesus's message is that you don't need shit, you just need love and kindness.”
And now, a quick word from those hijackers...
“Our Jesus is not a dope pusher," according to Bishop L. Lawrence Brandon, senior pastor at Praise Temple in Shreveport, Louisiana, who recently joined other religious leaders in calling for a boycott of Black Jesus based solely on a two-minute trailer that depicts the only begotten son of God swearing, drinking, “spitting the gospel,” and smoking copious amounts of herb, “Our Jesus is not an alcoholic. Our Jesus is not riotous and unruly."
McGruder, months earlier, clearly sees this backlash coming—not just from pastors and ministers, but also from closet racists, grandstanding politicians, cultural opportunists, axe-grinding critics, the professionally offended, and those born without a funny bone. He tells me he never sets out to be controversial, but understands “that's what people have come to expect from me.” He also sees the “mountain of bullshit” looming on the horizon, but feels the show's worth climbing it.
Boonie (Corey Holcomb), Jesus (Gerald ‘Slink’ Johnson), Trayvon (Andrew Bachelor), Maggie (Kali Hawk), and Fish (Andra Fuller) on set
“We walk a line where it's okay to offend, for the right reasons. Now, if someone's simply so bigoted that they can't even comprehend a black Jesus, that you can't control. Beyond that, there will be every range of opinion. Because when you're dealing with race and religion, all bets are off. But I never worry much about that stuff. Controversy is like a wildfire you simply cannot control. And I do feel confident that our audience will embrace the show once they get to see it. My only worry is that all the rumor and spin that will happen before it even airs might prejudice those on the fence against us, people we might otherwise convert into fans.”
Wearing blue jeans, a Members Only-style jacket over a lightweight collared shirt, aviator sunglasses and an easy smile, McGruder looks and sounds relaxed despite the looming backlash and the hectic pace of production. After six years of grinding out an iconic daily comic strip (which he started while still a college student), followed by three seasons at the helm of the animated Boondocks series—its own hamster wheel of writing, drawing, and editing—he's now more than happy to be the self-described “least important person” on the set of Black Jesus.
“This is the perfect transition into live action for me,” McGruder says, confiding that some day he'd like to direct his own work. “I can contribute as much as I want, but nothing on set depends on me. This way, I get to learn, but my lack of experience doesn't hurt anything.”
Which leaves a slightly pasty Canadian sitting in the director's chair for Black Jesus, albeit one with a highly distinguished track record when it comes to cultivating off-the-wall stoner comedies with real heart and soul. Best known as the co-creator, head writer, and director of the Great White North's cult hit television series The Trailer Park Boys—which began filming its eighth season this year without his involvement—Mike Clattenburg knows a thing or two about laughing with the economically disadvantaged, and not at them. (Full disclosure: Mike and I have been casual friends since I profiled the Trailer Park Boys for High Times magazine in 2004, and I briefly consulted on one of his film projects.)
“When I saw Trailer Park Boys for the first time, I thought Mike must just be the coolest fucking guy,” McGruder offers without prompting, describing the genesis of their creative partnership. “His show reminded me of Friday, only Canadian, and in a half hour on television. I immediately thought, 'This is the kind of thing I should be doing,' at which point I realized that the best way to rip people off is actually to partner up with them.”
Clattenburg's far too busy on set to exchange much more than pleasantries, so I find a seat among the dozens of extras milling around and watch him work. Setting up what will no doubt be one of the first season's climactic scenes, he huddles with McGruder in the shade of a mobile director's booth, where they can conspire together while monitoring each take through video screens and earphones. Together, they developed the show's story arc months before production began, carefully crafting each major plot point along the way, but now that script serves mostly as a jumping-off point.
Using a methodology he employed to great success on Trailer Park Boys, Clattenburg first gathers the cast for each scene and goes over the blocking, key action, and basic premise, encouraging his actors to ad-lib and improv (within reason) on the first few takes. Then he steadily refines the product down to its purest essence—like high-grade ganja sifted into even more potent hashish—typically by honing in on a winning bit of dialogue.
In this particular scene, Jesus and his followers struggle to set up a benefit concert—featuring the rapper Coolio—aimed at saving their community garden from foreclosure. Inspired partially by the Oscar-nominated documentary The Garden, which chronicled the rise and fall of a real-life community garden in Compton, this is an attempt to unite the ghetto in brotherhood by communally growing first weed and then vegetables in an abandoned lot. It also serves as a powerful metaphor for the role faith can play in bringing a downtrodden community together and/or tearing it apart.
“One of the things we're doing here is humanizing people who have, in some ways, lost their humanity through the way they're portrayed in the media and the way society looks at them,” McGruder says. “We start to dehumanize people as a byproduct of income inequality, because we know they're not really being treated humanely by the rest of society. But this show actually lives in their world and sees it through their eyes.”
And while it's certainly tempting to just have Black Jesus perform a bunch of hilarious miracles and save everybody from their suffering, his powers on the show are actually quite limited. In one scene he changes water into Hennessy cognac, but mostly Jesus offers his followers nothing more than love, kindness, forgiveness and words of wisdom like, “Hey Eugene, go get your colon checked, pimp!”
McGruder likens it to “rebooting one of the biggest characters of all time,” an endeavor that required finding a “unique talent” to play the role. Fortunately, from Black Jesus's earliest conception, Gerald 'Slink' Johnson has been filling those big sandals majestically, bringing to life a Jesus who's both mortal and divine, faithful and irreverent.
Lloyd (John Witherspoon) and Vic (Charlie Murphy) gather protesters to shut down the community garden.
And to play the villains they have Charlie Murphy as, in McGruder's words, “a disciplined, hard-working, old-school dude who considers himself a religious man to the point he's self-righteous, but looks at Black Jesus as a fraud.” There’s also John Witherspoon, who played Granddad on The Boondocks and Ice Cube's father in Friday, as “a homeless dude with nothing better to do than cause trouble. He believes Black Jesus is real, but still won't follow him because he won't just give him free shit.”
McGruder says he believes that's actually how a lot of us, including many so-called Christians, would react if we ever actually met humanity's savior in the flesh. Not that this one-time public intellectual and alleged radical feels at all interested in publicly debating the proper role of spirituality in society, or, for that matter, any other hot button issue of the day.
“I was educated by Jesuits, and I know enough about religion to say that ours is just one honest interpretation of the message of Jesus played out in a contemporary setting, for a contemporary audience,” McGruder tells me as the sun begins to set on the community garden, and the production prepares to wrap up shooting for the day. “If that's inherently wrong, then yes, we're wrong, but despite the weed and cursing in the show, I think there's a genuine sense of respect for people of faith.
"Now, as to whether religion is part of the problem, or part of the solution, that's one of those debates I learned to stop wading into a long time ago. At the beginning of my career, I was always so worried about my comic strip getting cancelled that I'd do a lot of press. I also became interested in politics, because I'm a thinking person who wanted to say a few things. But then I said them all. Ironically, the reason I stopped talking wasn't because my views changed, but because they didn't. So why go on TV and say the same shit as two years ago when I'm much happier just watching TV and shouting back at the screen, like I used to when I was a kid?”
Follow David Bienenstock on Twitter.