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A happy sort of angry

Cartoonist Aaron McGruder remains plenty outspoken in his 'Boondocks' show, but as he's adapted to the pace of production, he's become calmer.

September 30, 2007|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

Aaron McGruder, the Artist Formerly Known as the Angriest Black Man in America, can't stop smiling. In fact, he's busting up, bobbing and weaving as he reacts to the animation unfolding on his living room wall big screen. It's from the new season of "The Boondocks," the adaptation of his button-pushing hip-hop-flavored newspaper strip, centered on 10-year-old black militant Huey Freeman and his gangsta-wannabe younger brother Riley, who have to move from Chicago to live with their gruff grandfather in the suburbs.

The appearance of one of the show's breakout characters, Uncle Ruckus, a foul-mouthed black man who hates black people, makes the slim, unassuming McGruder laugh so hard that his outburst fills the room in his hilly West Los Angeles home, even with the volume turned up to near ear-splitting levels. He's further amused by his cartoon's caricatures of Larry King, Bill Cosby and pundit Ann Coulter.

A mash-up of in-your-face urban humor and Korean-drawn anime that became one of the flagships of the edgy Adult Swim late-night lineup on Cartoon Network, "The Boondocks" returns Oct. 8 for its second season after a roughly two-year break.

The first season lighted fuses even before its debut. The Rev. Al Sharpton and other black activists were angered by the show's liberal use of the N-word, charging that the word is inappropriate for humor.

Since he launched the strip in 1999, "The Boondocks" has been an all-consuming passion that has taken McGruder to emotional peaks and troughs. But on this day, despite the frenzy of last-minute tinkering and adjustments, he seems at peace with himself and his creation.

"It's just a much better show than last season," he says, rubbing his hand through his closely cropped hair. "It looks so much better, the performances are better, everything is just coming together. It's just so much more satisfying, and we're much closer to the goal of what I think the show can be."

But to reach this moment of contentment, McGruder, 33, decided that he needed to pay a heavy price -- giving up the vehicle that not only brought him national fame and celebrity but had been the driving force of his life since college. In order to be happier with "The Boondocks -- The TV Show," he had to let go of "The Boondocks -- The Strip."

He quit his daily satirical platform, which was syndicated in more than 300 newspapers nationwide, including the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. His abrupt and unexpected departure shocked fans, and McGruder had few explanations as he crept from public view, turning down invitations for talk shows and speaking engagements.

"I wanted to hang on to both, but ultimately I made the decision that the show could not be sacrificed," McGruder says. "Once I decided that, it was an easy decision, even if it cost me. I didn't want to do the strip badly and the show badly."

McGruder is still haunted by the memories of bouncing between supervising a complex animated series and churning out a seven-day-a-week strip. The ordeal of juggling both gigs nearly crushed him. He was unhappy with the early storyboards and artwork on the series, and he was increasingly frustrated by the relentless delays, snafus and difficulties of working with an overseas studio. "There's only one word for that first season -- insanity," he says. "It was just a horrible situation. I hadn't worked one day of TV in my life, and all of a sudden I'm running my own show. I didn't know when you work on an animated show that there's a crisis every week. Only the first year working on the strip alone was harder." What's more, McGruder admits he's a lot less confrontational. "I was absolutely a [jerk]. There were certain things that I gave up -- patience, sleep. I was under so much pressure. I took myself too seriously."

From this distance, he's far from dissatisfied with the inaugural season -- the series represented the realization of a lifelong dream, and it earned solid ratings for Adult Swim -- the home of off-the-wall fare such as "Robot Chicken" and "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" -- and a fan base that hailed McGruder at last summer's Comic-Con.

More significant, "The Return of the King," an episode about Dr. Martin Luther King's reversal of his "turn the other cheek" philosophy after awakening from a 32-year coma and witnessing bling-wearing rappers and raunchy images on BET, scored him a Peabody Award for "distinguished achievement and meritorious service."

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