We are accustomed to thinking of cartoons -- whether illustrated or animated -- as being a form of children's entertainment. Yet it is worth recalling that for almost nine decades, the Pulitzer Prize committee has annually given a prize for editorial cartooning, highlighting the effectiveness of the medium in delivering intelligent commentary. Moreover, the Pulitzer has sometimes gone to daily "strip" cartoonists rather than those who draw single-frame editorial cartoons for the Op-Ed pages of daily newspapers, most notably Garry Trudeau for Doonesbury in 1975 and Berke Breathed for Bloom County in 1987. It is within this context that Aaron McGruder began drawing The Boondocks in 1999. In an interview with Ted Rall (himself a 1996 finalist for the Pulitzer) McGruder claimed these as particular influences in writing the original daily newspaper version of The Boondocks.:
…this is a hard job, and my goal was just to make deadlines every week. Gatting more and more political helped me get that done. The deadlines are everything in this job, as you know. Sure it would be nice to be Garry Trudeau ("Doonesbury") or Berke Breathed ("Bloom County") and tell these wonderful little stories that weave in politics and social commentary, and I still try to do that on occasion, when I can. But primarily it's just about getting seven strips done a week, however it has to be done….I knew we were developing "The Boondocks" for TV and film, so it occurred to me that the narrative storytelling should just be left to those mediums, while the strip would become a way for me to comment about what was going on in the world. (Rall 48).
In other words, McGruder saw the transition to the easier storytelling medium of television as the simplest way to make The Boondocks more like those comic strips whose authors would eventually receive a Pulitzer in political commentary. But does the television series of The Boondocks actually represent an intelligent satire? I propose that through a comparison with South Park, a series that is often mistaken for intelligent satire, we may see the real virtues of The Boondocks in sharper relief.
Comparing The Boondocks to South Park is particularly illustrative because of the elements that the shows have in common: both are animated half-hour series (i.e., 22 minutes per episode) on basic cable. Both center on child protagonists who often clearly give voice to their creators' sentiments and opinions. And both shows use the adult characters to present a broad array of satiricial targets. The chief difference is, of course, political. South Park co-creator Matt Stone has gone on the record as saying "I hate conservatives, but I really fucking hate liberals." (quoted in Anderson, 2005). As Anderson goes on to note:
South Park has also satirized the 1960s counterculture; sex-ed in school; hate-crime legislation; the divorce culture; and many other products of liberal policies and values. Conservatives do not escape the show's satirical sword - phony patriots and Mel Gibson have been among those slashed. But the deepest thrust of the program's politics is pretty clear. Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone have made their show the most hostile to liberalism in television history. (Anderson, 2005)
English immigrant and Iraq War shill Andrew Sullivan has done his best to promote Parker and Stone's particular brand of conservatism, largely out of a shared opposition to what they perceieve as the "liberal" excesses of 1990s "identity politics" and "political correctness" -- it is worth noting here that Sullivan, who coined the term "South Park Republican," is probably the only high-profile gay journalist in America who opposed the hate crime legislation supported by Matthew Shepard's parents and ultimately passed by Congress. What Sullivan fails to notice about South Park is that its interest in politics is extraordinarily shallow. The best example may be the high profile 2010 episode of South Park in which they announced that they would be depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad, capitalizing on the media attention given to issues of free speech in cartooning when riots and killings occurred worldwide in response to the publication of cartoons of Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005. How the delay of five years was to be seen as a courageous act of solidarity is anyone's guess, but what is most noteworthy is the way that Parker would describe the Muhammad episode in the pair's interview with the doctrinaire libertarian organ, Reason magazine:
When we did the Muhammad episode, we got flowers from the Simpsons people because we ripped on Family Guy. Then we got calls from the King of the Hill people saying, "You're doing God's work ripping on Family Guy." Even though it was this big political thing about Muhammad and whatever, everyone was just, "Thank you for you ripping on Family Guy." (Gillespie and Walker 2005).
In other words, Parker and Stone's chief interest is in their own -- they care less about political issues or free speech than in "ripping on" Seth MacFarlane, who is vastly more successful at producing animated comedy. This seems true of their politics overall, which are mostly couched in terms intended to make fun of Hollywood celebrities rather than actual political figures. Nowhere is this more clear than in the pilot episode of South Park, where the entire plot structure builds up to a moment when the infant Ike is required to leap off a burning building, and his brother Kyle yells to him: "Ike, do your impression of David Caruso's career!" ("Cartman Gets An Anal Probe," 13 August 1997). In order to even undertand this reference in 2011, one must recall that the actor David Caruso had been starring on the top-rated crime drama NYPD Blue, but left in 1994 to pursue a film career which did not materialize. Of course, by 2002 Caruso was cast as the lead on CSI: Miami; by 2006, the BBC would note that "a study of ratings in 20 countries" demonstrated that CSI: Miami was "the world's most popular TV show." In other words, their humor not only hovers at the level of inside gossip about the entertainment business, and does not even prove to be accurate most of the time. This became most glaring by the time of South Park's thirteenth episde in the thirteenth season, "Dances with Smurfs," which originally aired on 11 November 2009. The episode purports to be a critique of Glenn Beck's demagoguery on Fox News -- in which the broadcaster made nonstop incendiary (and luridly inaccurate) claims such as "Barack Obama has a deep-seated hatred of white people." Parker and Stone, who write each episode of South Park immediately before filming so that they can attain a level of topicality, were faced with a choice as to how to handle Beck. Their decision was instead to base most of the episode on a leaked copy of James Cameron's script for Avatar -- slated to be released later that week. Parker and Stone withheld making any sort of criticism of the substance of what Glenn Beck had been saying, and instead geared the entire episode towards an attempt to mock Avatar before anyone had seen it. It was clear that Parker and Stone's only satiric animus in the episode was contained in the attempt to get the movie-going public to think of Avatar in advance of its release as a worthy sentimental bore like Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves. While it would be possible to satirize the politics behind Cameron's Avatar, Parker and Stone do not even bother to do that -- their sole interest is in seeing whether or not their mockery could make a dent in the film's box office take. It did not.
In a sense it is wildly unfair to hacks like Parker and Stone to compare them with a serious and committed artist like Aaron McGruder. Parker and Stone's reponse to 9/11, for example, in South Park came five years after the event, and focused on the "Truther" conspiracy theorists: a target that would offend no one except Alex Jones and Charlie Sheen. Their immediate response at the time mostly consisted in cancelling their witless attempt at direct political satire, the short-lived and laugh-deficient That's My Bush, in which the most easily mocked American President (next to whom even Nixon has a kind of tragic pathos) is satirized in a way that sidesteps any criticism of Bush's politics or policies: Parker and Stone instead give him the tagline "One of these days, Laura, I'm gonna punch you in the mouth!" At the moment when Parker and Stone could have turned this terrible project into a vehicle for real satire, they declined. Aaron McGruder by contrast stepped up to the plate:
A few days after the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, McGruder called the Universal Press Syndicate and asked what Trudeau planned on doing with "Doonesbury." "They said, 'Garry's not touching it,' " he told me. "It was like a make-or-break moment, and I…