You may not know Carl Jones, but if you've ever watched an episode of Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks, you're very familiar with his work. As producer, writer and voice actor (Thugnificent), Carl has helped make the adult swim cartoon one of the best, most incendiary and funniest shows on TV. But that's not all he does. A couple months ago, he—along with adult swim's Nick Widenfield and T-Pain—created the one-off cartoon movie Freaknik: The Musical. While met with praise from those who found the writing witty and the guest spots on point, there were critics who implied that the outrageous comedy was nothing more than animated black face.
With so much going on, we had to chop it up with the animator/writer/producer who was once developing a cartoon for Roc-A-Fella and who met Aaron McGruder randomly one day on the street. We talked to him about how Freaknik came to be, how he felt about all the criticism and what we can expect from the new season of The Boondocks, which premieres this Sunday at 11:30 PM on adult swim. Now you can act like you know...
Interview by Damien Scott
Complex: How did Freaknik: The Musical come about?
Carl Jones: It was an extension of an idea for a series that was being done by adult swim. They had a series in production called That Crook'd 'Sipp with David Banner. What happened, I think, is that they got two episodes in and on the third episode they were trying to do a show about Freaknik with the show centered around a rap group called the Sweet Tea Mob. At that point in time Nick Widenfield [Program Development Manager for adult swim] said they needed some help with some of the writing and that they were trying to develop the idea a little more. I thought it was an interesting idea. I loved the idea about doing something with hip hop and with the south.
Complex: What about the look and feel of it?
Carl Jones: It was a fresh new look, aesthetically. I think it reminded me a little bit of Rocky and Bullwinkle, I was a big fan of that kinda stuff. It was real cartoony and it looked fun so I jumped on board and we started writing the episodes and half way through the process I got the call from Nick Widenfield and he was like, "Yo, you know, what do you think about this idea of doing this as a musical? Like, as a movie?" I was like," That's dope. Let's do it." So I started writing it. I kind of took the concept and extended it to a full length film. So it's a classic road trip story with a bunch of stuff no one has hopefully seen before [laughs]. That's how it came about.
Complex: So the music was always going to be a part of the show?
Carl Jones: Yeah. That was something that was always going to be part of the show. When they brought it to me, David Banner was involved with Crook'd 'Sipp and his production was crazy on that. Just the idea of doing a Southern hip hop cartoon with some really dope music. The idea about doing it as a musical was something that kind of came about through the conversation of doing this like a live performance. You figure you get all this talent together to do this movie, and Nick started talking to me about how dope it would be to do a live performance with all these musical elements and all these Down South rappers that kind of represent Atlanta. His thing was always like you haven't really seen a whole cultural package with a music group in a while like Public Enemy. Public Enemy had a whole brand and had a whole package. When you went to their show you got an experience so we were thinking about how can we turn this show into an experience where you tap into peoples musical side, the comedy, the cartoons and bring it all together. Put it in a pot with some auto-tune and T-Pain [laughs] and see what you come up with and it came out pretty good.
Complex: Like The Boondocks, there was a lot of parodying of celebrities. Even the ones involved with the movie. Was everyone comfortable with their lines?
Carl Jones: Yeah, everybody was real cool. With all the rappers that I've worked with, from The Boondocks to this, everyone loves the idea of seeing themselves as a cartoon. I like the fact that since the show is so cartoony and so silly, we can push the boundaries with the comedy and do stuff that's a little abstract or a little weird or something you can't do in real life. The whole idea of DJ Drama pulling out real bombs, there's something to emphasize every single point he makes with a giant explosion, so we thought how funny would it be, since it's a cartoon, to have real explosions in the studio and I think they got a lot of fun out of that, too. I think cartoons are characterized versions of real life, so why not take the opportunity to stretch the limits and do stuff that you can't really do [laughs]. Everyone was cool with that and I think the idea of not making them look exactly like the people was also a decision to create an identity that's not completely associated or nailed down to them.
Complex: How hard was it for you guys to get all the jokes approved? Was there anything that adult swim told you guys to cut?
Carl Jones: [Laughs] Yeah, there were things here and there. I'll put it to you this way: as far as the content, adult swim let's us pretty much do whatever we want. Usually they'll have a lot of notes on some of the language because you cant say certain stuff like "God damn". But in terms of the content, they don't have a whole lot of notes. I know you saw the Boulé. There were some issues with the Boulé and I can't say the people who they wouldn't let us say who they were [laughs]. They wouldn't let us say these people were certain people...
Complex: Was one of those people Oprah?
Carl Jones: I don't know. I didn't say that, you said that [laughs].
Complex: It seems to me that the cartoons on TV that feature black people don't really get into the intricacies of what is truly funny about being young and black in America these days. I think Freaknik touched on it very well. Why do you think there is such a lack of that?
Carl Jones: You can look at it this way: if you have a sore on you and if somebody pours salt water on you then it's gonna hurt. If you didn't have a sore and someone pour salt water on you, you would think it was funny. You are dealing with people that were oppressed so everything is sensitive. You have to remember, not to long ago we had Tom and Jerry cartoons with a large black woman walking around talking about "Thomas! You'sa come on in here!" Right from that era to 15 to 20 years later, you have cartoons poking fun at our culture and our lifestyle. It's hard for our people to look at ourselves in a comical light because we are so used to being the butt of the joke. I remember when people would watch The Boondocks, they would call me and be like, "Yo bruh, I don't know how I feel about that. It was funny but it kinda made me mad and I don't know what I'm feeling right now." It's partly because it's true so it's going to resonate in you and if it's funny and true, then we did our job.
Complex: True. But most of the time, black people seem to get more angry than white people do at our own shows.
Carl Jones: What happens is, after two seconds of it being funny and true you start saying "Hey! They talkin' about me! That ain't what we do!" I think we have a hard time looking at ourselves with complete honesty and acceptance. My whole thing was always like, if these types of things didn't exist in our society, it wouldn't have worked. It wouldn't have made people mad. It only makes people mad when it's true. So if it does make people mad, they should be mad that it exists in real life. Not mad at the fact that we portray it. I always, as an artist, look at everything we write as art imitating life. If we are not going to be giving our interpretation of real life then we are not doing art and if we are not doing art, then what's the purpose? I'm never not going to be honest with my writing because that's all I know to do. To be honest with you, after Obama was elected, there was huge shift that took place with our people in terms of how we view ourselves and us thinking that we made it because we have a black president. Everything they look at now is colorless because we "won" and we have a black president, but it's not true. The same conditions still exist, the same behavior still exist. People act like there was a button pushed and now we're new people. Even in the hip hop industry, you have certain artists, not saying any names, carrying themselves a little different. I'm not saying that's wrong, I think it's good to become introspective and look at yourself in a more responsible light. But we cannot neglect the truth on who we are and how we got here. It's just a part of who we are and we have to accept it.
Complex: I'm sure you've read all the criticism that came after Freaknik aired. What comes to mind especially is the Essence piece, "The 10 Most Offensive Things About 'Freaknik: The Musical'". How'd you feel about all of those articles?
Carl Jones: Whenever you do a black comedy, we are always held to a different kind of responsibility, and I get it. Especially when we are desperate for leadership and all our leaders are trying to cut each others nuts off and shit like that. We're desperate for leadership so we look everywhere. We look at cartoonists to be leaders, we look at artists, and so they put that sort of responsibility on us and that's fine, I get it. But the funny thing about that is, at the end of the film, what they didn't pay attention to is the fact that Virgil did not want the money, clothes, and hoes. He said it ain't about that and he started to give a speech, but he got cut off by Freaknik. It actually went further but we had to cut that because of time. What he was going to say was that the real spring break is the one that's in the heart and as long as you keep coming back and having a good time, that's all that matters. That's what it was about... love overcoming hate. That's why we even gave the visual reference by showing the big hearts and everything. And we showed the dissension between the younger black generation and the older black generation. Like not being able to understand each other. People are going to find what they wanna find wrong with it. When I look at Essence magazine and I listen to Steve Harvey and listen to these people that have all this harsh criticism, I don't understand. Nothing against... what's her name? the girl from Precious, Gabourey?
Carl Jones: Nothing against her, but they say that was a brilliant film, right? It was directed well, the acting was incredible and the story was amazing, it won awards, all these things, right? And they took the worst possible stereotypical concept and pushed it to the limit. They found a woman who was extremely overweight, very dark skinned, living in the projects, that's illiterate, has a mother that physically, mentally, and sexually abuses her, has a step-father who sexually abuses her and who she has a baby by who has down syndrome and then she gets AIDS at the end of the movie! And you mean to tell me this is a proper representation of black people? And no one is mad about it... it's a piece of art. But then when we do Freaknik, because it's a comedy, it's not a piece of art. And that's always the dilemma, a comedy is judged differently.
Complex: What do you think about The Cleveland Show?
Carl Jones: I thought it was funny. Seth MAcFarlane is brilliant. He is a really talented writer. To be honest, it was a little difficult at first to get into a show that has a black point of view from white people and white actors playing black people. It took me a second to adjust to it, but I still think you get the same voice and the same comedy that you get with Family Guy.
Complex: Do you feel like cartoons like Family Guy and South Park get more leeway with what they can say?
Carl Jones: Since Family Guy aired and Seth has had so much success with that, I think just about anything he would like to do, they [Fox] would trust that he knows what he is doing. Part of it is his track record and showing and proving he has a connection with this audience. Personally, I feel like there is nothing wrong with people expressing their racist opinions, even if they're racists. If I'm working next to the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, I wanna know that that is what he thinks. But now we live in a society where you can't say certain things, you can't write certain things, so now you don't know who you're around. But I feel like that is what art is. Like, I love Archie Bunker and he was one of the biggest racists we have ever seen on television. I thought the show was brilliant and it didn't hold back. I felt that it represented a real point of view from a person or a character that was real believable. As long as it's honest, it's respected. Whether it's from a black person, a white person, an Asian, Indian, whatever. If it's honest, real and it's funny, then all the power to them.
Complex: Fair enough. I wanted to talk to you about the new season of The Boondocks. My colleagues and friends all thought the last season ended kind of... abruptly. What happened?
Carl Jones: Let me see how to answer this. Production-wise, it's a beast. It takes a long time to produce a show. I mean, you know, it was off the air for like two years. It's not like South Park or Family Guy, so just from the production stand point, the visual, the aesthetic of the show takes a long time to produce. It's one of those things that at the end of the day, everyone has to look at the amount of work that's going into it and what we are getting out of it. We all love it from a creative standpoint, it makes perfect sense and everyone loves doing it and I think we had a good stretch. It's just such a giant show. In just production, we probably double what most shows do. We have lots of characters, we have lots of backgrounds—it's a realistic looking show, so the execution of animating a show that looks that real, and the background that is painted so beautifully, it just takes a long time to make it. That's probably the main reason, I think it's reached its full development. Its ripeness has fallen from the tree [laughs]. That's probably the best way I can describe it. But its been good, working under Aaron McGruder I learned a lot of stuff from him and it has been a good experience.
Complex: So, just to put all the rumors to rest about last season, there is no backlash from any higher powers or anything about the BET jokes that were made?
Carl Jones: Nah, there hasn't been an issue. That doesn't have anything to do with it. It doesn't have anything to do with the network, or Sony or nothing like that. It's just one of those things like, we were off the air for two years and I don't think it's fair to the audience because we had to make them wait so long for another season. If we can do it in a short amount of time and can do it for a reasonable budget, it would make more sense for it to continue. That's about as much as I can say.
Complex: What can we expect from the third season? Is there going to be a huge difference?
Carl Jones: The third season is going to be crazy! Even the network said, after they got the script, that this will be the best season and by far this is the best script they have read. So this one is going to come out the gate... like... like it's crazy. We are going hard at a lot of people [laughs]. We got Stinkmeaner coming back.
Complex: Oh man [laughs]
Carl Jones: I'll put it to you this way: there is one episode that will be very, very, very controversial and that's all I'll say [laughs]. It's going to be good.