Jesus, You're Funny: 'Black Jesus' and the Long History of Comedic Messiahs


Wherever Aaron McGruder goes, controversy follows. Black Jesus, McGruder's new live-action Adult Swim show starring Gerald "Slink" Johnson as the title character, debuts tonight amid criticisms from Christians of what they view to be blasphemous material, based not on screenings of full episodes but on footage from an extended trailer Adult Swim posted on July 18.

McGruder's last show, the just-recently-ended Boondocks, offended practically everybody. Conservatives objected to The Boondocks' raunchy material, progressives found the show to be misogynist and homophobic, a few of the show's satirical targets didn't take kindly to being satirized and threatened to sue either McGruder or Adult Swim, and Boondocks viewers were offended by being made to wait four years between seasons. But in the case of Black Jesus, the only people who are angry with the extended trailer are far-right Christian groups like the American Family Association and One Million Moms, which wants Black Jesus taken off the air because "the show depicts him living in Compton Gardens and makes a mockery of our Lord. The foul language used in the trailer, including using the Lord's name in vain, is disgusting."

Not all Christians agree with groups like One Million Moms about the Black Jesus clips. Jay Parini, author of Jesus: The Human Face of God, views satirical works like McGruder's as an essential way of commenting on humanity and argues that the new show's depiction of a modern-day Jesus Christ who hangs out with potheads and winos isn't too far off from the "marginal" kind of company Christ preferred to keep. In his op-ed on the Black Jesus trailer controversy, Parini cites a passage from the Gospel of Luke where the Pharisees condemned Jesus and his followers for eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners.

The uproar over Black Jesus is just the latest in an endless cycle of controversies ignited by Christian groups who immediately take offense at religion being satirized in comedic works and denounce those works as blasphemous. Will the outrage over the McGruder show last as long as the controversy surrounding Monty Python's Life of Brian, which continues to this day? Life of Brian drew protests from Christians around the world in 1979 and ended up banned in Glasgow for 30 years. As recently as 2013, the 1979 religious satire was banned from being screened in Germany on Good Friday. The accusations that Life of Brian is blasphemous against Christ make little sense because the Python troupe actually respected and admired Christ's teachings and backed off depicting him comedically in any way; he's played completely straight in the film by Kenneth Colley. In fact, Life of Brian isn't even about Jesus, who appears in the film for about only 30 seconds and is always filmed from a distance. Instead, the film targets Jesus' followers, and in keeping with the Python troupe's disdain for authority and institutions, it points out the absurdities and failings of organized religion.



How 'The X-Files Files,' 'Mission Log,' and 'Go Bayside!' Are Introducing a New, Long-Overdue Breed of TV Critic

gobaysideThe recent launch of The X-Files Files, Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani's second comedy podcast, was both unsurprising and surprising. Fans of Nanjiani's standup act who follow his Twitter feed – one of the most consistently funny feeds written by a standup – have known of Nanjiani's genuine love for The X-Files because of his tweets about the 1993-2002 sci-fi classic ("The single greatest television show ever made. For the first 6 seasons."), so that's not the surprising part.

The surprising part is the shape that his X-Files fandom has taken, as if it's super-stretchy, shape-shifting X-Files serial killer Eugene Tooms. After Nanjiani tweeted that he was "starting a campaign to make The X-Files cool again," I assumed he was going to write a think piece for the A.V. Club or Vulture about the 20th anniversary of the hit show's first season. But instead, he's decided to undertake an even more impressive project (and it's all the more impressive because of what I assume is a busy schedule): a Feral Audio podcast in which he and a guest discuss at length the merits and flaws of a different X-Files episode each week. After only two installments, The X-Files Files is already one of the most satisfying comedy podcasts around. Nanjiani's intelligent and vibrant conversations (with film critic Devin Faraci in the first week, comedian DC Pierson in the second, and Dan Harmon this week) have made me, a fan of many of The X-Files' monster/disease-of-the-week episodes and a hater of the mythology episodes (they amounted to very little payoff), want to rewatch on Netflix some of my favorite X-Files episodes (whattup, "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'").

Nanjiani's new podcast is currently one of three standout podcasts in which a comedian (or a pair of veteran podcasters who are neither professional comedians nor all that terrible at humor) critiques a different episode of the same older TV show each week. The other two are Roddenberry Entertainment's Mission Log podcast about Star Trek (which I'm actually a bigger fan of than The X-Files) and its 5,033 TV and movie spinoffs, and comedian April Richardson's Go Bayside!, in which Saved by the Bell gets ripped apart like a pair of acid-washed Z. Cavaricci pants split open by A.C. Slater while dancing the Roger Rabbit. READ MORE


The "Gas Leak Year" of 'The Boondocks'

theboondocksFor its first three seasons, The Boondocks, which followed inner-city siblings Huey and Riley Freeman's adjustment to life in the predominantly white Illinois suburb of Woodcrest, was a genuinely funny and remarkable achievement on TV. It was the first successful TV-MA-rated animated sitcom spearheaded by an African-American comedic mind, as well as the first animated show that the hip-hop generation can be proud to call its own.

Cartoonist Aaron McGruder's adaptation of his own popular 1996-2006 comic strip took no prisoners in its satirical potshots at the likes of gangsta rappers, the Republican Party, Tyler Perry, and the network execs behind BET's lowest-common-denominator programming. The original strip took no prisoners as well, back when it entertainingly shook up the newspaper comics section – the domain of "70-year-old white men," as McGruder dismissively said in a 2004 New Yorker profile – and outraged two of its later TV incarnation's aforementioned targets (Republicans and BET).

I'm speaking of The Boondocks in the past tense, as if it's dead, even though it's currently in the middle of its long-delayed fourth (and final) season on Adult Swim. That's because ever since McGruder exited The Boondocks and took his name off the show, reportedly due to disagreements with Sony Pictures Television over production deadlines (the same problem that McGruder cited as his greatest weakness as a cartoonist, without, amazingly, cracking a single Colored People's Time joke during the New Yorker interview), it hasn't been the same sharply written show it used to be.

Sure, nearly all the show's terrific voice actors –- Regina King (who does double duty as Huey and Riley), John Witherspoon as Robert "Granddad" Freeman, Gary Anthony Williams as Uncle Ruckus, Cedric Yarbrough, and Mr. Show's Jill Talley –- are still around and are still being directed to give their all by Andrea Romano, the same voice director who made the voice work on Batman: The Animated Series such a highlight of that show. But The Boondocks has become yet another animated show that's faltered without the strong creative voice of its former showrunner. Its fourth-season decline brings back memories of when creator John Kricfalusi's departure from The Ren & Stimpy Show (due to a feud with Nickelodeon network execs) sank that show, or when writer and story editor J. Michael Straczynski's exit from The Real Ghostbusters resulted in much of the smartness of that show's writing escaping with him like the ghosts that were freed after Walter Peck shut down the ghost containment unit. READ MORE