The newest member of the CNN family is also its unlikeliest. D.L. Hughley dropped out of high school, joined a Los Angeles gang, then turned his life around with a comedic career based on making audiences squirm.
Despite the nontraditional resume - and his unabashed support of Barack Obama - he’s the host of “D.L. Hughley Breaks the News,” a one-hour program jam-packed with skits, interviews and in-your-face observations, with many of the news network’s tools and personalities at his disposal.
We phoned Hughley as he prepared for the show’s fourth episode:
Q. You spent election night interviewing folks in Times Square. How did you celebrate once the cameras were turned off?
A. I probably can’t tell you that. Maybe I lit some ceremonial fires.
Q. What was Times Square like?
A. You always hear your parents talk about when such-and-such happened, like man landing on the moon, but my generation has always missed those things. I didn’t have any context - until Tuesday. I mean, people were crying, they were euphoric. It took an hour and a half to go 30 blocks. Of course, near the end of the evening, I tried to get a taxi and it just rolled on by. I had to get a doorman to get me one. So things haven’t altogether changed.
Q. On last weekend’s episode, you talked to Jesse Jackson Jr. and you showed footage of his father crying in Grant Park. I thought that was one of the evening’s most memorable moments.
A. I think for people like him, they couldn’t believe it was happening. I mean, my generation hasn’t been the most inspirational. Activism kind of skipped us. I couldn’t stop crying myself because I was thinking of my father. He’s still with us, but we’re not very close. Still, that was a moment we could have shared. I missed him right then.
Q. What kind of shows did you have prepared in case Obama had lost?
A. Well, I would have had to be honest, but that whole idea would have been so final for me. I mean, if it’s not this guy, then who? I would have definitely concluded that a black man can’t be president. But, yeah, I would have found some humor in it.
Q. Where will you find humor in an Obama presidency? Isn’t pessimism funnier than optimism?
A. Optimism can be funny. Anything you’re earnest about can be funny. I’ve never found it particularly hard to go after people I’m fond of. I mean, when you were in school and you really liked a girl, you didn’t pass her a note. You tripped her. Nobody gets a pass.
Q. Do you think Obama has a good sense of humor?
A. He’d better get one.
Q. Honesty is a cornerstone of comedy. Did it ever get you in trouble as an actor?
A. I’ve never particularly liked acting. It’s a craft I respect, but acting is more like chess, and I like checkers.
Q. This show could have just as easily played on Comedy Central, HBO or BET. Why CNN?
A. They made the best offer. We originally had offers from all those people you named, but CNN had never been involved in anything like this, and that makes me excited and nervous. We’ve got a lot of advantages and an abundant amount of information. I can talk to so many people around the world. Last week, I interviewed some comics in Kenya. For CNN, it’s no big deal. They’ve got a lot of tools I can play with.
On the other hand, we don’t have a writers’ room. We work in the middle of a pit, surrounded by anchors and reporters. We don’t get to rehearse anything. We’ve got no crafts services, no wardrobe, no PAs (personal assistants). It’s really stripped down.
Q. But does a liberal comedian really belong on a news network that boasts of being nonpartisan?
A. I always find it ironic that people talk about journalistic integrity and then Fox News leads in the ratings. People who do best on these types of shows - Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity - come with clearly defined points of views. It’s the people that dance in the middle that I have a problem with.
Q. How do you respond to black viewers who say they’re offended by your show?
A. Opinions change. When Obama first came on the scene, black people said he wasn’t black enough. Now they love him. Look, it’s easy for a person to sit behind a computer and blog. I think it’s cowardly to vent your frustration anonymously. I like to be liked, but I like even more having an honest sense of myself. People today don’t have a good sense of satire. People were incensed about the New Yorker cover with Michelle and Barack Obama on it. They said it showed them as terrorists. It was satire! That’s what satire is about!
Q. Your friend Bernie Mac got scolded by Obama for some jokes he made at a rally before he died last August. What would he have made of Tuesday’s events?
A. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t get to see the things we saw. I was thinking about him that night. Bernie marched to his own beat, and that’s the hardest thing for a black man, to be an individual. He was unapologetic about that, and he helped teach me to do that myself.