Walking Away From It All: The New Great American Fantasy

I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round / I really love to watch them roll / no more riding on the merry-go-round/I just had to let it go”

— John Lennon, “Watching the Wheels”

Apparently, Aaron McGruder didn’t get the memo.

There he was, seemingly set for forever, and all he had to do was keep drawing his comic strip. The Boondocks chronicled the adventures of two kids from the ‘hood forced by circumstance to grow up with their ornery grandpa in Beautiful Downtown Suburbia: Huey was down for The Revolution (the one that Will Not Be Televised — yeah, that one), while Riley’s marching orders came from gangsta rap clichés. It started slowly, as most comic strips do, but gained a following in the black and progressive cultural undergrounds. That following got bigger when newspapers got skittish about McGruder’s thinly veiled left-of-center politics, especially his jabs about Condoleeza Rice’s love prospects and post-9/11 patriotic symbolism taken to an absurd extreme. The strip was banned from time to time, thus garnering it even more publicity.

In short, it blew up, claiming a unique spot in the pop cultural universe as no comic strip had done since Doonesbury a generation ago. McGruder got written up in The New Yorker, a fate hard to imagine for the author of, say, Rhymes with Orange. Compilation books of Boondocks strips sold well, and McGruder picked up extra satire and illustration work (including drawing Huey for a post-9/11 cover of The Nation). Then The Boondocks hit TV, on Cartoon Network’s Sunday Adult Swim lineup, after Fox passed on an earlier treatment. The TV show was a faithfully clever, anime-influenced extension of the strip’s tone, characters, and penchant for pushing buttons (like the what-if episode in which an exasperated, and clearly not assassinated Martin Luther King blurts out the N-word to a club full of boogie-fevered hoodrats). The season one DVD had all the requisite extras, and there was every reason to believe that McGruder could extend the hustle indefinitely.

Except that he didn’t. The New Yorker piece hinted at burnout, as McGruder seemed to become weary at the thought of his humble creation meaning so much to so many people. He had fought hard to maintain his artistic integrity, and perhaps his sanity as well, as the Boondocks juggernaut rolled on, and sometimes such fights take a toll on the fighters. Or maybe he just wanted to reload for TV season two. Whatever the reason, McGruder announced a six-month break from new strips. No big deal; Garry Trudeau took years off from Doonesbury at one stretch, and the time would pass quickly enough with rerun strips to keep the space warm.

Then the six months started winding down, and the folks who track such things noticed that McGruder hadn’t made any noise, to his syndicator or anyone else, that the strip would be resuming. Before the silence got any more deafening, McGruder decided to end the strip. Period. Over. Gone like the wind. No goodbye series, no grand finale. A few more weeks of reruns, and that’s it.

Speculation ran rampant about his motives for ending the strip, a condition made easier by his lack of detail in the goodbye announcement. There was no immediate word about the fate of the TV show, or any other future plans. McGruder offered little in the way of explanation, leaving it to Universal Press Syndicate to break the bad news.

Perhaps the irreverent Adult Swim lineup turned out to be a more receptive place for his edginess than the daily comics page, a part of our media landscape where people who remember when Blondie was fresh still feel at ease. But still, couldn’t he have kept the strip going, perhaps with tamer material less likely to get yanked by nervous newspaper editors, while he saved the good stuff for late-night cable? Didn’t he realize that no black person, ever, had gotten paid like he’d been getting paid for doing a daily comic strip? The Boondocks wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous as Peanuts or Ziggy, but it ran in most nearly every major market, and that surely had to count for something, no? Plus, the strip was the centerpiece of the brand, the place that birthed the characters and where McGruder polished his voice. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

And beyond all that: in this moment when bling’s ethos of conspicuous consumption for its own sake has become something to aspire to (indeed, when “bling” itself went from hip-hop slang-du-jour to the canon of the English language), when millions care what the babies of movie stars look like so much that stars often feel compelled to issue official press photos of their newborns, when reality shows have created one new entrée into celebrity and the MySpaces and YouTubes of the world another one, why in the name of K-Fed would anyone want to stop doing the thing that made him famous? Selling out, a despised notion back when Doonesbury was the l’enfant terrible of comic strips, is now perfectly acceptable, and in fact more or less expected. So how could McGruder give up the strip, and voluntarily relinquish some of the spotlight we’re all supposed to want? Didn’t he get the memo?

Well, maybe he did. But maybe it was the same memo Dave Chappelle got.

Chappelle, you’ll surely recall, made huge news a buncha times over the last few months. First, by signing on with Comedy Central for another season or so of his huge sketch comedy hit Chappelle’s Show to the tune of US$50 million, then by disappearing midway through production of the new season, then by abruptly canceling the show after a sojourn to Africa to get his head together. In a May 2006 Esquire profile, Chappelle offered various reasons for his decision. They all circled back to questions that go deeper than Rick James catchphrases and jokes about rappers. In between numerous cigarettes, he told reporter Kevin Powell:

“The bottom line was, white people own everything, and where can a black person go and be himself or say something that’s familiar to him and not have to explain or apologize?”

“I felt like I was really pressured to settle for something that I didn’t necessarily feel like I wanted.”

“The thing about show business is that, in a way, it forces dysfunctional relationships in people.”

A lot of people wondered — in fact, the rumors spread quite rapidly, even by Internet time — if Chappelle had lost his flipping mind. No one walks away from a wildly popular hit show, let alone from US$50 million, without a damn good reason. Criminal indictment would be one such reason. So would the death of a loved one. But just because he got smacked with the cold reality — a reality that surely, one surmises, a person who’s spent his whole adult life in show biz would know all too well — that the entertainment industry can be a cruel and callous place to exist, especially when there’s a lot of dollar signs, commas, and zeroes in your bank statement? He left US$50 million on the table for that? What in the name of K-Fed was he thinking?

The real answer, the why behind the why, was finally revealed a few weeks ago, after Comedy Central made the most it could of the final Chappelle’s Show sketches and Chappelle completed a brief stand-up tour. And it was revealed not on the air, not in print, not in the kind of tabloid-ready chunk the Celebrity-Industrial Complex is used to devouring, but on a stage about as far from the maddening crowd as it gets, in a sleepy little college town in southwestern Ohio.He hosted an evening of performances on the closing night of the African American Cross-Cultural Works (AACW) Blues Jazz and Culture Fest, on the campus of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. According to the Associated Press, he told the audience that this idyllic little village, an oasis of free-spirited progressives in a sea of red-state conservatism, was where he felt like home.

“I used to be cable’s hottest star and now I’m just a Yellow Springs guy,” he said while serving as the evening’s emcee. “Turns out you don’t need $50 million to live around these parts, just a nice smile and a kind way about you. You guys are the best neighbors ever. … That’s why I came back and that’s why I’m staying.”

As it happens, Dave Chappelle’s roots are very much in Yellow Springs. His late father, Bill Chappelle, was the go-to person for any Antiochian who wanted to do a co-op (Antioch short-hand for three-month internship somewhere on the planet doing some kind of work for not much money, a staple of the Antioch educational plan) in Washington, DC, where Dave was born and went to school. He spent much of his youth between Yellow Springs with his dad and DC with his mom, and has called the quaint little village home much of his adult life.

During my studies at Antioch in the late ‘70s, I wanted to go to DC to take a co-op as an Associated Press gopher on Capitol Hill, so that was my chance to interact with Dave’s dad. There was always a sense of calm and reflection in his cramped office, even without having to close the door. We sat in his office, talking about the AP co-op and getting prepared for living in DC, but just as much time was spent shooting the breeze about the vagaries of our fellow Antiochians and life in general, all in his measured baritone. Especially for us black students, who never constituted much more than a handful while I was there, Bill was a resource, a sounding board, the next best thing to a package from home. I’m glad he was at Antioch because he was forever willing to offer his patient ear, sage wisdom, and friendship to whomever needed it.

Although I’ve never met Dave, I have no doubt that there’s a lot of Bill Chappelle in him. I’d guess that when Dave was on his sojourn, he and Bill’s spirit had some long conversations (Bill himself passed on in 1998). And in the end, Dave leaned on the values, wisdom, and love his dad surely must have shared and instilled in him, just as he did with all us students back in the day, when we were miles away from family and light years away from home.

Upon his return to Yellow Springs after the Comedy Central adventure, Dave apparently wasted little time getting back into the swing of community life. He quickly got involved with AACW, an organization dedicated to promoting and fostering multiculturalism across the Miami Valley. Dave’s dad and Antioch education professor Faith Patterson had nurtured the growth of the organization from its roots as an early-‘90’s student project. The music event had blossomed from a one-day jazz program into a four-day weekend featuring blues, gospel, rap and steel pan music when Dave came in, wanting to contribute to and extend his father’s legacy.

“When he wanted to add a fifth day, he wanted it to be part of the AACW festival,” Patterson said. “He did not want to have a Dave Chappelle day.” But in a way it was, since he brought resources closer to the scale of Dave Chappelle’s Block Party than a local festival. He tapped his production manager to help with the logistics, 18-wheeler and all, and called upon Erykah Badu to headline. The night drew 7,000 fans — nearly twice the usual turnout.

Throughout all the controversy, and now that it’s fading into the past, she explained, Dave has remained Dave. When asked about how she felt when Dave abandoned his show, Patterson observed that his network had, in a way, abandoned him. “I felt that they wanted him to be what they thought his character should be. It could be overwhelming for a young person, going through all that.

“Here [in Yellow Springs], his family is all around him, he can be free to go downtown with his children, and nobody ever rushes him or judges him. We only love him. He’s a wonderful person.”

* * *

As I write this, we still haven’t heard from McGruder himself why he abandoned his strip, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if there aren’t some parallels between his situation and Chappelle’s; the Washington Post speculated as much in a 26 September article. And it’s only a little obvious, at least on the surface: two wickedly brilliant (or, if you prefer, brilliantly wicked) satirical minds find great success in pushing as many envelopes as far as they can, then step away from the limelight (and, perhaps, the resultant heat their work generated) right when the guys with the money were clamoring for more. Factor in age, race, power, and class, mix well . . . and serve chilled.

But perhaps there’s a bit more to it all than just that. If there is indeed a common bond between the two situations, a why behind the why that joins them beyond demographic coincidence and timing, it might well be a willingness to put something — their sanity, their creativity, their own industry, their terms for living — above the almighty dollar. I can’t speak for McGruder’s background, but it’s a value I can most easily see Dave inheriting from his dad. Race probably plays a role to some degree but I don’t think it’s a deciding factor here; plenty of black folk, had they been in Chappelle or McGruder’s shoes, would have kept it going no matter what and there wouldn’t necessarily have been anything wrong with that.

At the end of the day, it’s about the values that drive the choices we make. We may want to be famous for 15 minutes or 13 weeks or some other length of time, but is fame worth it if it becomes a burden? At what point does it actually become a burden? What makes the burden worthwhile? Is it money? How much? And if it’s not money, then what does make it worthwhile? And if nothing comes to mind, then what?

The premiere issue of Good magazine featured a two-page spread charting the growth of Paris Hilton’s celebrity profile, and bank account to match. Clearly, she’s no dimwit, at least as long as she’s not pulling a DUI, and it would probably be pretty cool to rake in all kinds of dough for seemingly little effort. But having that much bank, or that much notoriety, is not the only Great American Idle Dream, or the greatest one.

Walking away from it all to pursue a quieter, less complicated life is an oft-recurring theme in American culture, from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden to the 1932 Scarface and countless other sagas of the underworld. What Chappelle and McGruder may be showing us that it’s entirely possible to find one’s self deep inside the belly of the Entertainment Industry Beast and somehow escape with your sense of self firmly intact, able to continue to do what you do on your terms, not the Beast’s. I doubt that we’ve heard the last from either of them, but it wouldn’t change anything if they walked off into the sunset and stayed there (memo to Jay-Z, and all other rappers: don’t use the word “retire” until you’re at least AARP-eligible). A few more years on Comedy Central: US$50 million. Peace of mind in Yellow Springs, Ohio: priceless.

So in the name of K-Fed, maybe we need to spend less time on the K-Feds of the world, how big they get, how fast they fall, how much money they made for some conglomerate, and all that other manufactured True Hollywood Hoohah. And maybe we shouldn’t question the mental state of extremely gifted folk who find that something else might be more important than being all things to all people, especially if that means you can’t be the one person you really want to be, or do the work you really want to do. Maybe the Great American Fantasy shouldn’t be to sell yourself out, but rather, to buy yourself back.

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