'Black Dynamite' co-creator Michael Jai White shares his thoughts on the edgy, action-packed and brilliantly executed Adult Swim animated series Season One DVD.
With the July 15 release of Black Dynamite Season One on Blu-Ray, Adult Swim has compiled onto a single disc possibly the funniest animated series I’ve ever seen. My bromantic affections for shows like Archer and Robot Chicken are well known. Put this show alongside those two in the pantheon of some of the most brilliant animated TV ever produced, absurdist cartoon fare riddled with edgy, subversive, offensive, controversial and utterly hilarious themes. The show is dense – there is much going on across many layers, obnoxious and subtle playing side by side, each having a field day making fun of anything and everything, including itself.
You have to applaud the guts Adult Swim has displayed broadcasting this type of show on TV. We live in a world where media darlings are dropping like Game of Thrones main characters from their hallowed entertainment perches, losing careers in an afternoon because of a single thoughtless tweet or Instagram post that offends the wrong person or group. But Black Dynamite is fearless and uncompromising. It is unapologetic. This show tackles sensitive issues of sex, violence, politics, race, gender, drugs, family values, and societal ills with great dexterity and no remorse. This show is also very, very silly. This show, literally, has balls.
Watching a show like Black Dynamite reaffirms my faith in humanity. The show grabs you by the lapels, slaps you in the face before head butting you into laughter. It’s brutally frank in its satirical depiction of every layer and facet of contemporary society while at the same type beautifully designed and animated in a stylized sleekness that accentuates both the dramatic pause of a scowl as well as the jaw smashing force of a Kung Fu kick. Watching a razor sharp 1970s Cadillac race down a city street makes you want to grab an Auto Trader and buy one of those classic lumbering GM dinosaurs on the spot.
I had a chance to discuss the show with Michael Jai White, Black Dynamite himself, the co-writer, co-creator, actor from the film and voice on the series.
Dan Sarto: How did Black Dynamite go from a feature film to an animated TV series?
Michael Jai White: I had worked with Carl Jones on The Boondocks and when he saw the movie, he got really excited about doing something with us in animation. So, it was really Carl Jones’ idea. We had talked about doing something like that, but it became really clear what we could do after getting together with Carl. That was exciting for both of us. We took it to Adult Swim and there couldn’t have been a better home for it.
DS: Did the Cartoon Network folks have a real idea just what they were getting themselves into when they greenlit this show? Did they know how edgy it was going to be?
MJW: Oh yah. The Boondocks set a path. Put that together with the Black Dynamite movie and it really described for everyone where we were headed. They knew what they were getting into. I can’t imagine a studio being more receptive and collaborative. Adult Swim has been tremendous.
DS: Say what you want about the edginess, but there are so many layers and underlying themes, some smacking you in the face, some quite subtle, going on underneath the humor and zaniness of the show.
MJW: The show is setup in layers. It’s a reflection of who the creators are. We’re a bunch of guys influenced by all different types of comedy. I’m a big Monty Python fan as are several of the other writers. I’m a big fan of physical comedy, like Peter Sellers. When I made the movie, I looked at how Monty Python would layer such silly comedy along with political commentary in a really smart way. It spoke to several audiences at one time. With the original Black Dynamite movie, my goal was to bring those things together, to have a smattering of laughter about something onscreen coming from one part of the audience which another part of the audience didn’t understand.
There may be certain subtle messages we’re sending, certain political points we’re making underneath the satire that will speak to people who understand it. But just like the great cartoons of the day like Bugs Bunny or The Flintstones, there’s a load of adult-aimed humor.
DS: That’s why to me, the show is so brilliant. The subtle satirical political and societal undertones, this type of material is not easy to write and execute.
MJW: Well I don’t want to do anything that’s easy. That’s my gripe with a lot of entertainment out there. Easy is not interesting to me. It doesn’t excite me. It doesn’t entertain me.
DS: Speaking of entertaining underlying political overtones, was Kung-Fu’ing Richard Nixon in the White House a dream come true?
MJW: [Laughs] I first had the idea when I was in Bulgaria. I just had this idea for the movie. I was laughing to myself because in my mind I saw a nunchucks fight scene with Richard Nixon and how ridiculous that was. I wanted my movie to go all the way to the top, which meant the president. I wanted to spoof movies from the conspiracy-minded nation that was the U.S. in the 1970s. And like a Monty Python movie, the last few minutes, things just go nuts. Once the ghost of Abraham Lincoln shows up, all bets are off.
DS: We’ve been waiting patiently for Season Two of Black Dynamite. Anything you can share with us?
MJW: What we learned from Season One, we applied to the second season in a big way. The episodes are just getting better and better. We still try and create what makes us laugh, what challenges us. I never want to dumb it down. I always want to move forward and keep topping ourselves. And we really top ourselves in the second season.
DS: Tell me about the dynamic of how you put this series together?
MJW: We will come up with certain concepts. Sometimes an idea for an episode starts with one word. We will get the main concepts down, concepts that then usually write themselves. For example, what would you expect from an episode called ‘Honky Kong?’ Carl Jones just said that name, and the episode practically wrote itself. We come up with 20 really good ideas, then distill those down to 10. Then it’s really fun to figure out which of those hit on all these different levels. The best ones hit on the political level, the intellectual level and the silly level. It helps if it’s a story you really haven’t heard before. It’s a real fun process.
DS: How often do the Adult Swim execs ask for changes? Do you run into the folks at Standards and Practices very often? You have covered some pretty edgy and potentially controversial topics and language. Do you find yourself self-censoring any ideas? Is there any process you go through to determine what ultimately is OK to put into an episode?
MJW: They don’t push back very much at all. With Adult Swim, “Adult” is definitely the main part. Carl Jones really runs the show. He’s like the quarterback and the running back. He deserves so much of the credit here. He’s the one primarily dealing with Adult Swim. His vision and how he pushes for the quality of the animation and performance, I can’t say enough about. Byron and I, we’re the elder statesmen. We provide the perspective of the Black Dynamite world. The roots of it. We try to maintain that feel. We preside over that area.
Animation is a completely new area for me. I started as a neophyte. I have had to learn a great deal from Carl.
So as far as pushing the envelope, there is really very little resistance from the network. I’m surprised we get away with what we get away with.
DS: No kidding!
MJW: I’m the most conservative out of everybody. I’ll say, “Should we really do that?”
DS: You mention you’re a neophyte in animation. You’ve done so many other things in entertainment, from writing, producing, directing and acting to fight choreography. What has bringing Black Dynamite from film to animated episodic television meant to you creatively?
MJW: It’s been great. One thing I’ve learned is that not only has the animation world impacted me, but this show has impacted the animation world. Carl often animates in a style that mimics dramatic acting. On many occasions he’ll watch the film and watch my reactions and animate from what was real. Sometimes, what’s funny is just an expression. Sometimes it’s body language. Capturing real human emotional expressions that way is something that sets this show apart.
DS: Well, Black Dynamite is such a viscerally physical character. Just the style of the design, the way he moves, his physicality, the acting, often without any dialogue, it’s just as funny as anything said. Have you caught any flak from anyone regarding the edgier satirical messages about society from the film or series?
MJW: Very little. Most people understand it’s poking fun at things and not to be taken seriously. Some people who do criticize get hounded because they’ve missed so much of the other stuff. Their criticism shows they don’t get it. There’s been very little backlash. It’s been embraced by some elite’s in the business. I blush to say how many accolades we get from people like Eddie Murphy and Dave Chappelle, these giants of comedy. That’s been a high point in my career, being embraced by people I consider comedic geniuses.
DS: That’s a tribute to the quality of the work you, Byron, Carl and everyone else does on the show. Any plans for a Black Dynamite movie sequel?
MJW: I hope so. I just finished my first draft of the second movie. We’re meeting for a polish tomorrow in fact. I do believe it will exceed the first movie.
DS: I almost passed out I laughed so hard when I saw the movie. A friend came over and said, “You have to watch this movie. I’m not telling you a thing about it. We’re going to watch it.”
MJW: I didn’t want to do a sequel unless I felt I could exceed the first. I really feel this second film will do that.
DS: Well good luck on the new Black Dynamite Season 2 on Adult Swim. Good luck with the Season 1 DVD launch. And good luck with the movie sequel.
MJW. Thank you very much.
Available for purchase beginning July 15, the Blu-ray and DVD release contains all 10 first season episodes plus a behind-the-scenes featurettes and video commentaries.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.