With a new season of their satirical adult animated sketch comedy show coming soon to Fuse TV, the ‘Black Dynamite’ and ‘The Boondocks’ producers discuss being funny, and controversial, in a Black Lives Matter and pandemic-focused world.
Since Fuse TV’s successful 10-episode first season run of Carl Jones and Brian Ash’s late-night, live-action / adult animated parody series, Sugar and Toys, the world has become a much more intense, and unfortunately, dangerous place. The deadly COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage, bringing the world’s economy to its knees. And huge Black Lives Matter protests across the U.S., sparked by the death of George Floyd and others at the hands of police, have brought to the forefront of discussion issues of systemic racism and persistent lack of opportunity for people of color in every aspect of modern life.
Hollywood is no exception. And while awareness and discussion of gender and racial inequality in film and TV entertainment have become more prevalent the last few years, societal anger sparked by recent events has begun to transform that talk into concrete action in the form of project funding and studio commitments to real change. In addition, controversy over instances of “whitewashing,” where white actors voice characters of color, has finally led shows like Netflix’s Big Mouth, FOX’s The Simpsons and Family Guy, and Apple TV’s Central Park, to recast various roles amidst creator apologies and promises of greater racial sensitivity in the future.
When it launched last summer, Sugar and Toys was promoted as “where adult comedy, social commentary and music culture parody crash the cartoon party.” And while the new six-episode season will bring more of the same comedic riffs on contemporary culture, continuing to “put a wild twist on the Saturday morning cartoons we all grew up with,” the social satire at the heart of the show will take on an even greater meaning than it did in its inaugural season. The show’s apt tagline hasn’t changed: “It’s all the sugar but a lot less sweet and innocent!” It still features multi-platinum rapper and actor KYLE (Netflix’s The After Party), who will bookend the animated segments. What’s new is an even greater appreciation by the show’s creators of how they can use humor, mixed with contemporary creative voices, to help audiences look at important issues in ways they might not have previously considered.
Jones and Ash were both pleased with the first season response, noting that the show gathered a lot of people’s attention. “The first season was really noisy,” Jones laughs. “It's really cool to go on the Internet and see all the feedback in real-time. It's good to make a show that shakes people up and kind of forces them to have an opinion, and sometimes get offended. The best, for me, is anytime I see someone respond to the show, like, ‘What the fuck am I watching?’ That's the most rewarding thing to me, whether it's good or bad.”
Safe to say, recent seismic shifts in American society, including a tremendous awakening and reckoning in race relations as well as the prolific fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, have greatly impacted Jones and Ash’s approach to Season 2. “The idea of the show is to try to speak to what's happening right now,” Ash says. “Unlike other shows Carl and I have worked on where the animation pipeline is long, and it takes a long time to get a show from concept to air, this show has a much quicker turnaround time. And because it's comprised of a bite-sized content, we can touch upon very specific areas, in terms of what’s happening culturally and politically, as well as some of the personalities that have cropped up and become significant in the year between Season 1 and 2.”
One of the big changes you’ll see with Season 2 is the all-animated format. According to Jones, “The biggest difference is this season is we couldn't shoot the live-action segments with Kyle due to COVID-19. So, we decided to go the animated route.”
Another big change is how the show approaches the current period of tumultuous change. “We broaden the scope more in terms of different kinds of voices,” Ash says. “We’ve been working with a couple really amazing young writers. I would also note that there are more female voices in the show. Sugar and Toys has always been conceived as a millennial - Gen Z show. We have our own observations on things but widening that scope and really integrating those sensibilities and voices, has given us a wider breadth and even more authenticity than we had last year.”
While the show will bring back certain characters from Season 1, there are several new faces and concerns, considerations, and observations. “We do have reoccurring characters, but really, it's more a show about ideas,” Ash shares. “And, honestly, it's a little bit of a game of Russian roulette. What are we talking about…and then, what crazy spin do we have? The longest segment on the show is only 3 minutes.”
One example that Jones and Ash share involves former President Barack Obama. “So, during [Season 2] writing, there was definitely a discussion of where has Obama been the last bunch of years?” Ash says. “And while that discussion was happening, the HBO show Watchmen was a huge point of conversation. Watchmen has this kind of godly character, Dr. Manhattan, a sort of Superman, who disappeared and left the Earth. And we thought, well, what if that's what happened to Obama? What if Obama was now blue and living on Mars, kind of stepping back from humanity? You know, he sort of did his time and now he's kind of off to the side.”
“Obviously, the pandemic has been going on and the continued development and growth of Black Lives Matter,” he continues. “All these things are very much in the consciousness right now. Personalities too, like, Lizzo, like Billie Eilish, who were just beginning to kind of enter the public’s consciousness are now very much front and center. So, they appear in the show too. It's really, whatever's in front of us, and whatever comes up, gets the treatment.”
Jones notes he’s continually driven by a desire to get people to think about, and laugh about, some of the more pressing social issues they face. “For me, it's always really cool to be able to capture the current black culture,” Jones notes. “On Boondocks and even Black Dynamite, we always found a way to speak honestly, to what the world climate was. Sometimes we’d be specific with people or incidents, and sometimes a little more general and broader, in the way the country deals with belief systems, values, and ideals. How society sees the world. It's rewarding to me to be able to put content out that forces people to think, and sometimes feel uncomfortable, about what they think.”
He continues, “We don't necessarily like to stir up people. We have a specific point of view that has changed through a lot of our work, but we never really try to stir up people's opinions. We just try to challenge people's ideas, so they can see things from different perspectives. And that's always the most rewarding thing to me. With story, you have the ability to force people, or to ask, or invite people, to see the world through another point of view, which encourages empathy, which I think is something that's really needed right now.”
In the short year between seasons, issues considered quite possibly too controversial for Season 1 have now become topics of widespread social discussion. “It's interesting to see that a lot of the stuff considered very radical, stuff we did the first season concerning to police brutality, or the Me Too movement, we would discuss while writing, as well as during production, regarding whether or not our portrayal was too extreme,” Ash notes. “To Carl’s point, everything we're saying is coming from a place of sincerity and truth. A lot of what we portrayed that was considered very radical is now far more mainstream, far more a part of general conversation happening everywhere. It’s really satisfying and validating to step into places that make people uncomfortable, or may be considered a bit radical, portraying them in the raw way comedy does, which can open doors to allow the serious conversation to happen. We're a little salty, but we are the kind of the sugar that helps the medicine go down. Hopefully!”
Hollywood’s recent efforts to address the glaring lack of diverse viewpoints and characters in all areas of storytelling, made all the more urgent and critical with the recent social upheaval centered around Black Lives Matter and the fight against systemic racism, point to more deliberate studio efforts at employing a new set of diverse creators for shows embracing diverse storytelling. But, it’s still difficult to get any show made, and though a new generation of creators may experience a more level playing field, they still must produce shows people enjoy watching.
For Jones, the change is welcome and long overdue. “Many more doors have opened because now because black people have been so loud about how we feel and what our experiences have been,” he shares. “We're starting to gain the whole world's attention. And people want to see our stories. Not that the stories weren't needed before, it's just that the world has always turned a blind eye to what was going on in our communities, because they weren't directly affected by it.”
He continues, “But, the moment some of that chaos comes directly to your front door, and you're forced to look at it, that brings out the humanity in everyone, where we began to realize that there's an obvious unlevel playing field. Not just in Hollywood, but with every aspect of our society. For us as producers and content creators, right now, it's an opportune moment for us to really show that we can tell very human stories that don't necessarily hinge on the fact that the character is black.”
The challenge for Jones and Ash is to use their success to cultivate more points of view from people of color and give them a platform to create content that has global appeal. To them, the current climate feels different than times in the past when, for a short time, Hollywood embraced black culture, before turning away. “We've had Renaissance moments, like in the early 90s, when you saw a whole slew of black TV shows on the air, with Martin and Living Single,” Jones says. “FOX had a bunch of shows right then that soon went away. Just like the Blaxploitation era. Those shows got the studios and networks popping. Then, they eventually removed them and brought in the white equivalent.”
“But now it's very different,” he adds. “We're going through a huge transformation in the entertainment industry. The responsibility now, or the obligation now, is to take advantage of this opportunity and show the world that we do have something to say.”
And, Ash concludes, do it with humor. “For us, entertainment always comes first. At the end of the day, we never would use our animated comedy platform to force feed anything. The joke is always there. It’s just that a big part of what we think is funny is really reflecting on topics in an unexpected or even uncomfortable way. We've always said, in a half joking, half serious way, that the people we hate, we go after. And the people we like, we go after twice as hard.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.