‘Sugar and Toys’ Creators on ‘Boondocks’, ‘Black Dynamite’, and the Rise of Black Animation

     September 26, 2020

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Fifteen years ago, The Boondocks changed the course of modern animation by not only featuring Black characters as the leads, but by being absolutely unapologetic in its content. That boundary-pushing show gained its own following along with a fair share of backlash, all of which is now par for the course for executive producer Carl Jones and producer Brian Ash. They’ve had celebrities like Oprah and Tyler Perry take issue with (and aim at) The Boondocks, just as they’ve had Adult Swim axe an episode before it was ever animated and HBO Max fully removing a previously aired episode from their listing. Censorship and button-pushing isn’t new to Jones and Ash. Their newest animated series, Sugar and Toys, is cut from the same cloth, and the razor-sharp humor and laugh-out-loud variety sketches cut evenly across all social, cultural, and political divides. It’s first and foremost good comedy, but it’s also another step in the rise of Black Animation.

I had a chance to chat with Jones and Ash about Season 2 of Sugar and Toys, now on Fuse, in a lengthy conversation about everything from COVID-19, standards & practices, The Boondocks reboot, and Jones’ upcoming collaborations with Matthew Cherry for his Hair Love series Young Love, and the likes of Seth MacFarlane, Steph Curry, and Norman Lear for an animated reboot of the classic sitcom Good Times. We talked about all of that and more in an honest and open conversation, which you can listen to above or read highlights of below.

Sugar and Toys is a mash-up of Saturday morning cartoons (which is fitting for this particular podcast), social commentary and music culture parody. Season 2 of the Sunday night series “brings a wild new twist on the Saturday morning cartoons we all grew up with – but a whole lot less innocent. Book-ended by host and multi-platinum rapper and actor KYLE (Netflix’s The After Partywww.superduperkyle.com), it’s executive produced by Aengus James, Colin King Miller, Jordan Allen-Dutton, Jones and Ash, with Kyle Harvey serving as co-executive producer, and produced by This is Just a Test and 245 Enterprises.

 

Before we jump into Sugar and Toys, I wanted to travel back in time to shows like Boondocks, Black Dynamite. How did your experience working on those shows prepare you to now create your own?

Carl Jones: Yeah, I mean, I think Boondocks for us was a pretty difficult show to pull off, number one, just because we were doing these really big stories, with lots of characters, lots of backgrounds, the stories went all over the place, so it was quite a big production. And I always liked to say we were doing 22-minute movies. For me, anyway, my first entry point into animation was working on The Boondocks, and taking on such a huge task, it kind of prepared us for any show honestly after that. Whereas Family Guy may have 200 to 300 scenes or something like that, we were around 700. We would have sometimes 200 characters. And it was also I guess a show that was testing the waters. We were doing this Black animated series that had a real specific voice, and I guess it was disruptive and a little controversial.

And I feel like just learning how to tell stories and evoke thought and also do satire and social commentary, all combined, it definitely lent itself to Sugar and Toys. We found the right balance of cartoon and anime aesthetic, or animation, and social commentary and character-driven stuff. So I think we kind of dipped our toe in a lot of different areas, and we pick and choose some of those things that we’ve learned over the years, and try to adopt them into this process as well.

Brian Ash: Yeah. And one of the things that a lot of the projects that we’ve worked on have in common is just how cultural they are. Just getting to real specific spaces, both in terms of representing people and points in time, and points of view. Whereas if we had come up as Simpsons writers out of Harvard or something, where a lot of adult animation people really come at things from like joke, joke, joke, joke, joke, I think that coming out of places like Boondocks and then spreading our wings on Black Dynamite and some of the other projects, there was always an undertow of… Something that Carl’s always said is, as wild and outrageous as we go with humor, there’ll always be a point where we go, “What are we trying to say here? What is this about? What’s the substance of it?” And so I think that even when we do really silly shit, it always has a level of substance to it that maybe some other shows aren’t quite as focused on.

Where did the idea for the original series Sugar and Toys come from?

Carl Jones: Well, it actually started with a conversation that I had with Rob Sorcher when he was over at Cartoon Network. We were actually flying back together from an Adult Swim function, and we were having this conversation about Saturday morning cartoons, and I just asked him, “What happened to Saturday morning cartoons? How is it that they just went away so quickly or whatever?” And he basically said, “Well, we couldn’t sell sugar and toys any more, so there was no reason for them.” And I was just like, “Wow.” Like I was telling Brian, we had a whole childhood because they wanted to basically put sugar in our bodies and give us lead-infested toys. And it was just something metaphorical…

This is an example of adults not having kids’ best interests at heart, or putting money over the mind of the youth. So we thought, what if we did this crazy, insane show that spoke to that, where we made fun of all of these TV shows, and a lot of the stuff that we grew up on, combined with a lot of current topics and different things that we wanted to speak on, in terms of politics, entertainment, our feelings about music and art in general. It was just a great platform just to speak on anything that we wanted to talk about, and use the cartoon Saturday morning aesthetic as a vehicle.

Brian Ash: Carl had this notion and we developed it together, and it went through a couple of iterations. The very earliest version of it was a little different than what it ended up being. Definitely the fact that we partnered up with Fuse TV, who were looking for some more of a musical and pop cultural, millennial cultural bent, influenced it somewhat. So what’s really awesome about doing a sketch show as well… We’ve worked on some sketch before but we don’t come from a sketch background specifically, but being able to do these short form, one-off things, where whatever is going on in the Trump administration, Kanye West as a personality, TV shows like The Mandalorian which we have this insane parody of coming up in the second episode that’s… We have Slink Johnson, who plays Black Jesus, playing Dat Mandalorian basically, who finds out that he’s basically behind on child support payments, and his son Da Baby Yoda is actually a rap prodigy, who anytime he features on a song it gets a million streams on Spotify instantly.

Oh, I cannot wait for that, yeah.

Brian Ash: Yeah, it’s a pretty fun one. But the idea or the formula of a lot of what we always do is trying to hold up a mirror to whatever it is that we’re taking on, and then take a crazy left turn with that. So you can find a reflection of representation that the audience… The first thing they get out of it is, “Oh shit, I know what they’re talking about, I get that, that’s something I’m into,” and then we’ll mash it with something else, or we’ll take it in a completely screwed-up direction, and basically I guess make people a little mad, and maybe think a little, and hopefully laugh, too.

Carl, you were saying earlier you wanted to go back to that Saturday morning feel, that sketch show, that clip show kind of thing. You had some animated segments in with live action, it feels kind of like a throwback to maybe Pee-wee Herman’s Playhouse, or Super Mario Bros. Super Show. So how did you guys settle on that format to change things up?

Carl Jones: Yeah, that was the idea. That was exactly it. We wanted it to have that feel of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, or any one of those shows from the ’70s and the ’80s. They used to do that quite a bit, where they would mix mediums. They would do it a lot on Sesame Street, but you would see like Bill Cosby Show picture pages or whatever. And I don’t know, it was all just to get that nostalgic feel, and I guess the short-form content worked really well for the type of jokes we wanted to do and the stuff we wanted to say. Because you can get a really cool mixed bag of stuff in one episode, and everything can work independently of each other, and that gives us more creative freedom, honestly. And there were some pieces like the Drake / Drizzy character that we did, that we would go back to from time to time, or in other episodes… If there were bits that we thought were really funny, or the characters were strong enough, we would bring them back and create a little bit more of a overall narrative.

But I don’t know, the short form was just an easier way to digest what we wanted to do and what we wanted to say. And this season Kyle will actually be animated, because we were pretty limited because of COVID. But I think it still works, it’s still the same tone, and still the same insanity and craziness, and his world has just now expanded, because it’s animated, so we can do a lot more with him than just have him sitting on the couch talking to some friends.

Brian Ash: Yeah, definitely season one, we had a lot of fun doing live-action commercials as well. Some of the strongest stuff, I thought, was that, like Carl was saying, because of COVID, we had to make the pivot… We’d already started writing, actually, and we were about halfway through writing, and everyone was kind of hoping, “Yeah, COVID is going to go away in two and a half weeks. We’ll get in a room with Kyle.” And then we had a discussion about, do we want to do green screen stuff? And at one point it was, “Maybe it’ll be Kyle Zooming with his friends,” and then we were like, “Nobody wants to watch people Zoom.” And so eventually we got to a place where now, like Carl was saying, it’s the same tonally.

And actually the Kyle pieces now I would say are more in the Saturday morning cartoon world than almost any other thing in there, in that it’s Kyle and his two homeys — basically a giant emo insecure Transformer, and then his other buddy is basically his imaginary toxic best friend, who’s basically like an anthropomorphic toxic waste barrel. Again, Slink Johnson, Black Jesus, plays him, and J.D. Witherspoon plays the robot. And so there definitely is a little bit more of a Saturday morning cartoon vibe with all those characters.

But then other things just take a life of their own. Originally we were planning on shooting… There’s this sketch that Carl kicked into gear called Clue’s Clues, which was like a Crip version of Blue’s Clues, basically. And originally that was going to be a live-action piece, where we were going to try to do a combination of live-action and animated, but very much like the real Blue’s Clues.

What was it that made Fuse TV and Fuse Media the right fit for Sugar and Toys?

Carl Jones: The network was already catering to the same audience that we’ve always spoke to, and a lot of what we do is already rooted in music heavily, so it was a network that really reflects the culture and creates a platform for a lot of up-and-coming artists, as well as really big stars. And we’re big fans of a lot of the people that we make fun of, so it was cool to have a… Seriously, that’s the thing. Brian and I talk about it all the time. If you really look at the pieces that we do, it all really comes from a real silly place. It’s never anything that’s with any ill intentions, we’re always just poking fun at everybody. We’re equal opportunity offenders. We really like you a lot, but if we really like you a lot we’re going to make fun of you, for the most part. So a lot of the artists that we poked fun of, and a lot of the music elements, just seemed to fit in really well with Fuse and what their network was about.

And they also are really big on making sure that we’re making a show that has something to say, and they’re really supportive, and they push and encourage us to always push the social commentary on everything that we do, which is really dope, because there’s some networks that are only concerned with jokes, or only concerned with making something that makes a lot of noise. But they were really supportive in getting us to do a show that really had meaning, and had something to say, and also has a lot of heart. So I think it was just a good fit, and it’s been a good relationship.

Brian Ash: Yeah, and they’ve given us a lot of freedom to do our thing. Sometimes development can drag on and on and on, and once we were ready to go we kind of hit the ground running, and that was also really refreshing to get to do that.

Is there anything that you guys wanted to poke fun at so far, that you either decided not to, or just maybe haven’t got to yet, but you really want to?

Brian Ash: Yeah. I mean, we’ve never really felt pressure… And I think just circling back for a second to something you mentioned about some shows just trying to be shocking to be shocking. We’ve never really felt the need to… We’ve been able to trust our instincts pretty well, because we never go from a place of… We got to make noise. There have been some instances on other shows, where I would say, without getting exactly specific, that either personalities who are powerful people, who may have relationships with networks, messing with certain people…

Carl Jones: Oprah Winfrey. Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry. He’s talking about Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry. Go ahead, Brian.

Brian Ash: Thank you, Carl. Appreciate my anonymity being preserved there. Yeah. So messing with people like that. And then there was definitely… In Black Dynamite, we didn’t do an episode I remember in particular… It was really one of the craziest ideas we ever had, and it was an episode called “The Race War”, and the idea was finally all the different battling races of humanity were going to decide who the superior race on Earth was, by having a stock car race across the country. So it was basically a racist Cannonball Run. And it was one of the few times where Adult Swim shut down some of what we threw in there, where in their mind they were like either, “You’re messing with groups we don’t want to mess with,” or in their mind we’re going over the line, where is this commentary or are y’all just doing jokes?

And I just saw, HBO Max, an episode that Carl and I produced on Boondocks… It’s funny, there’s always a couple of Boondocks episodes that are banned, and which ones are banned keeps changing. For a while, the Tyler Perry one, and some of the other ones were not available, but those are now available on HBO Max. But this other one we did, called “The Story of Jimmy Rebel,” which was a love story between Uncle Ruckus and this country-western and racist singer, Jimmy Rebel. That episode, HBO Max pulled it from the air and won’t show it.

Carl Jones: Oh, wow.

That’s crazy.

Brian Ash: Yeah, I was actually trying to show a friend of mine, and I was like, “Wait a minute, it says season three is 14 episodes. Wait a minute, we did 15.” And then I did some research on reddit, and found out that HBO Max had pulled that one. But the interesting thing that that speaks to, though, is that… I mean, it’s fucked up shit. I mean, look it up on YouTube. It’s one of the greatest, most fucked-up things ever. One of the things is that, just in the time that Carl and I have been doing this, what is considered off-limits and what you can say and who censorship is coming from and what the intention behind it is not a permanent thing. It’s a conversation that’s in flux. People are gaining new voices, other voices are being silenced. Sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad reasons. But the thing about speech is that it isn’t a monolith. It is something that fluctuates and that moves and that changes, and that even just looking at our own body of work, there’s things that we did in Boondocks that we certainly couldn’t do, and I think even wouldn’t do now. And there’s things that we’re doing now that back then would not have been allowed. So it’s interesting to be around long enough to actually see the rules change as much as they have.

What can you tease about season two of Sugar and Toys for your fans and the viewers out there?

Carl Jones: Oh, man. We’ve got the same amount of insanity and craziness. I mean, like Brian said, there’s a lot more of the sketches that people liked the most, which was like Drizzy, we got Drizzy coming back, and Clue’s Clues, so O.G. Steve will be back in the mix. And then we got a lot of new stuff that I’d rather let Brian talk to specifically, but it’s still the same crazy show, it’s just a lot more new things to talk about.

Brian Ash: Yeah. I think that we thought maybe at the end of season one we had said everything that was left to say, and then 2020 happened, and so it gave us a lot to talk about. So I think, again, just a combination of culture and comedy and anger, smart approaches to stupid shit, stupid approaches to important shit, just really trying to mix it up. The other thing about this season that was really fun for us is that we got to work with a bunch of newer, younger writers, who really brought a lot of freshness and a lot of perspective. And that’s the other thing about doing animation, and doing even adult animation, is staying in tune with what the youth culture is. When we started doing this, we were the youth, and now we’re grown-ups. So some of the writers we worked with, including Carl’s son, Idriys Jones, who grew up… When I met that young man, he was 8, and now he’s a brilliant performer and writer, and wrote some really… He wrote a Migos sketch that’s in episode one, and actually played Quavo as well, and there’s a song that’s in episode six that we wrote together that’s going to set the world on fire.

Hypeman’s coming back. Hypeman goes up against Greta Thunberg, basically, to decide is climate change hype or is it real? A lot of crazy, crazy mash-ups. And I think there’s a lot more strong female voices in this show as well. We’ve got this other young writer, Anna Salinas, who’s brilliant, who wrote with us. We’ve got some new cast members, including Ladybug Mecca, who we’re huge fans of, who’s now joined our cast. Slink Johnson is back. J.D. Witherspoon. Nick Murdoch. All the really talented people that have to be talented, because there’s about eight people on the cast and they play about a thousand people collectively.

Carl, I hear you’re working with Matthew Cherry on the new HBO Max animated series based on Hair Love. So how did that come about, and how’s that progress going?

Carl Jones: Well, Matthew and I, we actually met right before The Last O.G. season three started up, so I met him when he was at Monkeypaw, and they called me in for a general, and it went really well, we hit it off, and he happened to be a big fan of a lot of stuff that I did. And he asked me if I’d be interested in working on The Last O.G. And I was like, “Of course, I love Tracy Morgan, I love the show.” So they brought me on as a co-EP, and I was in the writers room, and then they actually bumped me up to showrunner. And a lot of that was… Matthew Cherry was actually pushing for me to be showrunner from the very beginning. So when he left Monkeypaw, we just stayed in touch with each other, and he told me about this project he was doing called Hair Love. And at the same time, I met with Karen Toliver over at Sony Animation, I just did a general meeting with her, and she told me she was also involved with the Hair Love project, and they were trying to turn it into a series. And so we just took it from there.

It is refreshing to see a short film like that, and now a series called Young Love, but that’s what inspired me, too. I felt like it was important for the culture, and I felt like there’s definitely a lack of representation, obviously, but this really hit home for a lot of people once it came out. And I think for that to hit home, we rarely see a show that has the type of tone that the film had, because the film was a sweet tale, that had a very somber moment towards the end. So it pulled at your heart-strings, but it was also done very well, the animation was beautiful, it was a loving story, it was funny, it was charming, it had all of these wonderful elements that they combined together. So it resonated with a lot of people, because you don’t really see a lot of that. You don’t see Black people on the screen portrayed in that way, especially where a father’s doing a little girl’s hair, those little small nuances and things that are reflective of our real culture, and real life. You rarely see it on TV. So I think it’s a real important show for the culture, and I’m looking forward to it.

Are most of the stories that are being pulled from for the episodes from Matthew himself, or is it a collaborative effort of everybody who’s on the writing team?

Carl Jones: I mean, it’s a collaborative effort, I’d say. But it’s definitely Matthew’s brainchild, and it’s his vision, and he has a very clear idea for where he wants to go with the show, and we’re just there to support his vision.

What else is on the horizon for both of you that you’d like to tease to your fans out there?

Brian Ash: Well, it’s very exciting actually, even newer news than Young Love, is that Mr. Carl Jones is creating a new version of Good Times, an animated version for Netflix. I don’t know if you saw that, but that just got announced in the trades a couple of days ago. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but based on the kinds of stuff that we’ve worked on and what we’ve done in getting picked for that, and putting that together, and really being able to have a platform that’s that mainstream and has that kind of legacy behind it, that’s pretty cool.

That’s awesome. I hadn’t heard that, so I’m happy to hear that, too. Looking forward to that.

Carl Jones: Yeah. We’re bringing Good Times back, but it is a modern day Good Times, and it’s with a brand new Evans family, and I’m working with Sony and Seth MacFarlane and Steph Curry and Norman Lear.

Oh wow. That’s huge.

Carl Jones: Yeah. I mean, it’s a really, really awesome thing, and they’ve been extremely supportive, and I’m just really excited to be working with everyone. I grew up on Good Times, so Norman Lear is like a hero to me. It influenced everything that everybody’s doing. But really, everything that we’re doing, down to Sugar and Toys, it’s all in some way been affected and infected and inspired by everything that he’s done.

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