The veteran funnyman comments on bringing comedy to social commentary on the world.
Comedian-actor D.L. Hughley
Tavis: Pleased to welcome D. L. Hughley back to this program. Later this month you can catch the premiere of an all-new comedy special from this popular stand-up comedic called “D. L. Hughley: The Endangered List.” The one-hour special airs Saturday night, October 27th, at 11:00 on Comedy Central. Here now, a preview of “D. L. Hughley: The Endangered List.”
Tavis: You want to unpack that for me?
D. L. Hughley: Oh, well, it, (laughter) a long time, about eight years ago – and this idea had been running around in my head a little while. I remember when years ago Latasha Harlins was killed by a grocery –
Tavis: Oh, yeah, here in Los Angeles.
Hughley: – a Korean grocer, and the woman was given probation. Then a little while after that, a guy kicked a horse and got a year.
There have been always these juxtapositions between how they treat animals and how nobody ever feels sympathetic for a young Black man. So one day I was playing golf up north. My ball went into a reedy, wet area and the marshal came over and he said, “Well, you can’t go in that area, that is the habitat of the California salamander. Just damages to his habitat or hurting him costs $50,000 and you get an automatic year in jail.”
I said, “Man, if Black people had these kind of protections.” (Laughter) So I actually went on the Department of the Interior, looked at the endangered species list, what would it take to get, and virtually every one, we meet the criteria, from societal neglect to a large percentage of males in captivity to predation to encroachment in their natural habitat, like every time a Walmart moves into Compton. (Laughter)
I think ultimately it just became a social experiment. You’ll very rarely see – like if you took the gray wolf, which obviously has habitat challenges, and changed his name to Trayvon Martin, he would get a lot less sympathy. I think it just seemed ironic, and it would just seem like an interesting kind of observational place, and we just took a look at it. It was very interesting.
Tavis: But what do you say to Black men or others, for that matter, who feel insulted by the very comparison to the gray wolf, to the salamander, to the chimpanzee?
Hughley: I think that if their pelt was as regarded as the gray wolf, we’d be in a lot better station. If people actually had the sympathy for us that they had for other species that were endangered, they would obviously be in a better position.
You can’t argue that we are – like the dinosaur is not here because of the ice age. I would argue that the education age poses those kinds of challenges for Black men, and I think – I never forget that I’m a comic, but it does beg the question why are people so – you’ve never once seen society be sympathetic toward a Black man. Ever. For anything. It’s an interesting concept.
Tavis: To your juxtaposition earlier about the ice age versus the education age, I take the point that you’re offering, but where these animals are concerned, they are in the situation they’re in through no fault of their own.
Tavis: How do you respond to folk who say if the Black man belongs on an endangered species list –
Tavis: – he belongs there because he put himself there.
Hughley: Right. Well, I can’t say that we are part and parcel to blame for all of it, but we do address that in the, in the, in the play. We can be the very first species that had a hand in his own demise.
I mean, the T Rex didn’t do drive-bys (laughter) and sell weed and leave their kids to fend for themselves, so obviously there is a level of culpability that we can’t deny, and we took great pains to make sure that, although it was funny, we took – but when you look at the things that we deal with, like we did a piece with the private prison industry, and I’ve heard you talk about this.
But the amazing thing is that it is – they went out and they gave letters to 48 states asking for their prisoners. They said we’ll cut your prices; you’ll get a good price, as long as we get 90 percent capacity. They get to pick the prisoners. Like, they can pick what prisoners they want.
They’ve got to be young and have a lengthy prison sentence. So it’s slavery. What we did was we talked to them and we also talked to young gang members with two strikes. So we knew that we couldn’t do very much about it, so we gave the gang members stock in the prison company, so if they go to jail, not only are they inmates but they’re shareholders, so they have to be listened to. (Laughter)
This is, from a comedic vantage, I think we asked some interesting questions. It was, as irritating as it was, fun as it was, I think, exploratory.
Tavis: Yeah. I was watching Richard Pryor the other night, and I’ve never talked to a comedian in my 20 years in this business and not hear the name Richard Pryor when I ask them who’s on their list of all-time greats. He’s always at the top of the list.
Tavis: What Pryor was able to do, to your point, through his comedy was to get us to see the world through a different prism.
Tavis: And the good ones, the great ones, do that. You do that, Chris Rock does that. I’m not so much person – I’m not interested in comics who can tell, you know, have you heard the one about (unintelligible).
Hughley: Right, right.
Tavis: I want to be entertained but I also want to be empowered. If you can do that, that’s the real trick for me. So tell me why or how you think that putting a comedic lens on this allows people, helps people, enhances us to deal with the comedy.
Hughley: Well, it enhances it – obviously, it’s aspirin and orange juice. We were getting that, when I had to take medicine, my mother would put it in orange juice, and I think this is the same thing.
Tavis: That’s not like gin and juice. (Laughter)
Hughley: That’s better. That’s after the aspirin and orange juice. (Laughter) And gin and juice comes with the (unintelligible). The only way I’ve ever been able to do anything is to see irony in it, and I think it is – we seem to have – and obviously no one feels sorry for the shark, either, because they fear it.
Hughley: Look at any number of things – and I keep going back to Trayvon Martin. There was a palpable lack of noise from everybody, because most people went, “I can see how I would have been afraid of a young guy like that.” Just being afraid of somebody puts you in peril.
We made those kinds of comparisons in the play, and I think the only way that I’ve ever been interested in comedy is if it cut both ways and if it made people hurt as much as it made them laugh. So it’s not even a funny thing. It’s not even fun to me unless it has a kind of dual effect.
Tavis: I’m in the process right now – my crew all knows this – I’m in the process now of working on my next prime-time special for PBS, and I did one last year called –
Hughley: You better hurry up, because if Romney get in –
Tavis: Yeah, exactly. Me and Big Bird. (Laughter) Big Bird and Big Tavis, we all in trouble.
Hughley: Big Tavis, is that you behind the microphone at McDonald’s?
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Would you like fries with that?
Tavis: So assuming that Mr. Romney doesn’t win and I’m around here next January, we’re going to show the second piece in this series. The first one last year was called “Too Important to Fail.”
Tavis: If the banks are too big to fail, then Black boys are too important to fail in our education system. So this one’s called “Education Under Arrest.” I thought about it when I saw your piece, because I’ve been interviewing all types of people around the country about the criminalization of children, particularly Black boys.
Tavis: The stuff that you and I back in the day would be sent to the principal’s office for doing, they get a juvenile record for that today.
Hughley: For sure.
Tavis: They end up in front of a judge.
Hughley: For sure.
Tavis: It starts downhill. So if you’ve got a record at 10, 11, 12, 13 –
Hughley: Look under the auspice –
Tavis: – you end up on this endangered species list.
Hughley: Certainly. But look under the auspice of the private prison industry. They can say we’re going to cut funding. Like I asked an interesting question, too. I said if Black families got – the purpose, would this be good or bad for your business if Black families stayed together. He said, “That would be bad.” If they got an education to stay out of the streets, that would be bad. I said if they gave up drug use, that would be bad.
So almost everything that is good for our society in general is bad for an industry that’s solely dependent on them. So under the auspices of saying we’re going to cut funding and we’re going to make laws tougher, and they still have a back-door deal with these cats, they know they’re going to get some pay-back because a lot of these guys are invested in it, they can pretend like they’re addressing an issue that really only funnels these young cats into that system.
There is clearly a moral lapse when you allow people to have a financial component that you benefit from and deny somebody even a basic education. To me, it’s do we want a country of convicts, of people that we’re afraid of, of people who are ne’er do wells, of people that we have to interact with and never really have a connection to?
Or do we want this society that the brochure talks about? I think ultimately, from a comedic vantage point, that’s always been important to me.
Tavis: There’s a piece, a segment in the special, where – and I’m not sure how earnest you were in this effort – where you were trying to understand this neo-Nazi.
Tavis: (Laughs) You should explain that and tell me why you were doing that.
Hughley: Well, actually, every species that disappears, another species who’s dependent on it suffers too. So we went to not only the private prison industry (unintelligible) but we went to neo-Nazis, and I was talking to this cat, and he was – because if we leave, just hating Mexicans and Jewish people is not going to be enough. (Laughter)
At one point he was saying that he didn’t hate us; he wanted us to have our own country. He wanted to break the country up in half. And I said, “Well, what about the mixed people?” “Well, they would have their own country.” Like, what about the white women that want to come with us? (Laughter) Like, come on, you’re going to have a whole bunch of incursions across the border.
But he said that numbers had gone up exponentially since the president’s been in office. He said the people that would have never joined the neo-Nazis are starting to join. Police officers, teachers, elected officials.
I said that didn’t have anything to do with the fact that – no, we don’t, no. I said, “So the fact that a Black president’s in office, and you have benefitted from it doesn’t -” so it was just, that was a comedic look, but it did, I think, talk about – it was an interesting way to have a conversation with somebody about racial issues and take the onus off the vitriol and just have a conversation.
But I thought it was funny and it was educational. I learned a lot. Like I ain’t going to Detroit, the white part of Detroit, no time soon. (Laughter)
Tavis: Or south Boston, for that matter, yeah.
Hughley: I think it’s the street.
Tavis: Since you mentioned President Obama, you have not been shy about political commentary; nor have I, obviously. I’m always reading your blog posts when I see them pop up on Huffington Post or on the Internet. So you’ve got some things to say about this presidency.
Tell me where you come down on this. There are a lot of Black people who hoped and believed or thought, and still hope that in a second term that some of these issues that are disproportionally impacting to Black people – the prison industrial complex, unemployment, we could run the list, that the president, the Malcolm X in him is going to come out, as it were, in the second term. So they’re hopeful that there’s going to be a new day. Do you buy that argument?
Hughley: No. I think anybody who studies presidential history knows that first they run for reelection, then they run for history.
Hughley: So I think that that’s a (unintelligible). One of the reasons that we did this piece was because there was a misguided belief that a Black president would have an ancillary, even a beneficial effect, for Black people, and it hasn’t. It hasn’t.
He certainly has (unintelligible) an elected official, and it was a horrible time so I wouldn’t put the onus on him, but I would say that there was this believe that all of a sudden you could take a Black president and make everything just better for everybody.
I think there’s a lot of that going on in terms of his second term. I think he’ll be better, obviously better than the alternative, but to believe that all of a sudden he’s going to become something he’s not is foolish. Ultimately, he has a set of goals he wants to accomplish. I think that the bravest thing I’ve ever seen politically in my lifetime was the Affordable Healthcare Act.
That took political capital that he may or may not – he may suffer or benefit from. But I still believe that ultimately, at his core, he is what he is and I think he’s pragmatic, and I think that some of the answers require less pragmatism and more kind of overt action. I don’t think that’s where he’s going to come from.
Tavis: So if not from the White House, then how do these issues, this endangered species issue, how does it get addressed by Black people?
Hughley: Well, people have to decide what’s important to them. We can’t – like when we talk about education, people from the West Indies value it and they are in poor circumstances. You could tell me have told me that India would be the educational power it is, and they didn’t have as much money and as much opportunity.
People in China, a lot of these other countries, Third World countries, people consider them, have placed an onus and a premium on education that is unparalleled, and I think we haven’t.
I think not just even from an apparatus, but in our homes we don’t value it like we used to. We just don’t. If you talk cool, like if you talk cool, you have more girls. But if you talk cool, you probably aren’t going to school, you probably aren’t doing the things that you need to do to kind of have a life after this small – a small segment of your life is cool.
We don’t value education. We don’t place a premium on it. The kids that don’t get one suffer for the rest of their lives, and I think it’s as much incumbent on us as it is asking for a bureaucracy to do something.
Tavis: We’ll go back to the special specifically now, because we’ve been talking about this particular aspect of the special, but there’s some comedy, some stand-up –
Hughley: A lot.
Tavis: – some new, I mean some new comedy –
Hughley: Right, right, right, a lot.
Tavis: – interspersed with the stuff we’ve been saying. What’s your process these days for going about coming up with that material, and I ask that because I’m on a plane one night reading a piece, a Q&A with Chris Rock in “The New York Times Magazine,” and he was talking about the difficulty these days of just honing your material.
Because you go into a club and somebody’s got you on their phone, and the stuff is out before you get a chance to actually perfect it.
Hughley: That always happens.
Tavis: So since everybody knows your stuff from the “Kings of Comedy,” you can’t ever use that material anymore.
Hughley: Right, right.
Tavis: How do you go about honing your stuff now?
Hughley: I can’t turn on the TV – like I was watching – and life is certainly more funny than I could ever be, but I was watching Todd Akin, and I remember him saying that if a woman is legitimately raped her body will shut that thing down.
Tavis: That’s the guy running for Senate in Missouri.
Hughley: Right, in Missouri.
Hughley: And all of us have these misnomers, these kind of ideas about women we grow – like I used to believe that a woman couldn’t get pregnant a couple of days before her cycle, and three kids later, I’m starting to question my (unintelligible). (Laughter)
Because that – and I read something on synthetic drugs. Like, it’s a big thing, synthetic drugs, like real drugs (blank) – I mean messes up a lot.
Tavis: They can fix that, yeah. (Laughter)
Hughley: Like we needed a substitute. These drugs are not good enough. (Laughter) Like all you’ve got to do is look at a picture of Amy Winehouse and tell we don’t need no other. But the things that people go through, the things that people think are important, our information – like everything is a click away.
The Chik-Fil-A debate struck me as funny because I love Chik-Fil-A. I hate their stance on gay marriage. So in protest I’m going to order chicken, but I’m going to leave the bun alone. (Laughter) The things that I see that are so – like I will see people rail on about how God hates gay sex. Well, he hates gluttony and greed, too, and the fattest people I know is the church.
If your body’s supposed to be a temple, it shouldn’t come with a drive-through. Fries don’t come with the Holy Ghost. (Laughter) So those things are always just funny. I was watching just yesterday the Space Shuttle Endeavor is on the corner of MLK and Crenshaw. From, like, outer space to the Magic Johnson Theater.
It was going two miles an hour. The space shuttle’s going to be tagged before it gets to the museum. I didn’t know Puffy was in outer space.
Tavis: See you’re killing me, because – I’m sweating now, I can’t do this (unintelligible) – but is that just – and I ask this respectfully – is that just a gift or is there a way – could you train me how to see the funny?
Tavis: I read the same stuff – everything you just said, I read the same stuff.
Tavis: That space shuttle came right by my office on Crenshaw the other day.
Hughley: Right, right.
Tavis: So I see – there’s nothing you’ve just said that I haven’t read, but when I read it, I didn’t see the funny.
Hughley: But you’re a journalist, and you’re looking –
Tavis: But could you train me – you’ve done this before, so you –
Hughley: No, not well enough, obviously. (Laughter)
Tavis: See what I mean? You –
Hughley: I’m sitting on this couch now.
Tavis: No, you’ve sat in the host chair.
Hughley: I have.
Tavis: And if you wanted to do this, you could do this. If for somebody, for a novice, I could train them how to get better at this.
Tavis: Could you train me how to see the funny in that (unintelligible).
Hughley: Sure. You can train people how to – here’s what people do. You ever see somebody and they’ll tell us, “This is going to be funny,” and then they always start a story that they think is funny by saying it’s going to be funny, and then instead of trying to put you in the place, see it like they saw it, they try to – and then halfway through the story they’ll give up and go, “Well, you had to be there.”
Well, the gig is to put them there. There is – comedy itself is under attack like all of the mediums because I think there is a – you have to have an unvarnished, kind of unfettered look at things from your perspective, and be unafraid to say them. I think most people have a filter.
Like you’re a decent guy who kind of doesn’t want to be offensive and kind of be more inclusive, and I think you have to be – there’s a component where great comics are selfish. You have to be very selfish and very myopic, and I think –
Tavis: Selfish in what way?
Hughley: In the way that you care more about your viewpoint and expressing yourself than its effect on someone else. You do. You care more about the idea – like I literally was watching – they were talking about kids and schools now give them 850 calories, and they’re saying they’re still hungry.
Like who knew that playing video games and tweeting burned so many calories? (Laughter) We have a nation of children that are overweight and in 20 years we’re going to have a diabetes epidemic. I read this sign that talks about how you shouldn’t shame people into being in shape. Shame hurts.
Well, shame don’t hurt as much as diabetes, I bet you. (Laughter) You think shame hurt, lose a toe. That hurts. I think that because you’re a decent and a humane person, you would never have kind of had –
Tavis: But you’re decent and humane.
Hughley: But I’m more sinister. Like I literally want people to feel a – I want them to stub their toe. I do. (Laughter) They stub their toe, they walk around you. They understand. I think that is the prism from which I operate. I think this world, our nation and our communities, are in such dire straits that they need something different.
I think if it’s comfortable – anything that makes you comfortable makes you weaker. Like when you’re sitting at home and you eat a lot you’re comfortable, but it’s not doing you any good. You have to strain and stress and test yourself, and I think that’s the way that I look at comedy, and I think it’s tougher for a decent person like yourself to feel that way.
Tavis: (Unintelligible) I get the sense – I was asking you when you sat down whether or not you’re still on the road as much as you have been. By the way, tomorrow night you are here in L.A.
Hughley: With (unintelligible).
Tavis: (Unintelligible) I got my tickets.
Hughley: Yes, you do.
Tavis: Do you have my tickets?
Hughley: (Unintelligible) yeah, of course. (Laughter) (Unintelligible) you have your ticket, Tavis. All of a sudden, the cameras just went dark.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, you better double check that, make sure I got my tickets.
Hughley: Yeah, absolutely, you do.
Tavis: So if you’re in L.A. tomorrow and there’s a ticket left somewhere at Nokia tomorrow night, Friday night, D. L. And Cedric.
Hughley: Cedric, the first time together since “Kings of Comedy.”
Tavis: Wow. So that’s tomorrow night at Nokia if you’re in town here in L.A. But I say that because I was asking you whether or not you still are on the road as much as you have been, and you said yes.
Hughley: Of course.
Tavis: You still love all this traveling and –
Hughley: No, it’s like having a great job and a horrible commute. I miss my family, but I’m – sharks got to swim, birds got to fly, comics got to tell jokes. Now, I love what I do. It’s the most intrinsically beautiful thing I’ve ever seen is people laughing, and especially when they have no reason.
I like it when the stakes are so high. I like it when people – I love being on stage when there is so little to laugh at and so many things that people are so – have such animus and fear about, and it’s just to be able to get on stage and to kind of take it out and look at it and have people laugh – or not. It doesn’t always work. But I love what I do.
Tavis: Did “Kings of Comedy -” I’m not going to say “did.” I’m going to make the assumption that somehow it exposed you and expanded change, tweaked your audience in some way.
Tavis: If I’m right about that, tell me how.
Hughley: Yeah, well, it did. Well, I think more than anything else, I think “Kings of Comedy” was a sign. People still had to come in and check out the merchandise. I think my audience has differed and grown in the ways that I have. I think that keeping it real is really kind of addressing what you’re seeing now and talking about the things you see now.
So it was an invitation that people accepted, and now my audience is a lot broader. I’ve been all over the world doing what I do, and I’ve always tried to maintain a striking distance, where I can just be as honest as I can – as I can without, like, making my wife leave me and my kids.
But just as honest as I can, and to be – and never forget that I’m there to entertain them. It’s grown, and I just have a blast.
Tavis: A little birdie told me that another reason to vote for Barack Obama – D. L.’s daughter works for the Obama administration.
Hughley: Right. (Laughter)
Tavis: So if Obama loses, she’s coming home.
Hughley: Right, she’s moving in. (Laughter) Yeah, so please. I like walking around my house naked. Let her stay with Obama.
Tavis: If you’re in L.A. tomorrow night, D. L. And Cedric the Entertainer, back together for the first time since the “Kings of Comedy” at Nokia. “The Endangered List” is the new special starring Mr. Hughley, which you can catch in the coming days on Comedy Central. And D. L., I love you. You’re welcome back here any time.
Hughley: Thank you, man.
Tavis: Good to see you, man.
Hughley: Thank you, good to see you too.
Tavis: Stay strong.
Hughley: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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