Call him what you want, but comedian/actor D.L. Hughley keeps it real. Take it or leave it, but don't expect him to sugarcoat anything because all he can offer is brutal honesty. He also happens to be an intelligent heckler, who enjoys pushing people's buttons. In the aftermath of his public remarks regarding the Rutgers University women's basketball team, his polemic new series S.O.B. (premiering Wednesday, July 25 on BET), ESSENCE.com spoke to the jokester about sharing social commentary, Black women and their hair, and the ineffectiveness of our civil leaders.
ESSENCE.com: As the host of S.O.B. (Socially Offensive Behavior), you're hilarious. What inspired you to become a practical joker on a show that reminds me of MTV's Punk'd meets Boiling Points?
D.L. Hughley: Honestly, I wanted to do comedy that is socially relevant. And I enjoy pushing buttons, showcasing irony and looking at real people in real situations. I believe comedy should be like a mirror and when we truly examine ourselves it can be controversial.
ESSENCE.com: On S.O.B., you've created some crazy scenarios for many of your unsuspecting victims including one skit where a White waitress is telling Black diners at a restaurant that they don't serve watermelon. Do you find that Black folks respond differently to such awkward situations?
D.L.H.: It's funny because Black folks always want to talk about what they would do in some crazy situation like, "I wish somebody would do that to me." But what I've learned in taping this show is that Black and White people are more alike as human beings than we are divided by race. We'd much rather go along to get along than stir up controversy. I've seen more followers than leaders in this show and it's not necessarily a bad thing. It's provocative and pure comedy to witness someone's initial naked reaction.
ESSENCE.com: Judging by what we heard about your upcoming HBO comedy special, Unapologetic, which broaches everything from the presidential election to the late Anna Nicole Smith, there will be plenty of reaction.
D.L.H.: I believe comedy is one of the last great art forms because art is supposed to make you uncomfortable and be thought provoking. For me, the only jokes that really resonate with people are the ones that talk about everyday happenings. So my comedy is not to be provocative but to share my perspective about different things.
ESSENCE.com: So you think Americans are too uptight?
D.L.H.: Nowadays, people are afraid to tell one another exactly how they feel. If you think outside of the mainstream they want to send you back to a factory like a defective robot. To avoid that people make insincere apologies. I'm not saying there shouldn't be consequences, but if this nation would allow everyone to take ownership of their feelings and tell one another the truth, it would be a different world.
ESSENCE.com: Are you suggesting that when it comes to matters such as Don Imus's remarks that we should learn to become numb?
D.L.H.: Not at all, but I believe we pretend to be more offended than we are.
ESSENCE.com: Apparently, controversy sells and some think that was your motive when you appeared on The Tonight Show on Jay Leno and publicly agreed with part of Don Imus's comments by saying that the young ladies of the Rutger's University women's basketball team saying, they were "some nappy headed women" and the "ugliest women I've ever seen." Do you think you owe Black women an apology?
D.L.H.: No, I don't. The greatest gift a comedian has is to call it like he sees it. I'm not malicious and I wasn't trying to hurt anyone's feelings. I understand why people are angry and reticent about my comments, but it was an innocuous joke. If I begin apologizing for every joke I make, then people will question my motives more. It just shows you that civil rights leaders don't have anything better to do.
ESSENCE.com: As a father and husband, you don't feel your comments were insensitive?
D.L.H.: I don't understand why people let the words of someone they don't know affect them or steal their glory. My daughter has endured it and so have I. I tell her all the time I can't stop people from saying or thinking things about you. I simply try to instill in her that she needs to be secure in herself because if she looks for validation from anywhere else she'll never get it.
ESSENCE.com: Do you think other Black men echo your sentiments?
D.L.H.: Anyone who knows me, will tell you that the joke I made is not a reflection about how I feel about all Black women. Frankly, I don't know many attractive female basketball players. You can either be cute or be an athlete. Any sister will tell you that sweating will ruin their hair. People pretend like they don't see what I see. I watched the game—not the press conference—when their hair and makeup wasn't done. I know plenty of beautiful sisters and some not-so-beautiful ones.
ESSENCE.com: (Laugh) Forgive me, but I'm not laughing because I'm humored by what you said but because I'm thinking you just don't care what you say or how it affects people.
D.L.H.: That's not true, I do care. I care enough to speak my mind and hope that those women understand that they shouldn't allow anyone to have that kind of power over them. I've never been a fan of the victim mentality. No one should look for anyone to build them up because that means they have the power to bring you down and diminish anything you might have accomplished.
ESSENCE.com: Let's be real the whole sticks and stones philosophy is null and void especially when a Black man calls a Black woman out of her name, it's simply more hurtful than a White man publicly disrespecting us. Believe it or not, there is so much power in words.
D.L.H.: I despise the President, but I admire that he sticks to what he believes. I'm the same way. I didn't defend Imus, I said he shouldn't have referred to those sisters as 'h---.' That dynamic is no different from the comment that I made the day Ronald Reagan died during a radio interview when someone asked me if I thought he was a great man and I told them no because a great man would have died a long time ago and not lived to be 94. People were upset then, but I refuse to apologize for calling it like I see it. As a human being, I exercise the right to speak my truth as I believe it whether someone agrees or not.
ESSENCE.com: What about the crusade to get record labels to censor their rap artists’ lyrics?
D.L.H.: I think it’s dumb. Music should be bought by whoever wants to listen to it regardless of its content. If you don’t like the music then don’t buy it. But who is that arrogant to sit and think, "Well, I don’t like this music and I’m not going to buy and no one else should either?" That’s so kiddie. It’s like you saying, "I don’t like this guy, so you can’t be his friend either." It’s ridiculous.
ESSENCE.com: What about abolishing the “N” word?
D.L.H.: You tell me. If everyone was to stop saying the word n-----, will it improve your life in any way? Pork chops kill more than the word n-----! I think our civil leaders focus on the wrong things. I have watched Don Imus’s show and heard him insult every racial group and no one ever said anything.
ESSENCE.com: So do you think our leaders’ efforts were in vain?
D.L.H.: Okay you got him off the air, but what did it accomplish? Our leaders fought to take stereotypical TV shows off the air. Now, it’s to the point that we barely have any. If you think about it, a lot of Black people learn about the television industry by working on a Black show. Now, that we have so few where are they going to be able to go to get their foot in the door so they can learn about the industry? Where is the victory in that?
ESSENCE.com: So what plan of action do you suggest our leaders follow?
D.L.H.: Instead of going after corporations and getting people fired why don't they use their muscle to barter and tell the powers-that-be to provide computers to support inner-city schools who desperately need them. It’s always easier to tear something down instead of build it up.
ESSENCE.com: Would you be okay with Don Imus walking up to you and giving you a pat on your back and saying, “That nappy headed and ugly black girls comment you made was hilarious”?
D.L.H: In that hypothetical situation, it would depend on what he said to me. As far as his right to say what he wants to say, I will say that only a fool doesn’t learn from hhistory, and considering his history, I would treat him as I would a fool.
ESSENCE.com: Have you ever regretted not censoring yourself?
D.L.H.: It’s the funniest thing, I was performing in New York this past June. Someone left me a Bible enclosed with death threats. I’m thinking, Wow some group is very angry. I thought about it long and hard, but I know I can only be who I am no matter who disapproves. I’m not trying to be a leader, but I’m not a follower. I don’t think I’m important, but I also don’t think I’m irrelevant. The best advice I received was from Chris Rock who said, "You don’t have to know what you will do, just know what you want." And for me, that’s comedy.