The hood is at the epicenter of American culture, says comedian James Davis in the opening monologue of his Comedy Central series “Hood Adjacent.” He then goes on to point out the number of Billboard-listed recording artists who he says have deep hood ties, as well as citing white culture's latest love affairs with styles appropriated from black culture, like box braids and twerking.
There are even entrepreneurs hawking hood tours on Hollywood Boulevard, Davis tells his audience — and he’s not joking. “The hood is the new Disneyland, except the lines are shorter, and you might get shot.”
Taking all of that into consideration, “Hood Adjacent,” premiering on Wednesday at 9 p.m., is a solid business move for Comedy Central. If flirting with the hood is good enough for Kylie Jenner and Iggy Azalea, why shouldn’t the channel get in on the action? This is the channel that gave Dave Chappelle a platform that he used to turn himself into a phenomenon and made Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele into household names.
At the same time, listening to Davis enumerate America’s obsessions with black culture brings to mind an uncomfortable moment from Peele’s recent horror hit “Get Out,” when an old white man merrily informs the African-American protagonist that black skin “is in fashion.” The man wasn’t saying that in an awkward attempt to be friendly. He was communicating his comfort with commodifying the hero, letting him know that he sees him as an object — not a person.
A viewer shouldn’t expect the premiere of “Hood Adjacent” to cannonball into the depths of discomfort that “Get Out” swims in for an extended amount of time. Nor, for that matter, does it head straight into the bleaker honesty that “Key & Peele” and “Chappelle’s Show” trade in at their peaks. Even these shows took a few episodes to make the audience comfortable with their comedy before accentuating the tragic charade of post-racial America.
Besides, Davis knows better than to get into the ugly murk of racism and bias right away because he’s existed in that space between cultures and levels of privilege — hence his coining of the term “hood adjacent.”
He’s from South Central Los Angeles, he explains on his series, but he also went to a private school and college, where he was often the only black kid in his group of white friends. “I’m not from the ‘Menace II Society,’ ‘Boyz n the Hood’ part of town,” he quips, later adding, “When the riots happened, I could smell it, but I couldn’t see it.”
Davis, who hosts a web series for Comedy Central called “Swagasaurus,” has built his brand around acting as somewhat of a translator of black culture to white audiences. In an assortment of shorts that Davis created in 2016, he translates terms such as “thot” and “meeking.”
The debut of “Hood Adjacent” bridges that theme, in a sense, as Davis uses monologues to create stand-up bits constructed around social issues while finding humor in unscripted field segments. In the show’s first segment Davis takes two of his fellow “hood adjacent” friends — including a guy called Martini (whom Davis calls his “recurring white friend on the show, and in life”) — deep into South Central in a misbegotten quest to get a hood pass.
Later he takes viewers to a place known as the Trap Kitchen to eat chitterlings, which leads into a faux video of his “trap” version of the national anthem. (Yes, there’s a short explaining what the term “trap” means on “Swagasaurus.” Look it up for your damn self.)
In case all this sounds incredibly basic . . . well, it is. It’s funny and harmless and just shy of his appearing to want to have it both ways by calling out appropriation before indulging in mild stereotypes. Only when viewers see the second and third episodes of “Hood Adjacent” can they gain this sense of the edgy brilliance that Davis is pulling off on this show.
The second episode is centered on black activism, and Davis uses the theme to speak to the double standards that African-Americans confront when it comes to protesting. He points out that when black activists take to the streets, it’s unrest, but when white protesters march for women or on Tax Day, it’s celebrated.
“Lack of empathy is a problem we face,” Davis says. So to make white people in his orbit understand how it feels to be black, he piggybacks onto a trendy urbanite activity and creates an escape room from which participants must find their way out — as black American men.
“The level of stress and confusion perfectly recreates the black experience in this country,” he explains.
American society is so fraught with tension and emotionally riven that a show like “Hood Adjacent” is both necessary and tricky to pull off. Amazingly Davis is able to do this by keeping the audience on his side. That’s a tall order to fill, especially at a time when evidence of racial injustice is so clearly front and center in our culture.
And at some moments, “Hood Adjacent” can be maddeningly absurd. In the second episode, which airs next week, Davis presents a mother and her teenage son, Shawn and Jackson. Jackson, a bright-eyed teenager, explains that he has a protocol for “driving while black.” He makes sure his hands are visible on top of the wheel and doesn’t talk on the phone. “I make sure I’m following all the rules, to make sure there’s no reason for them to pull me over,” Jackson says.
Anyone who’s kept up with the news lately knows that isn’t enough. That includes his mother. “The fear of every time he leaves the house, is he coming back, is very real to me,” Shawn says.
So Davis arranges for Jackson’s 12-year-old economy car to receive an overhaul. The car is a neutral, unassuming gray color for very good reasons. The newly “woke” version is the same color, but now it’s filled with cameras — there are at least five cameras on the dashboard alone — and it comes with a ski rack on the roof and other amenities to keep Jackson from attracting the attention of cops. It’s tough to think of many comedic moments that succeed at entertaining and enraging simultaneously, and yet “Hood Adjacent” is filled with them.
But Davis makes sure to lead his audience into these issues with a smile and a light spark, by both acknowledging the bleak lunacy of the unfairness of it all and pointing out that, in a lot of ways, white Americans are very much aware of their participation in the adoption and exploitation of blackness. But the show also goes out of its way to celebrate urban culture — that is, the life of cities, places where people of many ethnic backgrounds live next to one another and perhaps would benefit from interacting more and fearing one another a lot less.
Politicians may be bent on painting the inner cities as crumbling hellscapes, but the fact of the matter is that many people of color grow up like Davis did, navigating white culture while living in primarily black and brown spaces. And thanks to entertainers like him, and Chappelle, and Key and Peele, and countless others, we have multiple windows and doors into those realities. To live in America is to be hood adjacent. Davis is merely putting a fine point on it.