"Hood Adjacent": James Davis' funny, necessary tour of the black experience

Salon talks to the host of the new show about educating America and dispelling the notion of the black "boogeyman"

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published July 3, 2017 6:58PM (EDT)

James Davis in "Hood Adjacent" (Comedy Central)
James Davis in "Hood Adjacent" (Comedy Central)

One of the more amusing segments in an early episode of Comedy Central's “Hood Adjacent with James Davis” is a parody of the MTV series “Pimp My Ride.” Davis’ version is titled “Woke My Ride,” and in it he tricks out a 2005 Ford with custom features as surprise for a teenage boy and his concerned mother.

The bit garnered a lot of laughs and other positive reactions from the audience, Davis recalled in a recent phone interview. The actual filming of it, however,  was anything but humorous.

One detail of the story “Hood Adjacent” viewers won’t see is that the boy’s older brother was friends with somebody who had been killed by a white man for playing his music too loud. “That mom has felt that terror come close to her own kids,” Davis said, “so having that conversation with her was very heavy.”

“I threw little jokes in there and tried to keep it as light as possible,” he added “but I'm talking to a mother who is afraid for the safety of her son. Her fears are real. Her face, her concern is all 100 percent authentic.”

In this case, the aftermarket accessories the show installed included multiple cameras, a white female mannequin riding in the passenger’s front seat, Miranda rights emblazoned across the backseat’s upholstery and a book including an accurate biography of the boy’s life up to this point. None of it is intended to make the car more attractive. Rather, the purpose was to depict the ridiculous unfairness inherent to “driving while black” – and in the end, the car looks less like a hot whip than some kind of mobile Rube Goldberg device.

“Hood Adjacent,” airing Wednesday at 9 p.m., is the latest series built around up-and-coming comedians that Comedy Central has introduced to its line-up. Davis, who enjoyed a co-starring role on Kevin Hart’s “Real Husbands of Hollywood” and was a writer for “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” mines his material from living a life in the space between the white society and the African American experience.

"'Adjacent' is as important or more important than ‘hood’ in the title of the show, because, at the end of the day, I feel like I come from the hood, but not the hood that we've seen,” he said. “My experience is adjacent to the stereotypes and the narratives that the media has portrayed so far.”

Davis grew up in South Central, a neighborhood made famous by ‘90s era gangsta rap and films such as “Boyz n the Hood,” but attended a private school and went to Pomona College, where he was often the only black person in his friend group.

In “Hood Adjacent,” Davis calls upon his understanding of both worlds to promulgate truths from both sides of the racial divide in an effort to close a breach that appears to be widening more each day. But he’s not so much of a cultural translator as he is a navigator and a travel guide.

“There's just a rigid energy right now in our country,” Davis said. “Either you're for Hillary or for Bernie or for Trump. You're Republican, you're Democrat, you're for the travel ban, you're against the travel ban. There's so many rigid lines. My show is saying that, hey, it doesn't have to be so hard, so black and white, yes and no, on any specific topic. I try to add to the conversation from an approach where all sides can laugh and thus shake some of that rigid energy.”

“Hood Adjacent” is unafraid to present groups differently from the way they’re portrayed in the mainstream.

In an upcoming episode, he interviews various “token” friends on college campuses. The concept of the cultural “token” tends to be played for laughs or denigrated. The fact that Davis was one grants him the sensitivity to enable them to speak to the experience of being a minority in white spaces in a way that’s simultaneously lighthearted and validating.

“It's a smaller metaphor for the experience of just being a minority in the world or in the country, but now you're just a minority in a class or a minority in a dorm,” he said. “If you're coming from the hood, or hood adjacent, and you're leaving the hood to become a token friend and you're on your campus or at your job, but then you're going back to the hood where you're not the token anymore and you're the majority, that's a tricky balance.

"It's something that a part of this country doesn't have to experience," he said and so to hear kids in college in that moment of your life when you're learning who you are and what you're going to become... illuminates the experiences of tokens outside of college as well, whether you’re a token in your office, a token on your intramural soccer team, whatever.”

The token piece is one example of the show’s usage man-the-street interactions and soft-scripted field segments to illustrate the larger points of each episode. And the topics of each half-hour veer back and forth between subjects pertinent to black American life. A future episode of "Hood Adjacent" looks a gangs. Another invites a reconsideration of... golfing. Golf is one of the comedian’s passions. But he recognizes that it’s not a “black” thing – Tiger Woods notwithstanding.

“Maybe you're from the hood and you're rigid and you're just like, ‘Golf ain't for me. I don't do country clubs. That's just not me. I'm LeRon from Crenshaw Boulevard. I play ball on Tuesdays. I'm a postman. Ain't no golf over here,’” Davis said. “But then you watch the golf episode and you're like, ‘Well, maybe, maybe, maybe.’

“I'm speaking to something that you were maybe vulnerable about or didn't have a conversation piece to talk about,” he added. “I'm unearthing conversation topics that maybe weren't taken seriously, but through comedy, I've brought them to the surface again.”

“Hood Adjacent” takes on a few timeless topics that people consistently discuss, too. The premiere, for example, ends with a segment mimicking a game show titled “Ruin Your Life.” In it, Davis asks strangers at a carnival to say the “N” word on camera. One white woman does and falls into Davis’ trap — an expected outcome given the decades-old debate about the ownership of that word.

Davis does have a correct answer, though. The “N” word he was looking for was “No.” A pair of Irish vacationers get it right, prompting Davis to ask why Americans can’t behave more like people from Ireland. (Bill Maher, please take note.)

“Hood Adjacent” also introduces a recurring segment this week called “Between Two DeRays,” a direct lift from Funny or Die’s “Between Two Ferns,” featuring activist and intellectual DeRay Mckesson squaring off against comedian DeRay Davis, feigning a willful ignorance as the devil’s advocate on issues such as black activism.

In a real way, Davis is navigating the same territory Dave Chappelle blazed open in the mid-aughts with “Chappelle’s Show.” Chappelle confronted America’s unwillingness to deal with race by drawing upon racial caricature, inviting the audience to laugh as intensely at stereotypes about whiteness as they have about black people.

That show was revolutionary in its willingness to subvert accepted norms about race-based assumptions, but in the end its creator questioned whether it was promoting negative imagery more than it was critiquing the ignorance behind it.

Like any path left untraveled, that space grew overgrown with spiky weeds in the decade-plus since Chappelle abruptly ended his show. “Chappelle’s Show’s” departure left a vacancy television has struggled to fill. Few series have been able to speak directly to issues of race and class in a way that wins over large audience. “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore had only begun to find its stride when it was cancelled in August of 2016. A few months ago Moshe Kasher made his attempt with “Problematic.” The raw discomfort of America’s divisiveness along racial and social makes it a difficult vein to effectively tap into, but it could be that the answer is to educate as much as possible, while building connection to understanding through laughter. Davis is a firm believe that looking at our proximity to one another can be more effective at kickstarting a dialogue than highlighting our dissimilarities.

To achieve that, he believes that we need more adjacent perspectives.  “I want people in the suburbs to be able to drive to the hood more comfortably and not feel like they're in danger, like they're driving in some kind of safari,” Davis said. “Even if they learn the information about the hood through my show, that information and learning information about opposite cultures makes you more comfortable with them no matter what. The less you know about something, the scarier they are.

“I don't know anything about the boogeyman, except he comes out at night and he lives under the bed,” Davis joked. “But maybe if I knew that he liked the Lakers, I wouldn't be so scared of him, you know?”

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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