There are two closed-captioning surprises to be found when watching D.L. Hughley’s latest hourlong special (and first for Netflix), Contrarian. The first is the description of crowd sounds as “shouts of agreement.” The second? “Audience laughs nervously.” I asked Hughley if that was the reaction he anticipated his latest, and arguably his most politically charged, special would receive.
“I can’t say that I anticipated anything, but I know from working the material out, that was often the response that we got,” he replied. The host of radio’s syndicated The D.L. Hughley Show and the author of How Not to Get Shot: And Other Advice from White People knew that he was challenging people in a new way through his live act, as he put together the Philly-filmed special. And while you can hear that the audience is challenged by what he says during the hour, he also admits to really liking that challenge. “I’ve seen people work, where the audience was responding to something they’d done before or their reputation, or the fact that they like them, instead of what they’re hearing right now,” he shared. “It’s like playing a home game—I don’t think you can ever be truly great if you only ever play home games.”
Yes, there are challenging moments in his takes on the current political climate, his distaste for Kanye West, and the #metoo movement—but there are also laughs to be found. And Hughley thinks that ability to laugh is hugely important. “Anything can be funny or ironic; it’s about the way you approach the subject. I just found that there was more of that type of material than I’ve ever done before.” Hughley’s clear ease with talking about these tough topics onstage seems to fly in the face of testimony from comedians who have expressed frustration trying to joke in today’s fraught climate. When asked why he doesn’t seem to struggle as others have, he was unequivocal in his stance:
I […] think that that kind of mindset is insincere. I think your job as an entertainer is to be as clear from your perspective as possible. It’s not a collaborative effort, it’s not me and you and the audience writing it together; it’s from a very singular perspective. I think comedy is inherently more selfish [than that]. I think you understand that every time somebody laughs, someone is the butt of that joke. Every single time, it’s at somebody’s expense. I think that your only obligation is that you be as clear as possible.
The targets in Contrarian are unmistakable and demonstrable of the comic’s mindset on how to present oneself onstage: “Ultimately that’s what comedy’s all about: jutting your chin out and saying this is what I believe, and having a perspective.”
This mindset feels wholly appropriate of an author, whose perspective drives the action of his book. Hughley’s written three books now, and has found writing a welcome way to further engage with his ideas. I asked him if it’s affected what he brings to the stage or the studio, and he emphatically responded, “yes, it has!” When prodded further, he likened his creative inspiration to water entering a house:
It’s the same source, but for different uses. You can use it to wash your clothes, or take a shower or cook; it’s the same wellspring, but different applications. I think having to talk a lot and disseminate information and read information and write information—it all seemed seamless to me. It was exhausting putting them all in the different categories, but really seemed [like] it worked simpatico. It all kind of flowed together.
Contrarian seems to be a natural companion to his most recent release How Not to Get Shot, an illustrated comedic guide for black people on how to exist and survive in America—according to white people. Even though the book is a humor-tinged look at some incredibly difficult concepts like racism, police brutality, and white supremacy, it required Hughley to stay engaged with the world, ensuring that his perspective came from experience and not observation. “I try not to be so insulated that it becomes that I’m talking about a thing, instead of being in a thing. I think that helped me in terms of the book especially,and will inform whatever we do next.”
And what’s next? Likely more of the same: continuing with his radio show, more books, and absolutely a return to the stage…continuing to push himself to keep speaking up in a way that makes people laugh. With a title like Contrarian, it’s wholly understandable that a joke or a premise won’t be accepted by everyone sitting in the arena or watching from home. And Hughley acknowledges that risk, admitting, “I don’t know how it plays or if people accepted it, but I feel like I hit every chord I wanted it to.” But one thing he is sure of? That comedy is the right way to attack the things that concern and frustrate him most about the society in which we live.
“I think we have, as comedians, an obligation to help society see itself. I think that can only happen to a great extent by using humor. I think it’s the only way that you can prick society’s idea of itself, or a person’s idea of himself, who we are and what we believe and what’s important.”
D.L. Hughley’s Contrarian is streaming on Netflix now.