"Call yourself what you like. Own that shit," Chozen waxes to a classroom full of painfully politically correct LGBTQ college students. "If it feels good, do it. Me? I'm Chozen, and I am just a sex person."
That scene doesn't take place until the third episode of FX's new animated series about "the first gay, white, animated rapper," but by then, it's already clear that Chozen has been chosen to wake people up to their own hypocrisy. The show is going to offend. That's the whole point.
From the creators of the off-color Eastbound and Down and FX's other animated series, Archer, and in the vein of the always obnoxious-bordering-on-distasteful comedy of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, comes a series that is a modern brand of humor that combines gross-out gags with insight into people's rarely articulated motivations.
Curious about how a largely straight group of white guys created a show that tackles sexuality, race, and class issues, I spoke with Grant DeKernion, the show's creator. From the beginning of my conversation with him, however, the message was clear: There's more to the character Chozen (aka Phillip Cullens) than being an obvious punch line.
"Sexuality is a big part of him but not all of him," DeKernion says. "So I added all these other traits as well: He's getting out of jail. He is up for a crime he didn't commit. He's living on the couch at a liberal arts university."
While not necessarily character traits, these elements go a long way to position the rapper as someone down on his luck, hoping to make it big, which ultimately drives the story and jokes. The core plot of Chozen is about an ex-con rapper (voiced by Saturday Night Live's Bobby Moynihan) trying to reclaim the fame his nemesis, Phantasm (Method Man), stole from him.
The character easily lends himself to predictable homophobic slurs and sight gags. It's impossible to overlook that Chozen's a bearish gay man with a bit of a kinky edge (he gets nipple piercings in the first episode), a crude sense of humor, and a taste for inappropriate behavior--including hardcore sex, hardcore drugs, and lots and lots of alcohol. He has no inhibitions (including farting, a first for a gay character, we think) and, quite refreshingly, feels no pressure to hide his sexuality and personality.
"One thing that we don't want to do is make a joke of Chozen or a joke of who he is," DeKernion says. "I think we succeed in that regard. He's brash, he's open, and he is out there. Maybe sometimes he's a little hard to deal with but that's who he is."
In the pilot, the rapper gets high and imagines himself rapping alongside two beefy men donning teddy bear masks in a dream sequence that ends up being Chozen dry humping a stuffed animal in a public fountain.
Yet, he's still lovable.
Maybe it's the doughy way he's drawn but, at times, he displays shades of innocence and genuine sincerity. Without those characteristics (as fleeting as they might be), there's no reason to watch the show each week. At least not what the creators insist is a character-driven show.
The show's executive producer, Tom Brady (who has served as writer and producer on The Critic, The Simpsons and The PJs), is also sensitive to the need to capture Chozen "with a certain amount of intelligence and integrity." As he explains: "Nothing is gratuitous. It has to come from the character, it has to feel right in the moment."
It's hard to believe the sub/dom sex role-play Chozen engages in isn't gratuitous. But given the character's life in prison, it somehow seems appropriate. Yet, one can't forget that the show's humor is meant to offend and is written from the perspective of straight writers who probably watched--and fantasized over--HBO's Oz with its rampant prison sex (both consensual and not) and shocking male frontal nudity.
What does feel right, however, are Chozen's relationships with his put-upon sister (Kathryn Hahn, Parks and Recreation), his two pre-prison friends Ricky and Crisco (Michael Pena and Hannibal Buress) and blond frat boy Hunter (Ike Barinholtz, The Mindy Project), who catches the rapper's eye and possibly his heart.
"He likes to hook up; he likes to do all those things, but maybe he's a little bit lonely..." DeKernion offers. "I think he is. I think Hunter is a person Chozen tries to see if he can have something a little more meaningful with, have someone a little more important and close in his life."
The notion of the romance alone is enough to suggest that the show can potentially grow past the crude jokes in its initial offering. Although it probably won't stray too far from the sense of humor that made FX's other comedies cult hits.
"It'll be [a show] about real life," Brady insists. If done right (and there are plenty of kinks to work out), it has the potential to be more than an offensive stereotype.
Chozen premieres Jan. 13 at 10:30 p.m. EST on FX