Radio Star Charlamagne Tha God Seeks TV Success On Comedy Central

Sep 17, 2021
Originally published on September 20, 2021 8:02 am

This is an odd thing to hear from a radio personality who once proudly called himself the "Prince of Pissing People Off."

But Charlamagne tha God – also known as Lenard "Charlamagne" McKelvey – says he's a bit mellower now. The reason? He's wary that his button-pushing image is becoming a guilded straitjacket, pushing him into behaving in ways a 43-year-old father and husband maybe shouldn't be acting, anymore.

"I've been doing radio for 23 years, and I tell these [younger personalities], 'Don't get caught up in being a caricature of yourself,'" he says. "You start seeing those kind of write ups like, 'Oh he's the hip hop Howard Stern' ... so [you think] 'Damn... should I give them more of that?' ... It's easy to get caught up in a character when you see it's working."

Charlamagne and his co-hosts, DJ Envy and Angela Yee, gained fame on the nationally syndicated hip hop radio show The Breakfast Club. In particular, Charlamagne developed a reputation for confrontation, once asking rapper Tekashi69 if he was a registered sex offender and calling Drake a "pretty albino girl."

When politicians came on the radio show seeking to reach Black listeners, he had a moment with then-candidate Joe Biden, who declared, "If you have a problem figuring out whether you're for me or Trump, then you ain't Black."

YouTube

That quote sparked a lot of criticism of Biden, but it helped establish Charlamagne as an interviewer who could get past politicians' talking points.

On his new Comedy Central show, Tha God's Honest Truth With Lenard "Charlamagne" McKelvey, the radio star promises a weekly program offering an "unapologetically Black" look at a range of issues in politics and pop culture through in-depth interviews, sketch comedy and "social experiments." He won't give many details about what viewers will see, but promises it will cover a lot of ground.

"There's definitely two Americas ... and I don't know if that's being presented on television the way it needs to be," he says. "I'm just tackling what it is we are going through as Black people in this country, but also letting people know this affects us all as a whole."

He's getting help from some pretty accomplished executive producers, including The Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder and Stephen Colbert, who hosts a little late night show of his own over on CBS.

As Charlamagne notes, he's known Colbert for a while. They're both from South Carolina, and the radio star has appeared as a guest on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report and CBS' The Late Show, including both of Colbert's live election specials in 2016 and 2020.

Stephen Colbert and Charlamagne Tha God on The Late Show in 2018.
Scott Kowalchyk / CBS

Comedy Central — where Colbert built his career as a correspondent on The Daily Show and his own fake news show before heading over to CBS – is billing this as something of a homecoming.

But what exactly can a 57-year-old white guy do to help develop an unapologetically Black talk show?

Charlamagne laughs while saying Colbert weighs in on the show so much they may be "getting on each others' nerves." Then he tells a story about advice he got from Colbert early, on, when the radio star initially planned to develop Tha God's Honest Truth as a Daily Show-style news satire.

"[Colbert] told me, 'When I launched The Colbert Report, I was the millionth white man with a talk show. So, I had to do something [like playing a character] to cut through,'" Charlamagne says. "He said, 'You don't have to do that. People come to you for your opinions and your ideas, so all you have to do is just be.'"

YouTube

There are a few non-white hosts already leading late night shows; Ziwe and Desus and Mero are on Showtime, Amber Ruffin is making waves on Peacock and Trevor Noah has made The Daily Show his own after taking over for Jon Stewart in 2015.

But at a time when the biggest late night shows on ABC, CBS and NBC are still led by an assortment of white men named Jimmy, James, Seth and, yes, Stephen, there might not be a better time for an audacious, unapologetically Black host ready for a wider platform.

"Black people ... we do see the world a lot differently ... we see America a lot differently," says Charlamagne. "Black people, we are forced to know about a little bit of everything just to survive in this country. Even things that don't pertain to us. I think that's going to play to my advantage."

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A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Syndicated radio host Lenard McKelvey, who is better known as Charlamagne tha God, debuts a new show on TV tonight. It's called "Tha God's Honest Truth." The provocateur told NPR TV critic Eric Deggans that he expects to reveal a side of himself that's more complex than fans may expect.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: This is an odd thing to hear from a guy who once called himself the architect of aggravation and the ruler of rubbing you the wrong way. But now that Lenard "Charlamagne" McKelvey is about to debut his new show on Comedy Central, the guy who once embraced being called a hip-hop version of Howard Stern says he's mellower now, wary of becoming a caricature of himself.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: You know, the hip-hop Howard Stern thing was one of the things that really did get me caught up in a caricature of myself. And you start, you know, giving them more of that. That's not authentic. It's not real. But it's easy to get caught up in that character when you see it working.

DEGGANS: That image has brought a lot of attention to Charlamagne and co-hosts DJ Envy and Angela Yee on the nationally syndicated radio show "The Breakfast Club." Charlamagne in particular is known for in-your-face interviews and conflicts, calling rap star Drake, quote, "a pretty albino girl" and asking rapper Tekashi69 if he was a registered sex offender. And when politicians came on the radio show seeking to reach Black listeners, he had this moment with then-presidential candidate Joe Biden.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE BREAKFAST CLUB")

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: It's a long way until November. We got more questions.

JOE BIDEN: You got more questions? But I tell you if you have a problem figuring out whether you're for me or Trump, then you ain't Black.

DEGGANS: That quote sparked a lot of criticism of Biden, but it helped establish Charlamagne as an interviewer who could get past politicians' talking points. On the Comedy Central show, Charlamagne says he'll offer deep-dive interviews, aiming for honest conversation in an unapologetically Black space.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: You know, there's definitely two Americas. I don't know if that's being presented on television the way that it needs to be. Man, I'm just tackling what it is we're going through, you know, as Black people in this country, but, you know, also letting people know that this affects us all as a whole.

DEGGANS: He's getting help from a surprising source - executive producer Stephen Colbert, host of CBS' "The Late Show" and former host of his own Comedy Central show "The Colbert Report." Charlamagne bonded with Colbert during several appearances on "The Late Show," including a moment when he listed all the things Black folks might lose under Donald Trump, including Obamacare.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW")

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Of course he dislikes Obamacare. It's a combo of the two things he hates the most - Obama and caring.

DEGGANS: Comedy Central is positioning this as something of a homecoming for Colbert, with promotional ads featuring Colbert and Charlamagne talking on a road trip.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

STEPHEN COLBERT: Can you ever really go home again? Or do you have to build your own home? What can one person do?

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Well, you can start by executive producing my new show.

COLBERT: Were you sitting there the whole time?

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Yep.

DEGGANS: Charlamagne says Colbert's very involved as an executive producer, convincing him to drop plans early on to develop the program more as a "Daily Show"-style news satire.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: He said, when I launched "The Colbert Report" - he said, I was, like, the millionth white man with a talk show, so I had to do something to cut through. He said, you don't have to do that. People know you, and they come to you for your opinions, so all you have to do is just be.

DEGGANS: There a few non-white hosts already leading talk shows in late night, including Trevor Noah on "The Daily Show," Amber Ruffin on Peacock and Desus and Mero and Ziwe on Showtime.

But at a time when the hosts of the biggest shows are still middle-aged white guys named James, Jimmy, Seth and, yes, Stephen, there might be no better time for an audacious, unapologetically Black host who's ready for a wider platform.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "I COUNTED THE TEARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.