The show’s patriarch, Hank Hill, remains one of the great characters in TV comedy, almost Shakespearean in the tangled thoughts and feelings that emerge in glimpses from beneath his good ol’ boy facade. Hank is traditional and fundamentally uneasy in the rapidly globalizing, neoliberal culture of the ’90s and ’00s, watching the world around him transform. But one of the show’s great themes is Hank’s own place in this changing world, and his engagement with it in spite of his own reluctance. He’s stubborn with soft prejudices, but always drawn to do the right thing in the end. Via a variety of comic conflicts between its hero and a shifting culture, King of the Hill dared to suggest a world that might transcend gridlock, suspicion, and nihilism—a world in which cultural and political opposites could actually find ways to get along.
Eighteen years ago, on February 22, 1998, the season-two episode “Traffic Jam” aired, and while it preceded both the Bush and Obama administrations, the issues it considers are timely. Hank gets into a fender-bender with his neighbor, Kahn, and in order to avoid insurance increases they both opt to attend traffic school. Their teacher is a brash amateur stand-up comedian named Booda Sack, voiced by Chris Rock. Booda seems much more interested in trying out material on his class than in their driving skills. While the rest of the class howls with laughter at his jokes, made mostly at the expense of white people, Hank is highly uncomfortable, feeling that his identity and sense of propriety are being undermined.
Later, Hank brings his teenage son Bobby to the class in the hope that seeing Booda in action will discourage Bobby from his desired future in comedy. Instead, Booda brings Bobby on stage and they lampoon Hank together. Bobby confirms that his dad likes to stand around and drink beer, and Booda lampoons Hank as “four eyes, too many pies, super-size,” while Hank’s face reddens in rage and embarrassment.
It’s funny and uncomfortable in equal parts to see Hank emasculated in front of his son, and it speaks to the complexity of the issues at play. In a state still confronting a long legacy of racism, humor offers Booda a weapon that upends the historical power dynamic between white and black males. But Hank, retaining a degree of power himself, goes to Booda’s supervisor and reports his behavior, and Booda is fired. It’s worth noting that the current black unemployment rate in Texas is 9.5 percent, more than double the white unemployment rate. Booda’s situation speaks to a real-life social and political problem rooted in the persistent ghosts of Texas history.
The show could have simply left things at that, with its hero revenged, albeit in a distinctly unheroic way. Instead it imagines the possibility of something more positive. After Booda suggests to Bobby that he tell jokes about his whiteness, Bobby does an online search for white culture and inadvertently finds a string of racist jokes from a neoconfederate site, which he obliviously tries out at an open-mic night in front of a mostly black audience. Booda saves the day by jumping between Bobby and the crowd, robustly defending the First Amendment, and then improvising a series of jokes inspired by Hank’s lack of a butt. Instead of being offended, Hank is touched that Booda came to Bobby’s aid, and to make amends, he helps the comedian find a new job at his company. The episode ends with Hank and Booda exchanging yo’ mama jokes at each other’s expense with good humor rather than malice.