Dave Chappelle: Our Comedian?
I have often felt that Dave Chappelle is my comedian.
I sensed this years ago, watching his Comedy Channel sketch show. Watching his stand-up comedy specials: Killing me Softly and For What it's Worth. I had never seen a great Comedian whose frame of reference was so close to my own. All the great Comedians I had heard and seen in the past, were funny despite having a very different worldview. Of course, getting the audience to look at things through his point-of-view is part of why Chappelle's work is so effective. Perhaps my impression is just an illusion created by a great artist.
I have been an amateur comedy connoisseur since I first saw Eddie Murphy's Delirious on VHS. My friends and I laughed so hard that night that our stomachs literally hurt. Over the course of time, I devoured SNL, Mel Brooks, Cheers, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Howard Stern, Bill Cosby, and Larry David. Watching all this comedy has taught me an important lesson. There exists only one proper yardstick to judge a work of comedy:
Is it funny? Does it make the audience laugh?
In Jerry Seinfeld's talk-show series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry and his guests repeatedly confirm that 'being funny' is the only thing that matters to a real Comedian. Moreover, that nothing is out of bounds for a real Comedian. The real Comedian will not hesitate to make jokes about the most horrible and tragic events, as soon as they happen. His only concern is whether enough time has passed for the audience to find the jokes funny. In Seinfeld's vision, there is a kind of Machiavellian ruthlessness that underlies great comedy.
Dave Chappelle is a real and great Comedian. His recently released Netflix special, Sticks and Stones, is not his best work, but is funny and worth watching. So why is this special coming under such heavy fire in the press?
Because today, Dave Chappelle is more than just a Comedian.
Dave Chappelle is a cultural icon, who plays a role in the shaping of public opinion, not only because of his mass audience, but also because his work is watched closely by other influential opinion-makers, including, former President Obama. This is why there have been so many political attacks on Sticks and Stones.
It is a battle for public opinion.
Dave Chappelle has always been an equal opportunity offender. He makes fun of white, black, and Asian. He makes fun of straight people and gay people. He makes fun of left-wing and right-wing politics. He makes fun of himself, as well as others.
In Sticks and Stones, he jokes about the excesses of the LGBTQ and #MeToo movements. But he also pokes fun at gun rights fanatics, as well as the racial hypocrisy underlying the public approach to today's opioid epidemic, as compared to the crack epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet, it is primarily the cultural left that is attacking Chappelle. The special has garnered tremendous praise in conservative media. Why is this? We know that Dave Chappelle was a big supporter of President Obama, and campaigned for Ben Jealous, a highly progressive Democratic candidate, in his Maryland gubernatorial campaign.
Just today, a black friend of mine in Philadelphia asked me whether I had seen Dave Chappelle's new special. A big fan of Chappelle's work, he said: "I thought it was real funny. He went after everybody," he said laughing.
I informed my friend that Chappelle was taking a lot of heat in the liberal press, while the comedy special had rave revues in the conservative media outlets. This surprised him: "White liberals love Dave. I used to drive a Taxi, and those white people would always be quoting from his show."
"They used to love him. But now they've flipped," I corrected him.
"Really?" He found this interesting. And it is an interesting question, why white liberals have turned on Dave Chappelle? Why have white conservatives suddenly embraced him? This undoubtedly indicates something. Just what that something is remains the question.
The short answer is that liberals fear that Chappelle's work undermines their cultural talking points, which pleases conservatives. But there is more going on. A longer history here.
Since the days of Reconstruction, blacks have tended to form a political alliance with the Anglo-Eastern establishment. Similarly, the Northern and Midwestern white 'working class' have tended to politically ally themselves with white Southerners. Like any such alliances, there are fault lines in these traditional American political coalitions.
For example, if we look at public opinion among blacks and Anglo-elites, respectively, we will see some overlap, but overall, we see highly disparate distributions. Thus, we have two groups that tend to have very different worldviews. Moreover, there exists a wide gap in the material conditions under which these two populations live, as well as their respective social status. These two factors help create two very different ordered sets of priorities.
Blacks frequently complain that despite their central role in electing Democratic officials, the Democratic Party itself appears not to prioritize black-centered issues, but instead caters to the priorities of white liberal elites. Moreover, since there is limited time to get things done, black-centered issues seem to 'conveniently' never be addressed.
Sticks and Stones perfectly expresses the ambivalence of thoughtful African-Americans towards their relationship with white liberals. On the one hand, Chappelle wants to support white liberals in the causes and policies that they find important, but on the other hand, he sometimes regards the arguments or reasoning used in support of these causes and policies to be comically absurd. Moreover, when it comes to the #MeToo and LGBTQ movements in particular, he sees seeds of a potentially destructive fanaticism, that needs to be curtailed.
The Transgender movement is a perfect example. Chappelle wants to be supportive and respectful of Transgender people and their needs, but in Sticks and Stones he mocks the ideology of the Transgender movement. He mocks the notion that a man can choose to become a woman, or vice-versa. He compares it to the comically absurd scenario of Dave Chappelle proclaiming himself 'Chinese', because that's how he 'feels inside'. All the while he's doing a bad 'Charlie Chan' impression.
Dave does the same with the #MeToo movement, proudly announcing as part of his opening salvo: "I am what is known on the streets as a victim blamer." Later, he ends his routine with a funny retelling of the Jules Smollett affair, reminding us of the 'dangers' of always believing the alleged victim, without proper evidence. This is an open slap in the face to the #MeToo movement.
Again, Chappelle is generally supportive of the #MeToo and LGBTQ movements, but he also has deep skepticism about the more fanatical elements, particularly because they have negatively impacted the lives of his personal friends: Kevin Hart and Louis C. K., among others. This negative impact is not an abstract possibility to Chappelle, but something real that he observes in the lives of people he holds very dear to his heart.
For Chappelle, there is no better way for him to undercut this fanaticism, than by mocking and ridiculing the very premises on which it is based. Like a good class clown, he undermines the teacher, by not only mocking the manners of the authority figure, but also by mocking the very purpose by which the authority figure claims to be guided.
What about the conservative press' sudden lavish praise of Chappelle? Is it simply a contrarian position to the liberal media? Are they trying to stoke tension between blacks and white liberals? Perhaps. Definitely, in part. But there is something else going on here. There exists a shared skepticism between blacks and white conservatives about the worldview of the liberal establishment. That this worldview is in some sense worthy of ridicule. Even if these two groups do not agree on much else.
All-in-all, Dave Chappelle has done it again. Another classic comedy special. He's got everyone talking. And has left us with something to think about long after watching.
Don't miss Sticks and Stones.