Malbreaux: Chappelle's Age Shows
Why comics must abandon outdated humor.
If Richard Pryor was the godfather of comedy and Bernie Mac its uncle, then Dave Chappelle is comedy’s first cousin. He was cool when audiences first saw him back in the 1990s, as a 20-something cracking jokes on “Def Comedy Jam.” And as we got older, Chappelle got better. Slapstick humor meshed with racial and social commentary, setting the foundation for the highly successful but short-lived “Chappelle’s Show.” And we liked him. America’s older first cousin matured. Now in his 30s, he taught us more grown-up lessons in his sketches about George W. Bush-era geopolitics with “Black Bush,” and the nuances of America’s racial imaginary in “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong.” Yet he retained the familiarity that made us love him in the first place, with some sketches whose chief aim was goofiness, like “A Moment in the Life of Lil Jon” and various sketches that followed the misadventures of crackhead Tyrone Biggums.
No matter how funny or famous they may be, comics must remember the cardinal theorem of comedy: Not everything is funny to everyone. All of the greats, including Chappelle, learned this first hand. Even after almost 30 years of show business, Chappelle is occasionally heckled. As he recounted in his first slate of Netflix specials, he has had banana peels thrown at him by someone who accused him of being racist. But even though he can’t make everyone laugh all the time, Chappelle was damn good at making most people laugh most of the time.
While it may seem spontaneous, the most memorable sketches on “Chappelle’s Show’ followed a fairly simple formulation. In his ostensibly definitive (but ironically boring) essay “A Theory of Humor,” linguist Thomas Veatch suggests humor is the existence of “a certain psychological state which tends to produce laughter.” A good comic creates scenarios that, according to Veatch, has three main components: normality, weirdness and simultaneity.
Take the “Chappelle’s Show” skit “Clayton Bigsby,” for instance, based on an episode of the PBS news series “Frontline.” Chappelle’s version of “Frontline” followed the story of an anonymous Ku Klux Klan leader who authored several books, cementing himself as the foremost leader of contemporary white supremacy. This was the normality aspect required of Veatch’s theory, insofar as it appears like any other episode of “Frontline.” Only a few minutes into the skit, the weirdness component is revealed. The mysterious Klan leader and bigoted racist, is, in fact, an African-American man. The simultaneous existence of both the normal and weird makes this sketch meet Veatch’s conditions. And because we’re in on the joke, we can’t help but laugh.
And Chappelle continued to make us laugh. But then, in 2005, our older comic cousin left Comedy Central, escaping the pressures and creative differences of Hollywood for a therapeutic retreat to South Africa.
Jump ahead to Christmas Eve 2017. Chappelle now has four Netflix specials and a purportedly $80 million check in his bank account. Our older cousin was back, richer and better looking than ever. Today, we feel that connection we formed with him back in the early 2000s. Chappelle still has “it.” The racial commentary is sharp, witty and more timely than ever. But as Chappelle grew, we grew up also. Our grown-up selves are disappointed to find that some of his views, specifically on sexual harassment and transgender issues, are stuck in the early 2000s where he left us. We’re at the point where our older cousin is not untouchably funny anymore.
It’s fair to say that comedians occupy a sort of bully pulpit, where jokes are no-holds-barred and any offense taken is ignored. So I won’t hold Chappelle, or any comedian, to a standard of nicety. However, it is fair to critique him as a comedian, first and foremost, which means calling him out when his jokes simply fall flat.
That is the case for his last Netflix special, “The Bird Revelation,” a slow-paced race to punchlines that occasionally elicits a muffled chuckle. Take, for instance, his joke about one of the latest Harvey Weinstein-era stars to lose his career over sexual harassment allegations, Louis C.K. Chappelle starts by quoting one of the alleged victims.
“One lady said, ‘Louis C.K. masturbated in front of me, ruined my comedy dreams.’ Word? Well, then I dare say madam, you may have never had a dream,” Chappelle said.
And then, lukewarm turns to cold.
“You think if Louis C.K. jerked off in front of Dr. [Martin Luther King, Jr.,] he’d be like ‘I can’t continue this movement. I’m sorry, but the freedom of black people must be stopped,’” he continued.
Typical of both “The Bird Revelation” and his third special, “Equanimity,” Chappelle turns from attempted joke into a cool-voiced polemic on how black comedians are held to a higher standard of accountability than their peers — seeming to ignore that women in Hollywood are presented with a similar, albeit different, issue.
Even though he says he understands women’s claims of unfairness in show business, Chappelle remains decidedly two-faced, sidestepping any meaningful discussion and instead turning to his signature racial commentary. He gives us lessons on Emmett Till’s tragic death, racial profiling and how Comedy Central swindled him out of a show. In doing so, Chappelle creates a version of oppression Olympics that he presents as harmless truth-telling. And while it may be truth, it’s irresponsible of him to dismiss other oppressed voices in that manner.
If Chappelle is our older first cousin, then he is increasingly becoming that one family member at reunions we can’t decide how to awkwardly avoid. Whenever we talk to him, he is helpless in avoiding discussion about his “Paul Revere” moment, or his claim to fame, that goes something like: “Remember when I did that thing (warning the colonists about the British and ‘Chappelle’s Show’) those years ago that everyone liked me for? Yeah, those were good times.”
Cool, but those times are over. The age has come where comics will have to adapt to the amorphous, post-Weinstein and post-Caitlyn Jenner moment — not necessarily by scrubbing jokes clean, but through jokes that, at their heart, show sympathy and solidarity with women and transgender people. And, crucially, the jokes must still be funny. It’s a hard feat to pull off, and I doubt if Chappelle has any interest in trying. Luckily, however, the comedic family is always adopting.