Dave Chappelle makes some raunchy jokes. They aren’t just raunchy in a sexually perverse nature (although there are plenty of those): Chappelle has a hilariously vile sense of humor, in every sense of the word. For Chappelle, there is no “line:” a joke’s validity is determined by how funny it is, and by no other metric. But it is precisely within this comedically anarchic framework that Chappelle is able to get to the substance of his comedy. Between the multitude of O.J. Simpson jokes and his infamous ragging on transgender people, he purposefully includes profound moments of social commentary. This is, of course, not new to comedy.
Dave Chappelle is not the first comedian to comment on our world; nor will he be the last.
Photo from Netflix
I watched his Netflix special, Chappelle. It’s one of many that he has on Netflix, and it features his triumphal 2015 return to Los Angeles at the Hollywood Palladium after ten years of a self-imposed exile from performing in the city. Netflix is aware of this absence, captioning the hour-long special as Chappelle “charg[ing] straight into the fire” (Netflix, Chappelle, “The Age of Spin: Dave Chappelle Live at The Hollywood Palladium”). And charge into the fire he does.
In his Los Angeles re-debut, Chappelle touches on seemingly every sensitive topic there is to touch on. Between lighthearted jabs at gay Hollywood producers and bits about rape so dicey they made the audience look like they had bitten down on a lemon, there is nothing the man won’t joke about.
Chappelle performed at the Hollywood Palladium seven years ago, in 2015. That puts it solidly before the last two presidencies, which are often believed to have begun an era of hyper-sensitivity. 2015 Chappelle reminds us it has always been so.
But for all the bits that toe the line (and they are all the bits), Dave Chappelle incorporates serious social commentary into his comedy. At 17 minutes, he takes a moment to address the appalling condition of water in Flint, Michigan, and how overlooked it is. At 47, he spends a couple of minutes hilariously rebuking the CIA’s string of political assassinations in the 1960s (Netflix, Chapelle).
Chappelle, like all great comedians, intersperses his comedy with grand “soberings-up”: while the audience is still reeling from the last joke, the comedian gets up briefly on his soapbox and argues for something he believes in. For Chappelle, it is often a critique of an ignored past or present injustice, or a warning against some grave aspect of our future that he sees coming.
It is these kernels of wisdom, these calls to action, that make comedy such an important and vital force within culture. Our comedians, just like our actors, singers, and politicians, are a mouthpiece of our culture. The greatest of them take their audiences from clutching their bellies to stroking their chins without even thinking about it.
Before Dave Chappelle rode back into his own personal Jerusalem, he spent years isolating himself from the entertainment world. He dropped a $50 million dollar contract with Comedy Central by walking away from The Chappelle Show in the middle of the third season, due to creative disputes with the show’s other writers.
Today, he comes into conflict with Hollywood and pop culture again. This time, it’s over jokes he’s made about the transgender community. It must be noted that this joke is not in the same vein as Chappelle’s jokes about, say, police brutality. There’s no real change he’s trying to affect. He’s saying the jokes because they’re funny. The Internet, though, took this as a senseless discrimination against trans people everywhere–invalidating their identities. The implication here is that comedy must be for something if it has to be worthwhile; that comedy must be to some end to be allowed to exist.
There are abiding reasons as to why having an authority on humor is a bad idea. This is because prescribing what is funny is but a hop, skip, and a jump away from prescribing what is true.
When the forces that propel American culture forward in time decide to leave some comedy behind, what they are implying is that there is a defined good and bad, and that comedy like Dave Chappelle’s, which attacks police just as often as it attacks progressivism, finds itself in the “bad” category. When we bar topics from being laughed at, we grasp at defining the truth. And the truth is a slippery, impossible thing to grab onto. I am not a prophet, but I am a historian at heart, and the books do not lie. Cultures that banned books and erase undesirable media typically end up killing millions of their own people in the pursuit of a perfect world.
I believe, firmly, that we must be able to laugh at ourselves. We must learn to laugh at ourselves again, before it’s too late, and we forget how to. If we lose the ability to examine ourselves and laugh at the most broken and absurd parts of our culture, we lose an outlet for understanding who we are.
Only a truly myopic and broken culture is incapable of having its boundaries pushed; a myopic culture cannot remedy its own faults if it cannot accurately perceive them. And men like Dave Chappelle will shake things up and joke, almost callously, about subject matters so obscene that it is almost ironic how vile they are. And it will upset us greatly when he jokes about the groups we are a part of. But we must allow people like him to speak. If we cannot laugh at our own absurdities, we will be powerless to correct them when the time comes to do so.
Dave Chappelle. Quick Bio.
His show, Chappelle.
The Chappelle Show and his self-imposed exile.
His recent fire he’s come under for his jokes about trans people.
Why a culture that prescribes what is funny is a hop, skip, and a jump away from prescribing what truth is.
When a culture does that, we have lost the great struggle for intellectual freedom, and we begin a dreary descent into cultural orthodoxy and tyranny of the majority.
We must learn to laugh again. The end times are not nearly as upon us as the internet would have us believe: It is imperative that we grant ourselves the luxury of laughing at ourselves; because a myopic culture cannot remedy its own faults.