Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Because the world obviously needs to know what I think of Dave Chappelle

 1993. My family had just seen Robin Hood: Men in Tights at a movie theater in Ocean City - the only Mel Brooks movie I ever saw on its release in the theater. The movie theater was next to a comedy club. While my parents were getting the car, I, for some reason,was talking to a guy smoking a cigarette outside the theater. He turned out to be the comedy club's owner and he said to me 'watch out for the guy who played A-choo, he's been here a bunch of times and in a few years he's going to be as famous as Mel Brooks.' I'd not thought about that experience for a decade, and then I caught Men in Tights on TV in college and realized 'holy shit that was Dave Chappelle!'

But the truth was, I never thought Dave Chappelle was quite as funny as everybody else. He was funny, no question, but next to a contemporary like Chris Rock, he was a bit of a weak brew, and then we all discovered Louis CK and there was no comparison, and then I discovered Patrice O'Neal, and my comedy brain exploded...
The question always was, why did Chappelle walk away from the show? Part of it was obviously creative control, part of it was obviously dealing with meddling executives, and part of it was just general stress of fame. But there's one other issue nobody seemed to mention: What if he only had two seasons worth of good material?
Nobody in my generation knows much about Richard Pryor, but he and George Carlin are the greatest of all time, it's almost beyond question. And whatever Dave Chappelle did, Pryor got there thirty years before him. Black guy impresonating lame white guy? Pryor was the ultimate at that. Routines about substance abuse? Nobody did it better than Pryor, and he did drugs 100x harder than anything Chappelle ever touched. The subtle ways white people are racist? Pryor was literally the master, and when he did it, it was like TNT went off in the audience. Police violence? Pryor was the pioneer. Even 'Black Bush' was clearly based on Richard Pryor's skit 'First Black President.' Every major thing Chappelle's standup covered, Richard Pryor did in a generation earlier. Everything covered in 'Chappelle's Show,' Richard Pryor did on his network specials in the late 70s-early 80s.
So when Dave Chappelle came back with 4 Netflix specials, I was not surprised when I saw that each of them had about 15 minutes of actual comedy and 45 minutes of preaching.
(the irony of Evan writing the following paragraph duly noted...)
Few people feel the need to preach uncontroversial views. Preaching is a form of righteous anger - often self-righteous, with a target of their anger. The preacher usually frames what they preach in a way that's deeply unfair to the people against whom they're complaining, and is usually doing it for personal, psychological reasons that they need badly to examine.
Are trans people not the gender to which they assign themselves? Well, are born-again Christian not actual Christians? Are adopted children are not the children of their adopted parents? Are Americans born elsewhere not Americans? Living organisms are programmed to evolve, and a person who stops evolving is more likely to die. If you believe trans people are not the gender they believe they are, you might as well just think that people are exactly what they are and have always been - which is exactly the complaint of anti-trans activists about how the woke mob characterizes people's identities.
And therefore, Chappelle is a cautionary tale, and he's a note of caution to the very people who lambast him today. He was a radical by the standards of 2000, and one generation's radical is the next generation's reactionary. Chappelle is hardly the only African-American who can't understand how identity has changed and why the LGBT community has gained so much relative heft in such a short period while their causes stand relatively still. In another 20 years, many of the same people whom today speak angrily of straight and cisgender privilege will be singing a very very different tune when global warming deposits millions of immigrants into our country from Latin America and Africa who hold fundamentalist Christian views they find dangerous to their safety. Who will be the radical then, and whom the reactionary?
The line that most stayed with me two days later is when Chappelle said something along the lines of 'taking away a man's livelihood is worse than killing him.' There is so much incorrect about that statement I could be writing all night pointing out it - but the two things that stand out to me are the reactionary idea that men have to be tied to their work, and the revolutionary idea that dignity is more important than survival. This is the weird cocktail of old radicals who no longer understand the world and can't adopt to new circumstances. When Chappelle said 'those new gays are too sensitive, I like those old Stonewall gays.' It wasn't exactly offensive, and yet... I've heard older people make the argument 'younger black people are too angry, I like older black people who grew up before 1968' - which is little different than saying 'I like black people who still have a segregation mentality.'
Newly liberated peoples are never grateful to their liberators. They have to stare down the wasted years of their lives and now that they can finally live with appropriate dignity and respect, all that they can see is that so many people around them have experienced the lifelong dignity which they may still lose, and those people, who supposedly gave them equal rights, will never operate with the same terror of losing their rights. Whether justified or not, that creates resentment at well-meaning allies that is entirely understandable.
Chappelle was gifted enough to define a 'moment' in American life, and around 2000, his comedy seemed revolutionary, but a real genius evolves with the times. Richard Pryor was a genius who even at his most drug addicted had new material every year for decades, the same goes for George Carlin. And there are comics so gifted that their their comedy was too acerbic for mainstream consumption: Norm McDonald was the lucky one who somehow got Lorne Michaels's attention, but how many people know about Sam Kinnison anymore, Patrice O'Neal, Steven Wright? Even Bill Hicks is now a distant memory.
All you have to do is compare Chappelle to Norm McDonald. I guarantee, Norm McDonald was by far the greater bigot than Dave Chappelle, but aside from in some awful podcasts, comedy for him was comedy, pure and simple. What was important was not settling scores or making points, what was important was to be funny, and Norm's final special from 2017 is one of the funniest hours of comedy you will ever see in your life and unless you're offended by auto-erotic asphyxiation, I doubt it has much to offend.
But ironically, on twitter, Norm, a secret right-wing fundamentalist if ever there was one, called Chappelle's third special one of the greatest comedy specials he'd ever seen, and I guarantee he didn't just do it because he found it funny.... When called out by some twittertwit who told him great comedy does not 'punch down,' Norm responded, "I know of no such rule."
Comedy not only punches down, it only punches down. What makes something funny is that someone gets hurt. If Chappelle had actually made jokes rather than trying to make a substantive argument, I would be defending him. But he didn't. He wanted his arguments to be taken seriously, and no matter what Jon Stewart conditioned us to think, even the smartest comedians have no right to be taken seriously as experts on a subject.
My personal rule is that anything in comedy has to be more intelligent than it is mean. Andrew Dice Clay was mean, but he was also stupid, and that's unforgivable. And Tosh.0, from the moment it premiered, was one of the biggest embarrassments in comedy, both idiotic and mean. But I will always forgive Sam Kinnison, I will always forgive Doug Stanhope, I will always forgive Joan Rivers and even Kathy Griffin. They all were so incredibly mean, bully-level mean, but nobody is more fun to hang out with than a mean smart person, and they have no end of material to make fun of.
When comics can't come up with material, they just regurgitate political arguments somebody else made to them. Bill Maher has been dining out on that for 25 years, and the real reason he does it is not because his beliefs are so important to him, it's because he's a mediocre comic and needs something to coast on.
I can understand why comics are frustrated when they're called out because of actual jokes they made (and no one is more thin-skinned than a stand-up comic...). If any artistic profession has to be allowed to fail, it's comics. The funny material you see is usually workshopped for years, and honed and honed, because in comedy, there's no hiding behind 'art' and 'contemplation, you either make the people laugh or you don't. But Chappelle didn't even try to make people laugh all that much - it was ranting about the LGBT community and cancel culture with occasional amusing asides.
So much bullshit has grown up around all sides of cancel culture that the truth is staring us all in the face. Come on, of course cancel culture exists, but in terms of the problems facing American life, this is priority #493 that would never have generated this much attention if the cancellers didn't deliberately call attention to themselves every day. It may well become a larger priority in American life if woke twitter mobs start violently intimidating people in real life - and frankly, that's not out of the question, but it hasn't happened yet on any scale but miniscule, and won't for a while yet. In the meantime, if celebrities have to stop being celebrities for a while, who cares? And if they end up humiliated in front of the world, well... that's part of what you sign up for when you pursue fame. And if twitter goes after us like an angry mob, well... just do what sane people have done the whole time: stay the fuck off twitter. At this point, none of us gets to say that we had no idea what we signed up for. Every one of us puts our whole self-image on the line every day whenever we post something, and every one of us lives with the anxiety that we may wake up every day to being a name hated by 100,000 people.
Dave Chappelle is an important piece of US cultural history, but he's a past tense figure who walked out on his celebrity not long after he achieved it, and consequently didn't evolve along with America in the 15 years since. He shouldn't be as surprised as he seems when he stood still and the world moved on. I do happen to think that cancel culture and woke culture are a little bit dangerous (and they're very close on the Venn Diagram), they're not THAT dangerous, but dangerous enough that we are all getting closer and closer to some moment of civil violence we can't take back. There is a very good argument to be made that the result of them was Trump, the second result will be his re-election.
But Chappelle also defines the weird current fissures in American life. The Atlantic pointed out today that while the critical reaction on Rotten Tomatoes was 47% critical approval, the audience reaction was 97% audience approval. Culture is the battle you fight when you take your eyes off the issues that matter. Every fight picked with people who say things we find vile is a fight missed with people who are out to kill the marginalized people we care about. What people say is an indication of what they believe, but it's no more than indication, it's not the belief itself. The more we focus on the words rather than the real stuff: violence, laws, discrimination, the more we enable the real stuff, and the more Dave Chappelle becomes a martyr and a hero to the majority of Americans for making a series of mediocre comedy specials.

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