As it has become standard with these things, I heard a metric ton of negative response to the two Netflix comedy specials featuring Chappelle's return to the stand up stage before I sat down and watched them.
Over at GQ.com, Damon Young posits Chappelle's humor is grounded in a time that has passed, and others simply dismiss the specials as Dave “punching down” by joking about gays, transgender folks and rape.
"His focus on the horror of political correctness, instead, felt like something you’d expect to come from a megarich 43-year-old man from the outskirts of Ohio. Who, instead of evolving with the world, has remained stagnant and believes the world has gone mad while pining for time when things were simpler. Which is who he is.”
The statement that Chappelle is focused on “the horror of political correctness” is hyper-inflated given that he spends less time on the semantics of gay and trans identity than on an opening bit about his downfall, O.J. Simpson and Bill Cosby individually. The idea behind Young’s position is that the world has evolved rather than gone mad which is, at the very least, debatable.
Most of the criticism, once you get past the reactionary shock that a major black comedian could possibly criticize anyone but straight white people, is centered on his 13-year absence from the stage. The critique is that he seems to have disappeared and come back with the same jokes that might have been funny in the 90s but no longer holds any value in our “evolved” state.
I’d argue that Chappelle, like every other master comedian, has spent his 13-years watching that evolution and, like Carlin and Hicks and Pryor before him, refuses to leave the new sacred cows unscathed.
"Y’all always have some kind of gay political argument; the last one was about a petition in federal court to take the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ out of the law, and I said "Why would you want those words out the law?" He said 'Because it discriminates against same-sex couples,' I was like "N**a please save me the semantics, take your chips out of the casino you’re about to crap out. Go outside, talk it over amongst yourselves, and whichever one of you is gayer, that’s the wife [audience laughs].”
This isn’t a joke at the expense of gays but at the ridiculous semantical yoga expected to make a previously marginalized group in society feel powerful. If your specific political group can manage to get a state governor who then becomes the Vice President change his anti-gay legislation in Indiana with nationwide economic boycotts, you are plenty powerful. Eliminating the words “husband” and “wife” is just silly and Chappelle pokes fun at it.
"L. G. B. T. Q?! I was like what the fuck is the Q? Does that even make sense, Q? Turns out Q is like the vowels, that shit is sometimes 'Y.' It’s for gay dudes that don’t really know they’re gay. You know what I mean. Like prison fags who are like: “What, I’m not gay n***a I’m just sucking these dicks to pass the time.”
Again, not a political commentary on being queer but a joke at the expense of an ever expanding list of letters than continues to broaden what used to be a more all-inclusive classification into a word-salad that soon means nothing.
Chappelle was always about skewering those things society had arbitrarily decided were sacrosanct. That’s why we loved him then, and he holds true to that principle today. He confronts the fact that those who most benefit from identity politics are seemingly incapable of hearing any criticism of it. The Social Activist Left no longer has any sense of humor about themselves and he has decided it’s time to burst a few precious bubbles along the way.
I’ve since watched both specials twice and my takeaway is threefold:
- Chappelle is masterful at constructing a set of what seems to be random asides and stories but each moment is a vital piece of a larger narrative. Moments that seem to be completely off-the-cuff come back in larger ways and their meanings become more all-encompassing. So many in the storytelling world want to believe that honesty and craft are enemies—that by utilizing forethought and structure, the authenticity of the voice is somehow compromised. Dave proves them dead wrong.
- Chappelle’s specials are mini-masterclasses on how to use that craft without sacrificing the feel of someone sitting on a stoop, holding court. He single-handedly exposes the fallacy of the “just get up and tell your truth” line of mystical bullshit proliferated by Lydia Lucio and her gang.
- The mere mention and use of gay stereotypes, AIDS and rape is only “punching down” if those who are targeted are the object of the jokes. His targets are us with all of our confusing political stances and deeper explanations of what it is to be human in an age of spin and overloaded information.
- Chappelle is still incredibly funny and uses our own biases to poke us collectively in the eye.
To fully dismiss his act, like Young, one must be in lockstep with the idea that we have evolved rather than gone mad. I’d argue that part of that evolution is a systematic losing of our minds.
Concepts popular today include:
- Freedom from speech is more important than freedom of speech
- Being called a derogatory name is in the same classification of abuse as being beaten with a hammer
- Mockery is a form of violence
- Exclusion leads to inclusion
Looks like we've gone a little lunatic in the pursuit of evolving to me. And, if you can sit still long enough, to Dave Chapelle as well.