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THB #4: The Dave Chappelle Thing
Dave Chappelle is a master of his craft.
You can’t argue the point and be honest at the same time.
He is also a lot of other, less attractive things. Like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin before him, he bites. And sometimes what he bites down on, he is wrong about. Some of it remains blind points for him. Some he is evolving on. And some, he was always right about.
In his new Netflix special, The Closer, he is unambiguous about his main targets… white people and Jews. I just happen to be in both categories.
Even more so, he is at his most offensive, in this special, when aiming at my specific brand of Jew… an educated, privileged, religiously trained male who has been openly against the right-wing swing of Israel’s government for most of my life, certainly at least 35 years.
Personally, I believe that until there is an American president as brave as Yitzhak Rabin, willing to force Israel into a viable answer to the push within Israel against true democracy, nothing will really change until, possibly, a true generational shift in Israel over the next 30 years. (Rabin was murdered for his efforts for peace by the right-wing zealots of his own nation, Israel, 26 years ago next month.)
Doesn’t matter what I believe. Chappelle reduces all people of my religion, regardless of their politics to “Jews” and mocks away. Worse, he doesn’t even bother to make the effort - as he does with most of this show discussing other groups - to contextualize what is wrong with “Jews.” He just takes a quick, nasty shots at the group and moves on, smugly self-assured that the grotesquerie of “The Jew” is so obvious that it needs no explanation.
This is a very long way to explain to you that… I don’t really care about Dave Chappelle engaging in anti-Semitic behavior. I believe he is ignorant on the subject and his intentions are not just hateful. They are, however, seriously fucked up and he should clean up his mess.
But I don’t really care.
Sticks and stones.
(And that thought wasn’t even meant to be a sly reference to his previous Netflix special… but I will take the points.)
The Daphne Dorman run that closes The Closer belongs in a prominent display in The Museum of Comedy. It is an absolute masterpiece. About 13.5 minutes long, Chappelle takes us on a journey to every possible emotional space. From a flat lake to The Perfect Storm, up and down, from the greatest hope to profound despair.
You will never see a more remarkable piece of stand-up in your life. You may prefer others. You make dislike Chappelle’s language or attitude or perspective. But ring it up… it is as good a comedy routine as you will ever encounter. They should teach it in comedy schools. Not hyperbole.
The rest of the hour and eight minutes is somewhere in between the lazy shots at “Jews” and the epic close.
I am not afraid to slap at Chappelle. Or Netflix. The story of why 8:46 has never graced Netflix’s “air,” though they apparently funded it and counted it as one of his 6 specials - even got it an Emmy nomination - remains untold. Why? Because I suspect the choice was about the politics of Netflix and that they comforted Chappelle enough that he has never brought it up.
I was aggressive and public about what I feel was amazing hypocrisy in Chappelle using his non-white privilege to manipulate the media and Netflix into anger at Comedy Central for “just” living up to their career-making contract for The Chappelle Show while at the same time he crows about his insight and bravery in throwing $50 million back in Comedy Central’s face (which is how wealth happens in Hollywood… you get paid shit to get rolling and then you get paid like royalty if you hit… still… to this day).
Still… there is no denying that, in his nomenclature, the muthafucker is a comedy genius. He pushes wherever he feels he needs to push. Whatever bullshit there is, it is bullshit that he owns and believes. And that is all I can ask (in that regard) of a comic… or any human.
There is no question that he has been bent by his success. Most of this show, his words and ideas sound like a wealthy middle aged white man who happens to be Black. But the same sense of entitlement and onanism.
The audience laughs at lines that are inherently unfunny. The first half of the show kept throwing me back to the stories of Steve Martin playing large venues where the audience was so revved up that they barely let him perform his comedy, losing connection with what he was really saying. Chappelle’s audience is smaller than that here and they aren’t wearing head arrows or screaming out, Excuuuuuse Me!”
But when he says, mid-story, that a black character he is imagining had called the police to come to a restaurant he is at, and in every version in his head, “they always shoot him,” it’s not funny. It’s a brutal expectation based in the realities of race and policing in America. But the audience laughs like it was the funniest thing they ever heard. Even Chappelle takes a beat and looks to the side of the stage, like “What The Fuck?”
And there are moments that have a kernel of truth, but are just, well, fighting words. (Trigger Warning: This sentence is directly from the Netflix subtitles.) “In our country, you can shoot and kill a nigga, but you better not hurt a gay person’s feelings.”
Yes! He is right. There is a horrifying hypocrisy in what we - not just LGTBQ people, not just women, all people - choose to consider offenses of the highest level and what simply gets forgotten.
But he is also completely full of shit in making the comparative analysis. Brutally dismissive, unkind, and assholic. Gay people have been murdered with intent too often in America to even start with this comparison. No one who is worried about any groups feelings think it is somehow okay for anyone in any other group - even white males - to be killed without a response.
It would be every bit as wrong as a blue collar comic (not the specific comics who toured under that moniker) going out and saying… you know what… I won’t even try to make up an abusive joke rationalizing George Floyd or Brianna Taylor or that poor man who got shot in the back running away from police in the Wendy’s parking lot (Rayshard Brooks) because none of us need that toxicity in our lives. I will just assume you get my point.
Similarly, “Why is it easier for Bruce Jenner to change his gender than it is for Cassius Clay to change his name?” is intriguing, but absurd. 1964 and 2015 are not legitimately comparable for either black americans or trans people except in the broadest terms. Christine Jorgensen was the start and finish of the conversation through the 50s and 60s. Even the real conversation about homosexuality didn’t exist in America until 1969 and Stonewall… and Reagan in the 80s wouldn’t say, “AIDS.”
Chappelle wasn’t even born until 1973. A lot changed just in the years between 1964 and Chappelle becoming world-concious in the early 80s. A lot didn’t. But those broad leaps make it much easier for people to be offended. People from all cultures are often hypersensitive. But when it comes to Chappelle, they aren’t just being hypersensitive.
I’m not sure of the white women with dirty feet thing. Not sure why he needed to drag the women pushing #MeToo… except to self-aggradize himself for “getting off the bus,” like walking away from money was a grand political gesture… and then the drama around the show last year was him “reclaiming his time.” Chappelle is too smart for me to excuse his excesses of self-righteousness as though they next happened. But equally, it would be petty of me to linger in them like they could not be overcome.
His broader point, as he defines it, is not at all offensive to me. It’s your intention, not your words or a misguided idea or a failure to evolve to the best version of ourselves, that should define how you are counted as human spirits. We all must allow others to grow and not try to murder them and their reputations in the process. Absolutism is death. For everyone.
And if we end up disagreeing, not on the level of freedom, but on the last 10% of what is otherwise an agreement on the moral rights of the world, it should not be a hanging offense. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. I can tell you, from personal experience and witnessing, that hell hath no fury like the self-righteous being caught red-handed in their hypocrisy. No one is pure in this regard.
None of this, however, frees any of us to be unkind to others with natural absolution. That is the line. I believe it is, to a great extent, Chappelle’s line. He crosses it at times. He loves to shock. He certainly thinks his line is better than your line. But he is human.
Chappelle freely makes jokes about “his own people,” black people. Tough stuff. Often just as tough as his toughest takes on “the others.”
Chappelle takes shots at himself, also freely. But like those in the white patriachy, he gives himself a lot of slack. Sometimes too much. Sometimes, it is the work expressing itself towards a more significant place. He is, always, a stand-up comic. His skills fill in the edges of the pictures he paints, always.
But it leads to Daphne Dorman… and it all comes together in that hunk. A masterpiece. If you don’t want to watch his whole hour, go forward to 55 minutes in and let it rip. For me, this is what will last. And I can only thank Chappelle for this.