Direct Your Attention: Dave Chappelle isn’t joking anymore

By Owen Mason-Hill

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It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of comedian Dave Chappelle’s imprint on our zeitgeist. Even calling him a comedian feels like the wrong title; perhaps activist or social commentator is more apt. This week, for the second time, Dave Chappelle hosted “Saturday Night Live” immediately after a U.S. presidential election. The first — in 2016 — followed the election of President Donald Trump; the second occurred just a few days ago, after Joe Biden was voted president-elect. 

As a comedian, Dave Chappelle has been known to inject his jokes with sophisticated social commentary, mixing it with his branded slurry of lewd humor. If you have been deterred by Chappelle’s particular concoction of crass jokes in the past, I would urge you to see it not as profanity for profanity’s sake but rather as a vessel through which Chappelle is able to reach millions to deliver his insightful commentary and introspective storytelling. To overlook Dave Chappelle as a political activist because of his comedic crudeness would be a grave misstep. 

In his opening monologue on Saturday night, Chappelle took on a rather serious tone, donning a well-tailored suit instead of his signature one-of-a-kind, army-surplus-inspired jacket. He began the monologue, cigarette in hand as always, with a remembrance of his great grandfather, who was a slave before being freed. Chappelle remarked that he wished his great grandfather were able to see him at that moment — see a Black man in America who has become successful enough to fly to New York City via private jet to host “Saturday Night Live.” But Chappelle doesn’t stop there. He notes that his immensely popular sketch comedy show, “Chappelle’s Show,” has begun streaming on Netflix and HBO, though without Chappelle receiving any payment. Longtime fans of Chappelle (or those who kept up with early-2000s current events) know that even in success, “Chappelle’s Show” did not go off without a hitch. Instead, Chappelle voided his contract and left the show during the production of its third season. In his Netflix special “The Bird Revelation,” he likened his relationship with the show’s network to one not unlike that of a pimp and his most profitable prostitute. Chappelle finished his musings on a punchline, as always. “[You] were bought and sold more times than I was,” Chappelle said, assuming his great grandfather’s voice, relaying to the audience that despite his success, Chappelle was still confined by deeply rooted, harmful institutions. 

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While the joke naturally aroused uproarious laughter from the audience, it was meant to be much more pensive than its reaction would lead one to believe. “I can’t even tell something true unless it has a punchline behind it,” Chappelle said. It is this constant embattlement that Chappelle seems to face in each of his Netflix specials and his monologues,and even back during his “Chappelle Show” run. If he were to simply outline the enormity of the racism he faces on a daily basis from a political or social standpoint, no one would listen. If he were just a comedian, he would be unable to discuss the issues he feels are most pressing in America. Every time Chappelle walks out onstage and grabs hold of a microphone, he is walking a tightrope. At the beginning is Chappelle, tentatively putting his weight on the wire, eyeing what lies across: an audience and a society that understands the plights he speaks of, understands the inhumane racism that has been systematically oppressing Black people for centuries and understands the social critiques he speaks of and wishes to enact change. The burden of this thin wire is the comedic sheath Chappelle must veil his commentary in. If he is not funny enough, his audience won’t stay long enough to listen, and if it’s pure comedy, he fails to reach his goal and educate his audience.“You guys aren’t ready,” said Chappelle. “You’re not ready for this.”

It is an interesting affair to watch both of Chappelle’s monologues back-to-back. There is a clear distinction in tone that is influenced directly by the political circumstances of the time. In the first monologue, he is light, funny and cautiously optimistic. He talks of the impending Trump presidency with the same humorous disbelief that most Americans did at that time. He wishes Trump well in the White House and makes light of his infamous Access Hollywood tape through a joke about himself staying in Trump’s New York hotel. Referring to the Obama administration, Chappelle remarks how profound it was to have a Black leader who made deliberate efforts to bring to light the very same racial issues about which Chappelle speaks. His optimism is matched by an equally optimistic tone in his newest monologue, though marred with much less levity. Chappelle addresses racial issues with urgency and openly points out the hypocrisy of white-on-Black racism that prevailed in Trump’s and earlier presidencies. 

Chappelle isn’t joking anymore about the seriousness of racism in America, and neither should we. His monologues and stand-ups have tipped the balance to weigh much more heavily in social critique than in pure comedy. His recent special “8:46” built directly upon the surge of Black Lives Matter movements across the country this summer. Chappelle’s deftness for the comedy craft is unquestioned and unparalleled, and the timeliness of his critiques are as dire as ever. I implore you to consider his words and listen to his voice with earnest intent. For white people, now is the time for listening; we have been talking for far too long.