Dave Chappelle is getting some shit for his latest specials on Netflix, particularly his take on the revelations of widespread sexual assault and sexual harassment as a deep and ever-present reality for women in the workplace.
In his review, “Dave Chappelle Stumbles Into the #MeToo Moment,” Jason Zinoman writes for the New York Times, “In this paradigm-shifting moment, when victims are speaking out and revealing secrets long buried, Mr. Chappelle is ignoring the historical context, the systemic barriers preventing women from speaking up about abuse or succeeding in comedy.”
In his review, “Dave Chappelle’s ‘reckless’ #MeToo and trans jokes have real after-effects,” Brian Logan writes for The Guardian, “[Chapelle] makes [a] familiar claim, which is that it’s not a comedian’s job to be right, but to be reckless… I take Chappelle’s central point, that comedy has to defend its right to go against the grain, to test the boundaries of the sayable…And yet…[s]everal of [his] jokes punch down; others rehash the idea that victims of sexual harassment should ‘man up.’ These aren’t the boundaries of the sayable: this is what reactionaries say every day…I’m not convinced Chappelle is being reckless…These are deliberate choices, made by a comic who clearly weighs his every word.”
In his review, “Dave Chappelle Is Mostly Disappointing in His New Netflix Specials,” Matt Zoller Seitz writes for Vulture, “Chappelle…seem[s] out of touch at best, stubbornly reactionary at worst, and imperiously annoyed at anyone who dares to tell him that a lot of what he says is not worth saying. [His] sentiments seemed to be punching down for no good reason, and…the material was self-aggrandizing, poorly paced, and inelegantly shaped.”
My wife just walked behind me while FaceTiming with her sister and said something along the lines of, “Kyle is writing a blogpost to mansplain why people shouldn’t be condemning Dave Chappelle for his latest special.”
But that’s not what I want to do. What I want to do is figure out why I enjoyed the specials so much. If so many people who probably share many of my values were upset by his comedy, I wonder why am I not.
I explored some of this a few weeks ago in a lament over Tig Notaro neglecting to discuss the #metoo movement (especially the Louie C.K. aspect of it) during a live set I attended. I concluded that piece by saying, “I want to hear [about this topic] in a stand-up format. I need to hear a long, layered, intelligent, emotional, and deeply comedic monologue on Louie’s crimes and on the way individual humans, society, and the subculture of comedy nerds ought to reckon with it.”
I also wrote I wanted to hear this monologue from Tig “more than I want to hear [it] from…Dave Chappelle.”
Well, with one of Chappelle’s latest specials, I got to hear it from him. I’m paraphrasing to remove the comedic aspects, but he basically said, “What Louie did was wrong, but these girls have to toughen up. If seeing a dude’s dick can throw you off your dream like that, then you probably weren’t tough enough to achieve your dream in the first place.”
And that, my friends, is why, on this issue, I wasn’t looking for guidance from Dave Chappelle. I already understand Chappelle’s perspective on the issue, as I understand it from most other men’s perspectives. It’s not about that.
Unless Chappelle or Chris Rock or Bill Burr or one of the other male comedians I respect wants to address the issue from the perspective of the piece of shit who can’t control their urges enough to honor the basic decency of other human beings — unless they’re gonna take me inside Louie’s head and show me what gives him the right — then I don’t really need their thoughts on the topic.
That’s not to say I don’t want to hear how they fashion comedy around the #metoo movement. I thought Chappelle’s stuff was funny; I don’t have to agree with him or receive insight from him to find it funny. Even reactionary ideas can be funny, otherwise South Park wouldn’t still be on the air after two decades.
But I don’t expect wisdom on this particular topic to come from too many middle-aged men, the same men who came to whatever power they have through the same patriarchal system that is on trial right now.
Because I wasn’t looking for wisdom from Chappelle, I don’t much care that he didn’t deliver it on this particular topic.
What I cared about was his ability to perform a ~10-minute, detailed description of the Emmet Till murder in the middle of a COMEDY special. What I cared about was his ability to perform a ~15 minute, detailed story about the way a particular pimp manipulated and exploited his most important prostitute, and do so with very few laughs…again, in the middle of a COMEDY special.
Both of these stories shared an insight that I didn’t yet have. The first built up to a hopeful message that sometimes the worst shit has to happen for the best shit to come to fruition — Emmet Till’s senseless murder led to the Civil Rights Movement led to Barack Obama. The second story demonstrated some of the worst aspects of unchecked capitalism: in pursuit of the almighty dollar, capitalists manipulate and exploit even the most vulnerable among us; they have no shame, no sympathy, and no heart — they have only the will to exploit. And they’re in charge of the entertainment industry.
Chappelle attempts things in his comedy that few others do. He allows his audiences to sit for tens of minutes at a time without a laugh, and when he reaches the “punchline,” he sometimes allows it to be something other than funny.
Chappelle is intelligent, insightful, and artful. He doesn’t have a clear vision on every topic, but neither does anyone else.
Wittgenstein wrote, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
For comedians, however, he ought to have written, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must begin thy set.”