Tag Archives: standup comedy

Dave Chappelle Needed to Talk #MeToo

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.”

The negative reviews continue.

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.”

The Comedy Contest

To conclude his well-written review of Dave Chappelle’s latest performance at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, Jason Zinoman of the NY Times writes:

At his best, Mr. Chappelle’s [sic] proves that thoughtfulness can make a joke funnier. Making smart comedy that is argumentative and funny is not a zero sum game, but his first performance of a long residency at Radio City does occasionally makes you wonder if it is.

That is not a well-written conclusion, but there’s an interesting idea at the heart of it. I think what Mr. Zinoman is trying to say (and I could be wrong) is that Dave Chappelle might be the smartest comedian alive, but only if you think comedy is a contest.

In any sane person’s mind, the top three comedians in the world right now have to be Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and Louis C.K. There are hundreds of worthy stand-up comedians in the industry, but those three have to be at the top.

If our criteria remains Zinoman’s — smart, argumentative, and funny — I’d be willing to let Jon Stewart be part of the conversation, but if he really wants a shot, he’ll have to release a stand-up special sometime this century (which, apparently, he will be doing…soon?).

Additionally, I’d be willing to discuss Bo Burnham. I know that’s a controversial entry because, for many, Burnham’s comedy is still a bit too gimmicky, but he’s doing innovative material with a young man’s energy and a hyper self-awareness that speaks to the people of his generation. He’s able to argue with an audience if he feels they need it, and he’s willing to call into question some of the fundamental beliefs that they hold dear. At the same time, his hyperkinetic energy and his reliance on his musical talent have kept him, I suspect, from reaching a multi-generational audience.

Bill Burr also has to be part of the conversation. Bill Burr brings an unironic and uncynical anger to the stage, knowing at all points that he must be a psycho because he gets angry about things that regular people don’t angry about, like the idea that there’s no reason to hit a woman. That anger, however, is his talent. It allows him to notice things that all of us feel or suspect but that we don’t know how to articulate — for example, see his continued ability to get an audience to clap for the idea that mass genocide is necessary for our overpopulated species to continue.

Over the past six or seven years, Burr’s stage presence has benefitted from his increased acting experience. He’s developed the confidence to examine the narrative elements of a joke and a storyteller’s recognition that narrative alone can carry the tension, and not just the audience’s expectation of a laugh.

Playing with audience expectations might be his strongest skill. While all great comedians are willing to challenge their audiences, Burr is unabashed in his contempt for any audience trying to punch above its weight class. The prime example of this is when he berated, for a full twelve minutes, an unruly audience in Philadelphia (if that’s not redundant). The audience had booed almost every other comedian off stage during a festival, but, for twelve minutes, Burr attacked them head on, targeting everything that is wrong with Philadelphia, taking each boo as a badge of honor, and challenging them not to laugh as he tore them a new one.

With that being said, Burr’s comedy specials have also felt a bit insular. It’s a Bostonian’s insurality, to be sure — insightful, aware, proud, shamefully honest, and deeply insecure — but it’s an insularity that prevents him from going deeper than he already has. That insularity might be why he keeps returning to the well of overpopulation and political conspiracy.

Burr’s last few specials have all been fantastic. His skills as a joke teller, storyteller, tactical observer, and stage performer have increased with each one. But the philosophical depth of his targets remains limited, as if he’s blind to some significant element in the field of comedic possibility.

It might be that Burr doesn’t often talk about his family. He isn’t shy about it — you can track the growth of the man with the growth of his relationship to his partner (first his girlfriend, now his wife) — but he doesn’t dwell on family the way Rock, Chappelle, and C.K. do. It’s probably because Burr only had his first child in January of this year, and so his perspective on the family has been lacking that crucial parental angle. I’m intrigued to see how being a dad enriches his material in the next special.

There are other great comedians of course: Norm Macdonald, Kevin Hart, Jim Gaffigan, Jerry Seinfeld, Patton Oswalt, Hannibal Burress, Tig Notaro, Ellen Degeneres, etc. But if comedy is a zero-sum game, there’s only room at the top for one.

Unfortunately, trying to choose between Chappelle, Rock, and C.K. is like trying to choose between Jordan, Lebron, and Bird, with no clear indication as to which comedian transfers into which basketball player. And with no clear answer, all you can do is sit back, relax, and enjoy their greatness.