We Need The Shock of Dave Chappelle’s Comedy (#GotBitcoin?)
He uses his stand-up routine to mock the pieties that define our popular culture. We Need The Shock of Dave Chappelle’s Comedy (#GotBitcoin?)
Dave Chappelle has become something of an unlikely hero to conservative critics of our tightly constrained and vigilantly policed popular discourse.
His willingness to use his stand-up comedy routine to make fun of some of the contemporary shibboleths of liberal orthodoxy—gay and transgender rights, the women’s movement and others—has earned him predictable opprobrium from much of the cultural elite. When he appeared on “Saturday Night Live” right after the 2016 election and punctured the funereal mood of the proceedings by urging the mourning viewers—and cast members—to give Donald Trump “a chance,” it was as if he were in a contest with Kanye West to audition for the part of most malevolent traitor to the black community.
His latest Netflix one-time stand-up show, “Sticks and Stones,” recorded earlier this year before an audience in Atlanta, has been greeted with the usual outcry. But given his reputation as a renegade scourge of political correctness, I was a little surprised and even offended as I watched the show this week.
It wasn’t the endless repetition of the F-word or the N-word, which has become a kind of mandatory verbal tic for black performers. Nor was it the defense of Michael Jackson against his accusers, which seemed odd and even a little contrived—as though a producer had urged him to come up with something really outrageous for the pre-broadcast publicity. I was also unmoved by his denunciations of “cancel culture”—whereby the career of a phenomenally successful entertainer is derailed by the revelation of some improper remarks or behavior from years earlier, which looks a little self-serving. I’m sure there have been some injustices, but I have little space in my limited capacity for human sympathy to weep for the likes of Louis C.K.
What surprised me was that much of his material consisted of cutting, vicious—and yes, funny—jokes about how terrible white people are. He makes fun of the opioid epidemic devastating so many rural and small-town white communities, echoing the familiar refrain on the left that white people are getting a taste of the crack epidemic among mostly blacks in the 1980s. “Just say no,” he offers. “Now how easy is that?”
He also makes jokes about the threat posed by young white male school shooters. Perhaps the funniest line of the whole show comes when he urges black men to go out and buy guns. “Every able-bodied African-American man must register for a legal firearm. That’s the only way they will change the law.” It’s a near-perfect comic line—funny and yet carrying the faintest hint of credibility.
But these jokes and others in a similar vein fall neatly within the canon of approved liberal orthodoxy, so they’re not controversial. Instead, Mr. Chappelle is defined by the material that gets the politically correct crowd riled up—and there’s plenty of that in the show. He makes jokes about LGBTQ—the people who’ve taken over “20% of the letters of the alphabet.” He makes fun especially of transgender people, including a slightly crass comparison of the identity confusion some transgender people feel with the suggestion that he thinks he may really be a Chinese man.
He makes a piercing moral-equivalence joke about abortion, saying he’s fine with a woman’s choice to get rid of a pregnancy, but in exchange men should be allowed to walk away from responsibility for a child if the woman goes ahead with the pregnancy to completion.
In short, Mr. Chappelle is not some crusading right-wing, countercultural figure, tearing down the liberal establishment. He’s an equal-opportunity offender. His routine takes swipes at everyone—the hypocrisies, inconsistencies, absurdities and extremism in our culture.
He is, in that sense, a true comic—one of extraordinary talent and sophistication. Maybe I’m offended by jokes about opioid abuse killing white people. But I can laugh at them and acknowledge that, yes, he has a right to make them. Comedy is vital to the ability of a society to examine and challenge itself.
The Chappelle flap is further evidence of how boringly predictable so much of our modern popular culture has become. He shocks because he is the rare voice willing to question the vice-like grip of the liberal establishment on the vocabulary and syntax of popular discussion. But popular culture was once defined by its willingness to challenge. Artists, musicians, comedians and writers enriched us by delivering shocking affronts to the sensibilities of the people who laid down the rules of our society.
Today’s performers mostly fall over each other to demonstrate new establishment bona fides. They may call themselves woke. They’re barely breathing.