Dave Chappelle the Comedy Relic

Dave Chappelle in The Closer. Photo: Netflix

I teach a college course on African American comedy almost every year where we use literary and cultural-studies theories to address the public and political significance of African American satire and comedy from the 19th century to the present. The class is centered on analyzing film, television, literature, and stand-up comedy. With the release of The Closer, Dave Chappelle has been a particularly unavoidable figure this term.

Most of my students were born after the release of Chappelle’s 2000 special Killin’ Them Softly and were in preschool when his follow-up, For What It’s Worth, premiered four years later. When I introduce them to his early material, they are often surprised and impressed — by his ability to punch up, to speak truth to power, to focus his “attacks” on injustices and institutions with discernibly more power than he had. Also, he’s just funny. It’s Chappelle’s ability to respond to the realities of that time — to racism, sexism, policing, government mismanagement — with humor and precision that captivates them now like it captivated comedy audiences 20 years ago.

We analyze in Killin’ Them Softly, for example, Chappelle’s clear articulation of racism and white privilege when it comes to policing. He tells a story about a white friend who gets pulled over by the police while drunk, high, and driving erratically and is released after explaining, “Sorry, officer. I … I didn’t know I couldn’t do that.” Students are always particularly drawn to Chappelle’s discussion of racial stereotypes. In this same special, he recounts the time a restaurant employee correctly guessed he was going to order chicken. “All these years, I thought I liked chicken because it was delicious. Turns out, I’m genetically predisposed to liking chicken!” He returns to this idea four years later in For What It’s Worth, explaining, “Just ’cause I eat chicken and watermelon, they think there’s something wrong with me. If you don’t like chicken and watermelon, something is wrong with you, motherfucker!” This is Chappelle at his best: Acknowledging everyday racism in the lives of Black people, revealing its absurdity without making light of the targets of such racism. These examples, even 20 years later, still hold their significance.

But what I’ve noticed in the past few years is that students are finding Chappelle less and less relevant. And this isn’t an inevitability due to his age; stand-ups older than Chappelle — comics like Tig Notaro, Leslie Jones, Marc Maron, and Paul F. Tompkins — continue to resonate with younger fans. To my generation, watching Chappelle’s early-2000s specials felt like we were seeing someone turn into one of the greats in real time. To my students’ generation, those specials are relics. To them, he is the Chappelle of 2021 — The Closer Chappelle. A man who’s so consumed with yelling at people on the internet that he forgot to be funny. What could be dismissed by longtime fans as a misstep is being considered by younger audiences as his modus operandi. Indeed, the bulk of Chappelle’s stand-up archive — what the public will have available to them to view and review — has been produced post-2016. The comedian he is now is the comedian he’s been most.

I’ve taught Chappelle in one context or another for the past ten years, but teaching him in the past five years has felt different. To younger audiences, he is out of step not only with the comedy of the moment but with the zeitgeist in general. He claims that he takes aim at everyone but focuses with laser precision on the most marginalized groups, specifically groups that push back on his work. He goes so far as to say that accusations that he’s now “punching down” — particularly at trans women — are his least favorite: “Punching down? What the fuck does that mean?” When I talk about punching down with my students, we talk about the negative tension created when a comedian with a certain amount of power targets someone with less. We talk about why we are disturbed by a rich, cisgender, heterosexual man making jokes about trans women. (A person who might criticize this as college-campus chatter might also remember that Chappelle has always been ubiquitous on campuses, in dorm rooms on Chappelle’s Show and on campus-comedy tours.)

But, of course, Chappelle knows exactly what “punching down” means, because he uses the question as a segue into a transphobic tirade in The Closer. What he’s really asking is: How can he punch down? In teaching Chappelle, it’s become increasingly important to address how a person can be marginalized while also marginalizing others. Comedy has often served as a defense mechanism or a survival tactic; it’s a way to take aim at a world that would destroy you otherwise, to articulate your selfhood when the world denies it. When you are used to having to scrap for a position as a comedian, it’s possible that when you’re finally empowered, you’re still so used to scrapping that you’re unwieldy. You might make mistakes. You might punch down.

Chappelle has said in previous acts and repeats in The Closer that “taking a man’s livelihood is akin to killing him,” in reference to DaBaby and Kevin Hart, both of whom lost major deals — a Lollapalooza performance and an Oscars host gig, respectively — in the wake of homophobic commentary, before moving on to other profitable opportunities. (It should be noted, however, that Hart voluntarily stepped down and refused to host the Oscars despite continued invitation from the show’s producers.) But he’s also talking about himself here, likening public critique and any imagined consequences he hasn’t actually experienced to a figurative loss of life. He does so in a moment when transgender and gender-nonconforming people are literally dying. In the most recent special, Chappelle attempts to once again leverage his “friendship” with trans woman and comedian Daphne Dorman as a sort of anti-apology for all the things he’s said. He can’t be transphobic because he has a trans woman friend, right?

Part of Chappelle’s early appeal was his stoner charm — he was the funniest pothead in the dorm. But in recent years that analogy has lost its savor, especially with students; for the new generation, his approach has been akin to an out-of-touch uncle who corners you at the holidays when you’re just trying to hang out with your cousins. He’s forgotten what my students know: that comedy exists in the terrain where boundaries are recognized and then transgressed without harming people who don’t deserve it. When boundaries are transgressed and people who don’t deserve it are harmed, it’s no longer comedy — it’s horror.

Last week, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos sent out a memo to Netflix staff in support of Chappelle, saying, “While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.” Sarandos later walked back his defense as an “oversimplification,” but it wasn’t just too simple; it was demonstrably false. In talking about the real-life implications of comedy, I refer my students to the tropes of the minstrel stage in the 19th century, which were used to support chattel slavery, recruit KKK members, and enact continuing violence against Black people. These racist caricatures demonstrated to eager white audiences that slavery was good for the enslaved because look at how happy their stand-in was on the stage. The performance was used to justify the status quo and erase the appearance of the violent reality only so that the violent reality could exist in secret. It was specifically intended to have real-life consequences. Chappelle — who left his multimillion-dollar contract with Comedy Central in 2005 — certainly knows that more acutely than most. He quit after dressing up as a Zip Coon minstrel in blackface. When he realized a white crew member was laughing at him and not with him, he concluded that the sketch was “socially irresponsible.”

Today, his loudest supporters aren’t talking about hilarity, they’re talking about free speech, people being too sensitive, cancel culture. He’s not getting as many laughs as he’s getting “clapter” that’s usually associated with self-satisfied leftist ideologies but that here allows conservative viewpoints validation because they’re being espoused by a traditionally left-leaning Black man. This kind of response has less to do with jokes and more to do with ridicule. It shows you agree with who is being targeted. It’s the sort of response the minstrel stage elicited, and it’s also the response that made Chappelle leave his show in 2005 when it was directed at him. Of course, these same supporters are quick to remind people on social media that if you don’t like his style, you don’t have to watch. And, unfortunately for Chappelle, that might ultimately be what’s happening. It’s not until I show students clips from Chappelle’s earlier stand-up specials that they start to understand what was once his appeal. They can see why we were laughing then, but they’re watching a ghost of comedy past.

Dave Chappelle the Comedy Relic