“I don’t think people pay money to see a guy speak precisely and carefully,” Dave Chappelle told PBS NewsHour in a new interview Friday night. “I don’t think they want to pay to see someone worried about the repercussions of what they say.”
If Chappelle’s most recent string of Netflix specials prove anything it is that he is not concerned about the repercussions of what he says. As 2017 came to a close, the comedian released two new hours of stand-up, one of which dove headfirst into the #MeToo movement. In his characteristically provocative style, Chappelle defended his fellow comic Louis C.K. and dismissed one victim as having a “brittle spirit.”
Asked by PBS’ Jeffrey Brown if he thinks audiences are “overly sensitive” now about what comedians are “allowed” to joke about, Chappelle said, “Yes and no. Sometimes, I think that we’re painfully desensitized, because we’re bombarded by so much information. And then other times, I think people—it’s just—there’s a lot to be mad at, especially when you know so much.”
The comic said he finds “solace in the arts,” adding, “I don’t have to agree with all the art I consume, but it helps me understand how I actually feel about it.” He doesn’t “mind that people get upset” and actually finds some of his criticism “helpful.”
“I get educated by it,” he said. “I don’t necessarily agree with all of it, but I learn about a lot of things just from my critics.”
But how does this mentality apply to making jokes about the #MeToo movement? “I don’t know. Like, we’re all figuring this out, I think, at the same time together. This is a huge collective moment,” Chappelle told PBS. “But, as a comedian, that can be a very, very difficult thing not to talk about. As a human, it’s a very difficult thing not to feel, to be indifferent to it. Everywhere you look in America, everyone’s pushing the line in one way or another.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with using stand-up comedy to comment on the #MeToo movement—as comedians like Cameron Esposito and Hannah Gadsby have proven to powerful effect in recent months. But it of course depends on the nature of that material and whether it serves to downplay the severity of systematic sexual abuse.
Before Chappelle started talking about Louis C.K. in his act, he was telling jokes about Bill Cosby, a man he always considered to be a personal “hero.” In his 2017 special The Age of Spin, he attempted to weigh Cosby’s then “alleged” rapes against his otherwise positive legacy. “My God, you can’t imagine,” Chappelle joked, grappling with his own feelings. “It’d be as if you heard that chocolate ice cream itself had raped 54 people.”
“I’ve never met Bill Cosby, so I’m not defending him. Let’s just remember that he has a valuable legacy that I can’t just throw away,” Chappelle added in that special, listing off his many humanitarian contributions, including one story about him paying for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech P.A. system, which has since been debunked. “The point is this: He rapes, but he saves,” Chappelle concluded. “And he saves more than he rapes. But he probably does rape.”
Back then he took pains to remind his audience that “technically these are all still allegations,” adding, “Although, I admit it looks very bad.” Now, Cosby has been convicted and Chappelle is obviously still working through what that means.
In the PBS interview, he recalled watching one of Cosby’s victims sobbing outside the courtroom after he was found guilty. “Justice was meted out for this woman. And it didn’t look gleeful. You know what I mean?” he said. “Like, it’s tough to see your heroes fall, let alone be a villain. I was explaining to some of my younger family members, like, who he was at one point, juxtaposed to what’s happened now. It’s astounding. And it’s sad, for everybody.”