This week, superstar comedian Dave Chappelle made his big return with two new Netflix specials, The Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas. Chappelle’s comeback has been building steadily over the past few years: He performed well-received gigs at Radio City Music Hall in 2015 and hosted Saturday Night Live in November 2016, and it all seemed to be the lead-up to Chappelle’s triumphant return to the spotlight. When it was announced that the man behind Chappelle’s Show would be returning via Netflix, the public was understandably giddy with anticipation.
Chappelle returned to a much different comedy landscape than the one of his TV show’s heyday. “I had to watch Key & Peele do my show every night!” Chappelle declares in disdain at one point in The Age of Spin, calling out the comedy duo who followed his hit show with their own popular sketch series on Comedy Central. When Chappelle’s Show premiered in 2003, there hadn’t been a popular black sketch series since In Living Color’s cancellation in 1994. Also, stand-up comedy series HBO’s Def Comedy Jam hadn’t aired since 1997 and BET’s Comic View was sputtering in popularity. Three years removed from Chris Rock’s critically acclaimed (and short-lived) talk show, there was a void for a sharp black comedic voice and Chappelle neatly filled it.
But in 2017, Chappelle no longer occupies an exclusive space.
As the new age of Trump-aggrandized anxiety takes firm hold, black satirical voices hold a particular cachet in popular culture. The great benefit of this not being 2003 is that there isn’t just a singular Dave Chappelle—there’s Jordan Peele, Issa Rae, Donald Glover, and Jerrod Carmichael. There’s SNLers like Leslie Jones, Kenan Thompson, and Sasheer Zamata. There’s Jessica Williams and Trevor Noah. Do any of these voices represent any definitive, singular point of view? Not at all. And that’s something to build on.
“A lot of black people don’t fuck with me like they used to,” Chappelle acknowledged relatively early on in The Age of Spin. “My own actions drew a wedge between me and the community I hold so dear.”
Chappelle was leading in to a joke about him skipping a Flint, Michigan, water benefit to go to the Oscars, but he could have just as easily been discussing the past week and the criticism following the release of his Netflix specials. The comic’s jokes went directly at police shootings, his own insecurities in the wake of the success, and popularity of guys like Kevin Hart and Key & Peele, and his marriage. But Chappelle is drawing fire for jokes aimed at the LGBTQ community—jokes that often traded in divisiveness and transphobia.
With Trump in office and Saturday Night Live having a field day lampooning him and his cronies on a weekly basis, the expectations for a singular comedic voice to cut through the fog with wit and anger led to Chappelle’s return being welcomed by those with fond memories of his hit show—many of whom weren’t as aware of his classic comedy specials. I laughed at Chappelle for years. And many times during his new specials, Chappelle is funny. But too many times, he’s punching down, a stern Gen X comic elder scoffing at a millennial world. Hey… it happens.
As it stands, Chappelle not occupying that singular place any longer could mean that black comedy has a stronger foothold. With growing platforms for aforementioned artists like Rae and Peele, the kind of cultural grip that a Chappelle or a Chris Rock enjoyed 15 years ago doesn’t exist, and as he moves through his forties and fifties, the Gen X straight black man is less centered as the defining perspective for Black America. Those voices are getting younger, and more varied. And more empathetic. Jerrod Carmichael and Issa Rae have both tackled LGBTQ stories on their shows without pandering or the sort of backhanded condolences Chappelle offered between his punchlines. More comedy featuring marginalized people reminds everyone of our own privilege; that should be a goal for anyone who values comedy’s ability to subvert. Amplifying those voices to speak for themselves would be an even better step in the right direction.
My favorite comedy moments involve those who have been pushed to the fringes using their humor to skewer the machinations that put them there. Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle turned 30 on March 20, and it remains one of the most astute satires of Tinseltown racism ever put to film. Most of the jokes, written by Townsend and Keenan Ivory Wayans, poke fun at stereotypes and even get in digs at Eddie Murphy, who Townsend would direct in Eddie Murphy Raw—released just months later. There’s a need for satirical voices—especially right now—and comedy can’t ever be preoccupied with inoffensiveness if it wants to cut through bullshit, but that doesn’t give us license to mute criticism when comedy wallows in toxic mentalities. Many of the rebuffs of Chappelle critics have been along the lines of “comedy is supposed to be uncomfortable” and “gay people are proving that they don’t want equality—they want special treatment.” Great comedy exposes uncomfortable truths, and in that respect, Chappelle is as astute as he’s always been. But when that comedy targets marginalized groups and trades in the very stereotypes that have led to violence against those groups, it’s just punching down. Chappelle’s line about a trans woman friend wanting to go to the club to “trick niggas into fuckin’ us” is the worst.
Murphy’s Raw concert film would draw criticism for homophobic jokes—echoing criticism Murphy had faced after similar remarks and jokes about HIV/AIDS in his 1983 Delirious special. The contrast between Townsend and Murphy, two mainstays of ’80s black comedy, illustrates a difference between effective satire and oppressive bigotry: One movie featured a Hollywood underdog shooting holes in the system; the other highlighted a preening superstar wallowing in easy laughs by targeting an oft-maligned group from which he assumed there’d be no significant repercussions.
Popular lampooners and funnymen like Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Seth MacFarlane and Louis C.K. all trade on the “edginess” of homophobia and racism in their comedy. “I was born in 1967, so I grew up in the ’70s. So I’m not racist—but I do have ‘mild racism,’” C.K. joked during his SNL monologue in 2015.
“It was a very racist decade, and people said racist things all the time and nobody got offended. The only time someone got offended when you said something racist is when they would say, ‘Hey! You interrupted me! I was saying something racist!’”
Acknowledging one’s own bigotry can make for uneasy laughs, but it’s not novel or insightful in and of itself. There has to be some sort of shredding of the idea as a fallacy, or else it rings as a shrugged-off endorsement of specific hate as just a human foible to “live with.” Peele’s Get Out successfully analogizes white liberal racism in a horror movie context, which makes for as much humor as it does chills. In a myriad of obvious and subtle ways, he spoofs everything from appropriation to fetishizing, and it works because his targets enjoy societal privilege. When it’s the other way around, you have to be very careful not to actively participate in standing on the other person’s neck. Blackface was once regularly acceptable humor in the United States, but this isn’t 1923; topical art can’t be presented in the same context as if no cultural shifts have occurred over the decades. Even at our most nostalgia-driven, art still doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Additionally, art that trades on pushing buttons shouldn’t be defended as if it is benign. Comedy like Chappelle’s can’t be divorced from its most problematic moments; it’s wrongheaded to revise history by pretending now-revered legends like Richard Pryor weren’t ever controversial in their heyday. So much of those icons’ legend was forged in controversy, and sometimes the controversy was completely justified. You shouldn’t have to pretend they were infallible to defend a contemporary star’s transgressions.
So don’t feel obligated to defend Dave Chappelle. He’s not some returning hero or the voice of a generation. His voice is his own and whether or not his perspective changes is no one’s responsibility but his. And there are other voices. Donald Glover’s Atlanta was one of the success stories of 2016; the rapper/actor delivered a hit series with its own unique feel, comedic quirks and sharp focus. Glover’s show seems to embody the current Black comedy wave: less preoccupied with pleasing everyone and finely attuned to a post-Ferguson perspective. Empathy isn’t political correctness—awareness has and should affect our art. With the current administration, Black comedy is such a necessary tool for countering the popular narrative. We should welcome the broadening of its scope, still hold accountable the older voices and always celebrate the variety of newer ones.