On Dave Chappelle
Countless are the sacred cows—the institutions, the sentiments, the racial stereotypes, the gender pronouns and preferences, and the totality of the day’s politically sterilized ideas—into whose cherished hides we can no longer thrust. These placid political beasts and their skins, pachydermatous and grazing without so much as a hint of fear, have simply become too thick. Contrariwise, our ability to scratch them has become too weak. We thus have a competition of physics that favors the former: an immovable force against an impotent subject. And this, this feeble subject, has shown itself incapable of carrying its own weight.
Perhaps the fault is ours; we’ve no longer the strength, certainly not the inclination, to break through these cows and their now sacrosanct skin. We’ve lost the energy for the pursuit, the taste for the fun, and evidently the motivation to puncture what’ve turned into bodies of bovine inviolability and censorious gloom.
Are we at all to be surprised? What’s to be expected of a previously funny society shorn of its once-famous claws? We’ve become nothing but fluff, treading daintily with paws upon reticent feet. Our vivacity has been blunted as our intelligence has dulled. Our resilience has wilted as our quickness has slowed. Our wit, once the envy of all others and the surprise even to ourselves, has pivoted on a heel and hastened its retreat. It has no home in this environment of repressed opinions, shutting down, and “canceling” out. No longer a sword, combative to the point of wonderfully gratuitous, humorous excess, our wit has become a broken persona non-grata in search of new identity and new life. Its flaccid memory now hangs unimpressively sharp as it thinks of trenchant days of old. If heated, I daresay it couldn’t even navigate its way through a plump stick of butter.
In a word, we’ve become limp in body, languid in mind, humorless in soul. We’ve squandered our piercing dialogue, neutralized and made politically “correct” our caustic jokes, and—in so doing—tossed overboard our greatest treasures and assets—no matter how corrosive they might’ve been. We’ve jettisoned from this ponderous ship of state our once celebrated acuity of thought, our clever risibility of speech, and that which made us comically unique. Now hopelessly adrift, we look in vain for the shores of true comedy, for a beach onto which we can stumble and once again breathe.
In the meantime, what’s left? Sadly, little remains. With whom can we laugh and about what? Again, the answer is exiguous and it’s discouraging—those who deliver to us our laughs will be few, even fewer the topics on which they can speak. It appears that that by which we’re now to be amused is a humorless, vacuous, intellectually-ailing cortege of comedians. This is a group to whom the most recently and poorly conceived morals are more important than the deep and ancient roots from which our fun and humor sprout. This, it turns out, is a group better-equipped to sing dirges than to bust guts, to silence heretics than hilariously to riff. It’s a group comfortably accustomed to the quiet solemnity of the void, and this is a void through whose gated-entrance we’ll all be led, pulled and yoked not unlike cattle. Instead of laughing, however, we’ll be lowing as we think about what once was.
This is the void, the world in which we live. It’s a world and an age of political Puritanism and ostentatious “woke-ness”. It’s a world of endless affectation and show behind which precious little thought lives. You might say ours is a world in the embrace of something like a third great awakening—fundamentally akin to its anterior two—saturnine, hulking, and proud of the mirthless, joyless state it’s built.
But there is one messiah—one fallen and guiding light from whose treasury of meretricious humor we might find for ourselves a brief and temporal reprieve. With a meteoric descent upon our television and computer screens, he arrives as a comedic genius, a naughty Nazarene, a man to whose insight, provocation, subtlety, and brilliance we annually lend an ear. Like acolytes we await his message and like converts we preach. Comedic and salvific, we welcome into our homes and the last bastions of our fun the one and only Dave Chappelle.
This immortal figure of comedy, this demigod of hilarity, Chappelle chose to alight upon us from his vantage point in the sky at precisely the right time. Not merely right, the time at which he appeared was absolutely necessary (for the reasons stated above). Having descended upon us from so lofty and altitudinous a place, it’s no surprise that he cared little for the places, persons, and ideas upon which he landed upon touching down. Indeed, he crashed into nearly every one of those vaunted sacred cows in the course of his reverberative descent.
During his Netflix stand-up special entitled (with clever aptness, one might add), Sticks and Stones, there was no subject to which his humor was immune. All topics were assaulted and, frankly, that’s okay; omitted, of course, from his title is that while sticks and stones may break our bones, words never can do us ill. That is the vital conclusion of which we need be reminded time and again. Chappelle, with untrammeled confidence and wonted irreverence, spoke at length about all things from which we’ve grown accustomed to averting our eyes. He touched on such politically-combustible topics as gun rights and wrongs, impecunious and uncultured whites, articles of confession, ambivalences on abortion, the contentious state of racial issues in the U.S., and the inconsistencies in the LGBTQ community at large—the most inviolable topic of all. Deprecatory not only of society but of self, Chappelle also made himself the butt of more than a few jokes.
But those well-timed insertions, funny though they were, surely won’t be enough to shield him from the coming onslaught of castigations and reproach. His special, almost immediately after its release, was rather unfavorably reviewed by the professional critics upon whom his “Rotten Tomato” score so desperately relies. Known haughtily as the “critic’s” rating—in opposition to that of the common hoi polloi of viewers—it stood at a meager twenty-five percent. Chappelle’s audience, not unaccustomed to this game, quite disagreed with so unsympathetically low a rating; it responded by giving him a near perfect score. I like to think of this as a kind of Thermidorian reaction—an August response by a people fed up with the uncritical and merely political elite.
What Chappelle did was brave. Of course, it was also deeply offensive, inexhaustibly ribald, and morbid in every way, but that’s the path upon which the comedian treads. He knows no other, and we wouldn’t agree to follow him if he did. His is not a clean and well-defined street. It’s not one along whose periphery white picket fences stand. Nor is it one whose navigation is reliable and clear. It’s a road for whose conquest one must be bold. It’s a road upon which a dirty assortment of branches, leaves, tires, and sundry other rejectamenta rest.
When impediments occupy it, they must be subverted, circumvented, or vigorously overcome. This last of the three options is Chappelle’s preferred choice, and we, his willing audience, follow him dauntlessly along the way. Even if there appears before him and, by extension, before us a sacred cow, one complacent, stolid, and mooing dead center in the street, it must be slaughtered or overcome. We hand to Chappelle the knife and sing to the gods his praise. Down with the sacred cows from which all of us are now free! Long live comedy, our deliverance! Longer live liberty, our raison d'etre!