Black Comedy

Why is Dave Chappelle’s malice so winning?

Mining humor from the racial divide

If comedian Dave Chappelle’s eponymous show isn’t the funniest half-hour on television, it is only for the inconsistency from which all sketch comedy suffers. Now in its second season (with the first season available—uncensored—on DVD), Chappelle’s Show (Comedy Central, Wednesdays, 10:30 p.m. ET) certainly provides some of the funniest moments on television.

A challenge, though, when watching Chappelle’s Show,is to resist the temptation to grant it—because Chappelle is black, and because he deals in harsh racial caricatures, and because you’re laughing your ass off, and because you want to believe you’re a progressive person—a political significance that it doesn’t have. New York Press film critic Armond White, for example, credits Chappelle’s Show with “subverting racism, sexism, and the clichés you might call blackism.” But Chappelle doesn’t “subvert” these things—he exploits them. That is, he takes eager advantage of an obvious double standard: White comedians have either to avoid race or treat it with exquisite caution, but black comedians like Chappelle are able to extract laughs from America’s racial hang-ups, not necessarily from a solemn underlying commitment to racial justice, but often with an unfettered and indiscriminate comic malice. I’m not complaining, though. At least somebody gets to do it.

Chappelle—a tall, lean D.C. native whose stand-up act is delivered in a languid drawl that evokes the much deeper South—grounds his comedy in America’s Big Problem. But, stylistically, it is reminiscent less of the politically circumscribed satire of Lenny Bruce or Dick Gregory than of the gleeful, cruel slapstick of the Three Stooges—the jarring, unwarranted violence of poked eyes and conked heads. Of course, Chappelle addresses a more complex set of realities than the Stooges, but his funniest stuff relies on pretty much the same comic method: smashing these realities heedlessly together.

Chappelle’s attempts to justify his comedy are fairly weak, generally withering in the unsparing philosophical light cast by your baby sitter when she told you that two wrongs don’t make a right. Responding, on the show, to a letter complaining about negative portrayals of white people, Chappelle replied that there are plenty of positive portrayals of white people on television, so he’s just balancing accounts. He was joking, sort of; in interviews he says much the same thing. People complaining about hostility toward whites in his sketches, he told USA Today, “are probably under the assumption racism is over.”

Now, African-Americans can obviously be accountable for their portrayals of white people, even if racism persists. Two wrongs and all that. But for a host of complicated reasons having to do with American history and the nature of comedy, our powerful desire to laugh, and our commendable willingness to laugh at ourselves, African-American comedians get a special dispensation, and the white folks who feign injury at their racial burlesque end up looking like humorless idiots and tiresome, reverse-PC litigants.

Chappelle’s sketches are about way more than white people, though. They range across ethnic America, devoting special attention to the freaky underbelly of black popular music. The first season featured a delirious, revolting sendup of R. Kelly’s sexual quirks, and a recent episode offered a riotous and oddly gripping account of Rick James’ lunatic cokehead years—an inspired hybrid of straight documentary and the wildest comic overstatement.

But the show is most reliably funny when Chappelle immerses himself in the sublime disaster of black-white relations. A sketch from the new season, about a “racial draft”—in which the major American ethnicities select, like sports teams, ethnically ambiguous celebrities like Derek Jeter and Mariah Carey as their permanent own—is mostly a dud, until the black team drafts Tiger Woods. Woods is, by his own description, ethnically “Cablinasian” (Caucasian/Black/American-Indian/Asian), but Chappelle plays him as a standard white nerd, grooveless and fawning. Though it can only highlight his indelible, asinine whiteness, Chappelle’s Tiger gratefully embraces his new, official blackness: “I’ve always wanted to say this,” he announces, jerking about at the podium and chewing dutifully on his consonants in every black comic’s version of white speech, ” … fershizzle.” That this brief moment is not just amusing but startlingly funny testifies to the show’s secret, indispensable ingredient: Chappelle’s masterly physical comedy—at once cruelly exaggerated and dead-on—which is somewhat surprising coming from a comic best known for a relaxed, almost drowsy stand-up act.

Perhaps the most fully realized sketch of all is from last season, a takeoff on MTV’s TheReal World. Instead of one African-American tossed in with “a bunch of crazy white people,” a single white guy named (of course) Chad moves into a sprawling apartment filled with angry black people. (Chappelle’s goal—to reverse The Real World’s invidious racial alchemy—nicely expresses his retributive itch that, in interviews, he seems to mistake for a sense of justice.) The escalating abuses and misunderstandings climax when roommate Tyree, a feral ex-con played by Eddie Murphy’s brother Charlie, stabs Chad’s visiting father with a prison-style shiv. This sketch riffs off a black guy’s view of a white guy’s worst nightmare—the willful misunderstanding, the (literal) whiff of drugs and violence, the scalding indifference to white-bread niceness, the threat of sexual humiliation. Gentle and high-voiced, wide-hipped and pudgy, Chad arrives emasculated, and so, by the ineluctable logic of this nightmare, his cute and busty girlfriend ditches him to sleep with both Tyree and Tyree’s prison buddy, Lysol.

In using this harmless eunuch as a foil, Chappelle vaults clear over any edifying satirical point about the way in which racism begets paranoia or whatever. Here, the animating sentiment is not disapproval or disappointment. It’s contempt—not necessarily toward white people, but certainly toward white people as they appear in the black guy’s view of a white guy’s worst nightmare. Let’s face it, Chad is a tool, and his dad, short and nice and preppy in a pink Ralph Lauren shirt, is virtually begging for a shiv. The sketch concludes with a Real World standby, the banishment scene, in which the black roommates boot Chad because they don’t “feel safe” around him. He, incredulously, impotently, rejoins—as his girlfriend watches, laughing, from Lysol’s lap—”But, Tyree, you stabbed my dad.” This sketch is both hilarious and discomfiting. But if you find a redemptive satirical point in it, or some determinate subversive meaning, you put it there yourself.

What Chappelle’s Show illustrates is that black-white relations, and the complex feelings that can accompany them—incomprehension, anger, guilt, fear, loathing—function like a hall of fun house mirrors. Once we enter (and we can’t not enter), we all end up as caricatures and distortions, not only in other people’s eyes, but in our own as well. This may not describe a multiracial society on the path to healing (though willingly participating in other people’s caricatures of us, for the higher goal of comedy, might be a postmodern substitute for the old liberal ideal of mutual understanding). But it does describe a society that—under the ministrations of someone like Dave Chappelle—is capable of generating a lot of extremely funny shit.