There’s really nothing I can say in praise of Dave Chappelle that hasn’t already been said.
He’s funny, at least most of the time. He’s abrasive but if you can get past that there’s a lot to like about what he does. There’s definitely plenty to dislike, but there’s nothing wrong with him as a comedian. I will leave praise of Chappelle to others more qualified than I. Suffice it to say, I think he’s a good comedian. Unfortunately he’s part of a dying breed. As is my want for this latest series of essays, I’m less concerned with why this is and more concerned with what it means. So I’m not going to walk you through the long, slow, tortured death of comedy. Jerry Seinfeld gave a pretty good summary when he swore off performing on college campuses and there are certainly in depth examinations of the subject out there. To be frank, this is a subject I am by no means well versed in, so I will direct you to the work of Adam Carolla, who often comments on the subject.
What I think is interesting is that, in his latest special The Closer, Chappelle actually offers us the solution to the problem. Then, sadly, he walks away from certain parts of comedy until such a time as people choose to employ it. For those who haven’t seen The Closer, the high points are this – Chappelle has often been accused of hatred for transexuals because he makes jokes about them. Chappelle met a transexual comic named Daphne, who enjoyed his work and wanted to emulate it. When Chappelle put out his special Sticks and Stones he made jokes about transexual people and got heat for it. Daphne chose to defend him. A widespread outcry on Twitter attacked Daphne as a traitor and a suck up for six days.
At the end of that time, Daphne committed suicide by jumping off the roof of a building.
The Closer is Chappelle’s carefully crafted, somewhat funny and viciously pointed response to the people who were so hard on his friend. Through the whole special he acknowledges that he is part of a tribe, namely black people, while Daphne was part of the tribe of transexuals, and they are very different groups. But empathy, he points out, has to go both ways. It’s when we reach the end that Chappelle plays his final card.
“I’m claiming Daphne for my tribe,” he announces. “Comedians.”
This is the essence of the Chappelle Solution.
There are tribes we belong to by birth. Family is the first and greatest of these, and the tribe we owe the most to. But there are also tribes we choose. Dave Chappelle and Daphne both chose comedy, and in this they found comradery. Truth be told, all friendship is this principle writ small. After all, what are best friends if not a tribe of two people, forged through shared experience and an abnormally high tolerance for one another’s quirks? And this is a principle that can extend to the most difficult circumstances in life.
Daryl Davis deradicalized hundreds of Klansmen, in spite of the color of his skin, because he found them where they were and made them his own tribe. Christianity conquered Europe by creating a new tribe that all Europeans could belong to. The key to all three of these approaches are compassion. Chappelle repeatedly stressed that he connected with Daphne by acknowledging that they were both dealing with profoundly human situations that were difficult to share but still worthy of sympathy and understanding. In this he reminds us of a profound lesson about how communities are held together.
Jokes are a way to state hard truths and lesson the sting. They are a way to illuminate dark times and lighten the load. And yes, sometimes they are a way to tear down others in the most brutal and efficient fashion we can imagine. But that last class of comedy comes from – and here’s that word again – contempt. Many comedians today tell their jokes from that perspective, holding their fellow humans in contempt for decisions they see as foolish, backwards or just plain ignorant. There’s some room for that. But the thing that always made comedy so valuable was the compassionate comedy, that helps us grapple with hard truths and lights our way through dark paths. In The Closer Chappelle reminded us of that. Then he walked away, and comedy inched a little bit closer to the grave.
Not before he left us with the solution, however. It’s up to us to decide how to use it. So once more I return to my premise for this series: If we wish for great art to thrive and grow once again we must set aside contempt and embrace compassion. Art elevates the human experience towards eternity. We cannot do that while we look down on humanity from the debased self righteousness. Climb upwards my friends.