Comedian and actor Gilbert Gottfried once said that comedy and tragedy are roommates. He said, “If you look up comedy and tragedy, you will find a very old picture of two masks. One mask is tragedy. It looks like it's crying. The other mask is comedy. It looks like it's laughing.”
For the last year and half, it seems like that we have been crashing on Tragedy’s couch. Day after day, bad news and bad things seem to happen for no discernable reason. We just went through one of the most hellish and divisive elections in recent history. I would be lying if I said that I haven’t been struggling to find any enthusiasm to put into my writing. The feeling is not there. And it’s not just me; even Late Night comedians are struggling to find something to write about. What we all need is a catharsis. We need voices that not only make us laugh but make us think. Saturday Night Live last night was a hilarious and vital reminder of what we need. We needhonest and brave performers and shows like Dave Chappelle and The Chappelle Show.
In the decade plus since his show went off the air, I would say that The Chappelle Show is just as funny and groundbreaking as it was when it first aired. No matter what the subject matter or how dark it was, Chappelle managed to find humor in it. Characters like a black white supremacist named Clayton Bigsby or a loveable crack addict named Tyrone pushed boundaries and shocked viewers. It was a show that was unafraid of saying what had to be said. It not only reveled in taking a sophomoric approach to comedy, they used it to make a point about the world around us. Chappelle took the uncomfortable elements and racial double standards of our culture and used whatever kind of humor possible as way to make us think about it. The Chappelle Show was simultaneously lowbrow, surreal, and told the truth. His show was a show that could not only talk about race issues in America, it also told us gut bustlingly hilarious stories about Rick James and Prince. Most importantly, it talked about things that are in our collective cultural blind spots that we still need to talk about.
Growing up, I watched a lot of Comedy Central. It was my go to channel to watch whenever I came from school. Day after day, I would watch it. It was a constant figure in my life. When I could not sleep, I would stay up to watch repeats of South Park and The Chappelle Show. Back then; it was just a way to blow off some steam for me. All The Chappelle Show was to me at the time was just something funny to watch. It was not until much later I considered the societal importance of what the show was exposing me to.
As a straight white male, I have struggled with understanding the experience of minorities. I think we can all collectively admit that the race relations in this country are not in the best shape right now. We can talk all we want about being an understanding ally or not seeing skin color. The truth is I have never been targeted or mistreated because of the color of my skin or whom I love. While I did not experience what Chappelle has went through, I connected with his comedy.
It was only in hindsight that I realized the full connection I have with The Chappelle Show.It did not just shape my sense of humor. It was. It shaped who I am as a person. His comedy turned me into someone who is aware of the cultural and racial divisions that permeate our culture. It showed me how frustrating it can be to be a person of color in America. It provided me with a sense of empathy and understanding of the black experience and our collective racial hang-ups. I think this is true not just for me but also for many other people, regardless of age or race.
Chappelle himself knows this and I believe it is why he does what he does. He has said, “I still think people do have racial hang-ups, but I think one of the reasons I can joke about it is people are shedding those racial hatreds.” For Chappelle, comedy is the great equalizer. It is a way of talking about things that impacts all of us. It is something that we all desperately need but is not in great supply today.
Comedy today is in an interesting paradox. It is aggressive and hostile, yet safe and conforming. We want to say the truth but we also don’t want to offend. We don’t want to think or really challenge societal norms but we become dismissive of those who don’t understand certain things. Several of the late night hosts I love participate in this type of behavior. I think this is very destructive and hurts not only the comedy but also the performer.
I want to clarify: I am not saying that is bad to be aggressive about things that make you angry. Sometimes anger is more effective than laughs. It is good to get that anger off of your chest. I totally understand that. When the anger and dismissive nature of what is being said over powers the comedy, it becomes preachy and destructive. It doesn’t encourage an active dialogue about the matter at hand.When the performer is insulting and dismissive, we do not listen to what is being said. The message has become lost in the shuffle and all of the impact is lost. This doesn’t help you or anybody. Chappelle himself has said that the worst thing to call somebody is crazy. It's dismissive.
We need to unite and not further divide amongst ourselves. The best way to tear down ideological walls is to make people think in a way that is both constructive and funny. What I saw last night on SNL showed that it is not only possible but funny too. It is okay to worry about the world and it’s injustices and still laugh. Humor is what tears down the walls between us. It makes us aware of our shortcomings. And in these times, it’s the only that will stop us from being so scared and hopeless. I hope we see more Dave Chappelle, not only because we clearly want it. We clearly need it to.
Fight the power. Share.
Fight the power. Share.
-Liam S. O'Connor