Dave Chappelle makes a lot of people uncomfortable — and I understand why.
He’s a talented comic, but he goes out of his way to be offensive. A lot of comedians are crude and offensive, but Chappelle has the temerity to offend people who polite culture has declared untouchable.
I hadn’t seen much of Chappelle’s work, but the clips I’d seen showed me that he was funny and talented. He delivers his jokes with a casual style that makes it appear he’s engaged in conversation with his audience instead of delivering tired jokes.
Few people today are bothered by the sort of crude language he uses, but that’s not something I enjoy. My own language is so conservative that I’ve never spoken a word of profanity. It’s just not part of my vocabulary. So the fact that about a quarter of his words are profane or insulting bugs me. It’s not my preferred way to be entertained.
Popular culture has been mercilessly attacking Chappelle’s Netflix comedy special called “Sticks and Stones,” so I finally watched it Tuesday night. His language is offensive. His jokes are outrageous. He offends many of this culture’s modern sacred cows.
But I came away from it feeling that what Dave Chappelle is doing is important — even for those who don’t agree with him.
Nothing is sacred to Chappelle. He makes fun of white people, black people, Asians, whoever. He seems to have no filter and says what a lot of people are afraid to say.
But what gets him into trouble with modern culture is his merciless skewering of “the alphabet people” — his phrase for those of the LGBTQ political and social movement.
I get the impression that Chappelle has no problem with people who decide they’re gay or lesbian or whatever. He has a problem with the fact that those of those groups are collectively considered untouchable. And so he makes the same sorts of jokes about “the alphabet people” as others have made of every other group for years.
I don’t think Chappelle’s jokes would be especially funny if they were being made from a position of cultural power. If he were saying the same things in the 1950s or 1960s, he would come across to me as a bigoted man who had no empathy for oppressed people.
But Chappelle is a black man who grew up poor. He knows what it’s like to feel oppressed. He seems to understand that the cultural tables have turned so much today that those who claim victimhood for their sexuality are the ones with at least as much cultural power today.
Chappelle doesn’t seem to be saying that gay people or transsexuals or whoever are terrible people. He’s saying that they’re just as worthy of being skewered as anybody else is. He’s treating them in the same way that comics have been treating the powerful in our society for years.
When comedians started making fun of Christian churches and ministers when I was young, I was outraged, because I felt as though I was being attacked. I eventually came to realize, though, that the best of these comics were doing a service to the church.
You see, the institutional church had been a sacred cow for a long time — and it needed to be shaken up. There were a lot of things that needed to change. Comics started saying things that a lot of us — even inside the church — were saying privately.
In the same way, Dave Chappelle is voicing things that a lot of people think and say personally — things that most of culture pretends don’t exist.
In Sticks and Stones, for instance, Chappelle gives a cathartic voice to what many of us thought and said when actor Jussie Smollett claimed that he was attacked by racist and gay-hating Trump supporters. If you didn’t support Smollett at the time, there was the strong implication that you were racist or homophobic or some other kind of hateful person.
So when Chappelle says what many of us thought from the start — that Smollett was lying — it feels as though he’s speaking a truth that was too dangerous to speak at the time. (Here’s a clip of that bit from the performance.)
If you’re gay or lesbian — or if you’re confused about gender issues — you might not like someone such as Chappelle making fun of your group. I get that, because I feel the same way when people make fun of Christians or white southern men, because they often do so in viciously unfair ways.
But whether these comics make us uncomfortable or not, they’re providing something valuable to the culture — by pushing boundaries and crossing lines of propriety that more “decent” people refuse to go beyond.
Even though Chappelle is offensive and shocking — and I definitely don’t agree with him at times — what he’s doing is important. He’s creating a space in which the cultural powers-that-be can be lampooned and questioned.
If you’re on the social or political left, you might find that Chappelle pushes your buttons in ways that make you very uncomfortable. If you’re a more conservative person in the social sense, he might offend you for different reasons.
All I can say is that he’s doing something important. And I can also say that he’s funny, especially when he’s skewering the sacred cows of modern culture.