Advice for Chappelle: Don’t Listen to Advice.

Filed Under Sketch Comedy

This column in a recent Hollywood Reporter calling Dave Chappelle a quitter is more than annoying. It’s inaccurate. One of the columnist’s points is that Dave hasn’t been forthcoming about what exactly made him leave his show. Dave’s been vague at times - in many ways because the decision was based more on instinct rather than anything else. But one reason that’s been constant since the first article about his departure has been his discomfort with the impact of his sketches on race. The fact that this isn’t even mentioned is enough to make a conspiracy brother out of this pale honkey o’fay white devil.

Chappelle has just come off a year of seeing how influential a single sketch could be - particularly from the constant yells of “I’m Rick James, Bitch.” Suddenly realizing that you can occupy such a significant amount of thoughtspace from just one thing you do must be amazing and terrifying at once. It’s the kind of the thing that can cause an artist to reexamine their work and what it does.

Many creative people like to ignore the dark sides of our entertainment, saying it doesn’t change the social fabric or affect members of our audience in a negative way. But yet, what do we hope our work does? Affect people. After being chased about a catchphrase that exploded so big that it occasionally drove him offstage, Chappelle was naturally cautious about what he was going to put out there in season 3, even if they were the bits that fell out of his own brain.

He joked about the famous line from Spider-Man on Anderson Cooper, “From Great Power Comes Responsibility” - but it’s real. He’s acutely aware that his jokes have an effect and he wants it to be a good one. It’s the same career crossroads that Richard Pryor made when he decided to stop using the word “nigger” after going to Africa (a vow I’m not sure he entirely kept, but still…)

The column also takes Chappelle to task for calling airing the Lost Episodes a “Bully Move”, equating his sudden flight to Africa to be a “Bully Move” as well. I don’t think it’s the most mature reaction to the problems Chappelle was facing (the most troublesome part to me was that he didn’t even tell his wife where he was - but that’s between them), but to be a bully you have to have power. Chappelle has power certainly, but to assert that he’s bigger than Viacom is ludicrous. I don’t fault Comedy Central for airing the episodes, but we should keep in mind who’s the larger entity here.

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Posted by Mike on 07/13  at  03:23 PM

Chappelle is definitely a funny guy; however, this was ultimately JUST a tv show.  I’m not saying television programs can’t have a dramatic impact on our society, just not this basic-cable sketch show.  To imply that he’s worried that his sketches may malevolently alter the racial landscape is merely hubris.  I’d tend to agree with the columnist—his public reasons for leaving have been rather nebulous and inconsistent.  The “social responsibility” argument is too self-aggrandizing to take that seriously.

To be sure, Chappelle had SOME cultural influence on the state of race relations in this country.  White guys like me laughed at his portrayal of my closet bigotries and I’m sure black people laughed at his over-the-top parodies of their cultural trappings.  Isn’t that what comedians do?  Observe and comment on hypocrisies and social discomfort?  In that sense, Chappelle wasn’t that different than say, Seinfeld.  I guess my point is that he (and by extension, this blog entry) makes him to be more sociologically important than he really is.  “I’m Rick James, bitch” was an entertaining catch phrase for about six months, not emblematic of a major social movement or racial awareness.

Todd Jackson
Posted by Todd Jackson on 07/13  at  06:15 PM

Well, I don’t think you can say one show has an effect and one doesn’t. They all contribute in some way. Do I think Chappelle’s show would topple racial progress? Of course not. I don’t think he thinks that either. He just wants to make sure that whatever way he is nudging our social fabric is positive.

I agree that Chappelle has been vague at times but the racial concerns have been there from the beginning - the first talk with him after he left for Africa referred to them. I believe Time mentions it was a “last straw.”

How important is Chappelle socially? More so than you or I, but probably less than Richard Pryor was. But no matter how “important” someone is, it’s not a terrible thing to think about the impact of the material you put out there. Anybody has the right to wonder how they affect their small corner of the world with their actions. When you get bigger, some would argue you have a responsibility.

I use the “Rick James Bitch” catchphrase is an example of how widespread - inadvertently - something can catch on. That phrase doesn’t really do much at all socially, but when a creator becomes aware that they made can get spread that big - it can make someone a little self-aware about what they are putting out there.

The phrase is something that blew up it way he didn’t want it to. It grated on it’s creator. And don’t forget he’s Dave Chappelle - something like that surrounds you once it goes big like that. It’s not like you or I who might hear it from an oaf at a bar once a day. Imagine it everywhere, all the time. It’s gotta be unnerving.

In that mindset, I can easily see why you’re concerned with the next thing you make. It could be equally unintended and misinterpreted in ways that you don’t want. To me, it’s worth it to make material that may cross the line because the people who will get it and get it right will be right with you, you can’t let those who won’t ruin it for you. But I’m not Chappelle. That’s his thing to work through.

Posted by Mike on 07/13  at  09:29 PM

In the interest of self-disclosure, I’m not a connoisseur of Dave Chappelle’s material.  But, I’ve seen most of his shows over the years, and for the most part find them funny.  So from my perspective, most all of his sketches push the race envelope, and perhaps I’m unable to grasp the subtle distinctions between quality in the so-called lost episodes and his first two seasons.  The fact that I live in a lily white neighborhood in lily white Seattle could contribute that shortcoming as well.

That said, I’ll concur that Chappelle’s comedy has done more for sparking public race discussion since Pryor.  In that sense, he deserves a lot of credit.  I guess in terms of a primetime tv show’s effect on society, there are varying degrees—I should’ve made that clearer.  Chappelle’s show makes a larger impact on racial perspective than, say, According to Jim, but far less than Good Times.

Every comedian reserves the right to make whatever creative decision about their work that they see fit.  Having become a huge sensation in such a short period could make any mortal man freak out over how to progress their art.  Maybe I don’t have the full story, did Comedy Central/Viacom exert creative authority?  Did they note up his scripts?  Seems like if they’re willing to fork over $50m, they’d just let him do his thing and stand back, ala the HBO philosophy.  I haven’t found a clear answer to that. 

If there was no network interference, I would contend that Chappelle simply buckled under the pressure of having to live up to, perhaps unreasonably, the hype of his first two seasons.  In other words, I don’t see any reason why he bolted, if he had the same writers, producers and creative control.  So that’s why I find the social responsibility perspective somewhat suspect.

Posted by seamus on 07/25  at  04:37 PM

In the context of the other comedy and the comedy culture of this decade, Chappelle’s decision to bolt makes sense. His show did amazing things with race, the likes of which most television audiences had never seen. The “racial draft” bit, for example, made some deftly and uniquely insightful statements about identity politics.

The problem was that some people, including Comedy Central management, saw the success of Chappelle’s Show as some kind of permission slip to do comedy about race, which in less adept hands becomes racist comedy. Saturday Night Live the last few years has featured at least one horrible “dumb and lazy black people” sketch or “flaming gay people” sketch every time I’ve tuned in, the type of sketch where the people living out the stereotypes are the beginning and end of the joke. And you know that without Chappelle, Comedy Central never would have greenlighted Mind of Mencia, which as far as I can tell is just a weekly rehash of stereotypes about race, sex, and orientation. Mencia’s standup has also devolved into un-clever “Asians are really bad drivers” type jokes, followed by violent insistence that anyone who doesn’t think that joke was funny is just being lame and politically correct. (This is a real shame, since Mencia’s standup 10 years ago was pretty groundbreaking, IMHO.)

So I can see why Chappelle went running for the hills. When white young people—people who are still forming their racial attitudes—laugh at Chappelle’s jokes about black people, and then laugh at all the other jokes about black people made by the dumber imitators, of course Chappelle is going to feel some responsibility. He’s not comparing himself to Martin Luther King; he’s just saying that he doesn’t want to be part of that anymore. Fine.

What’s most ignorant about that “Hollywood Insider” piece and pretty much everyone else giving Chappelle hell is that Chappelle made a creative and personal decision. Now leave him alone.

Anyway, great post, Todd.

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