On Dave Chappelle: What’s problematic is complex & deep. Rise to it.

On your feet for the G.O.A.T.

By Jacqueline Howlett

Initial impressions are often wrong. And more importantly, they’re often incomplete.” – Dave Chappelle, Equanimity 

Equanimity: mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.

Dave Chappelle gave his millions of fans a New Year’s gift: the last of his promised three Netflix specials dropped on January 1st at Midnight, along with a sneaked-in bonus installment by way of a low-key, intimate fourth special at the same time (Equanimity and The Bird Revelation, the second of which we’ll review separately). Many watched it with the same doe-eyed gratitude as they did pint glasses of water, with the same need for something refreshing for their tired spirits.

2018’s New Year’s resolutions are largely symbolic. We invest the idea of a new year with all the promise we need for whatever reset hits our pressure points, usually personal ones focused around self-doubts and punishment like clockwork, led by the usual suspects in our media and ourselves at the most vulnerable, coldest, darkest time of year. And cutting through all this, almost forgotten again because he doesn’t scream for attention, self-market himself to death, or use cheap ploys, comes Dave Chappelle. The G.O.A.T. of comedy, who stumbled, just a little, last time out. The rust is off now. His crown will not be tarnished by you, by anyone.

You know, some people don’t remember what comedy is, what it’s for. This is it. Like it or not. Chappelle is it. Watch it before it’s gone again. Real comedy in the hands of the greats (rare, and so, unfamiliar, as it is) means to make you uncomfortable. It didn’t come here to make friends. It’s supposed to make you laugh and sometimes, not laugh, squirm, think about why you are laughing or not laughing, check your own head, look at your own biases, let your brain fire with agreement or disagreement, get spiritual, clap foolishly in your own living room, or argue back out loud. Stay in your craw for hours after.

Chappelle’s defenders compare him, rightly, to the late George Carlin, an unimpeachable wit, brain and iconoclast who is missed in these troubled times. One imagines that Carlin could have united us, rebooting counter-culture, heading off Trump, reducing that Reality TV buffoon-turned-dangerous world leader to rubble before we ever got here. But the truth is, in 2016 / 2017, like every smart and free-thinking comedian still trying to stick their head above the trenches, Carlin would have been dragged and ripped apart, quit Twitter, and gone into retirement, for the game is just not fun anymore. We don’t trust ANYONE. “Comedy” today is largely a misnomer for cheap clowning. Right now, America (and the world) needs him badly even if it does not deserve him; almost drove him away, once. 2018 Chappelle is a man in full. He’s not cuddly. He sounds like Tone-Loc after decades of smoking and he will not quit for anyone. He’s not that fresh faced, youthful boy, able to slide his commentary inside pop culture touchstones like Sesame Street anymore. He’s a man. He’s free-falling. He’s earned it.

Too few stick their neck out today, will risk their payday or their position to engage in real talk. Oh sure, behind closed doors, but not before a crowded hall, for millions of Netflix watchers, for the public who are so immobile, bitter and tired. Snap judgement and loud library-like “SHHHHHHHHing” feels like First Amendment rights more than the actual First Amendment which applies pretty liberally to a lot of shitty people out there, among them, “tiki-torch whites”, politicians, celebrities, an untrained, decimated media who are unqualified to even tweet, and corporate brands disguised as popular music. Apply your cherished First Amendment to Chappelle’s work if you can find no other way to appreciate this giant, or begone if you aren’t willing and able to grasp what he is, is about, thinks, and says.

“It’s too hard to entertain a country whose ears are so brittle.” – Dave Chappelle, Equanimity

Watch the special. Listen to it. Dave Chappelle says, in no uncertain terms, that he has no problem with transgender people, that he may not understand what it is to be them but he respects and believes them, that they deserve a quality life that is safe. That anyone who wants to hurt them because of something Chappelle says is a piece of shit and is not welcome at his shows. Did the media report this? Will they ever report this? He also spends a significant amount of time working through his complex and imperfect ideas on the subject, not making cheap jokes at all but engaging in real talk.

The predictable knee-jerk backlash is so very 2017 that it’s not worth a lot of commentary except to ask: how shallow are you if your criticism can be tweeted? If your review of a man’s deep work is dashed off in the early hours of January first? Those who led the charge went way out of their way to ignore so many good and important pull quotes it’s not funny. They bent themselves into knots to cherry pick the “problematic” bits out of a deep, masterful study on popular culture, racial dynamics, wealth and his own privilege, Trump’s America and Emmett Till, all created by a singular genius who can tie all of that together with intelligence, fearlessness and sense of humour intact. Equanimity and The Bird Revelation deserve repeat viewings before one attempts to write on it. But arrogance is journalism’s stock in trade these days. Plagiarism or “aggregating” is the dominant trend. Shit is grim.

So I’ll dismiss the shallow critics as Dave Chappelle does fools. Wryly, coolly: “Word.”

For any important issue you care to defend, fight, march, tweet or die for, had better be complex. Layered and Controversial.  Will stand up to rigorous questioning. Otherwise it might just be noise.  The usual 2017 Chappelle backlash is enough to make one think that the whole concept of comedy itself needs to be retaught to the public. Comedy is not what you see on SNL these days (living click bait in expensive wigs) or the hollow puppetry of late night hosts who, combined, don’t have one tooth of the bite Letterman had for decades. And by the way, let us not forget that Chappelle has some powerful enemies in media and entertainment who will always spread misinformation about him. Who are artless.

Dave Chappelle is funny and also fearless. Anyone could expect a backlash when a strong, uncorruptable and free-thinking black man calls out the popular thinking, in this case, on Trans issues, as something that serves to benefit white men and reeks of white male privilege. He says this. He means it. He’ll stand by it. He wants people to think about the means and the ends, the rich and the poor (the black and the white viewpoints and voices and voicelessness, historically, not just post-Caitlyn) and who gets to speak in the public space, whose issues are give wider platforms and whose are regularly belittled or ignored. He makes some elegant points about his evolving viewpoint and clarification of his attitudes about trans people while correctly poking at celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner – whose proved to be a very poor role model indeed.

Chappelle is not frivolous or shallow. You know what he is and always was? A free-minded individual. A force for good. An individualistic man who resisted a bad system that tried to own him and his work, intellectual property, art, ideas, social criticism, originality, and soul. A giant. Yet, he’s not full of hate. That is unusual in comedy, Hollywood and in America today. He’s not a victim. That’s unusual in celebrity and in what gets press today. Chappelle is a professional genius in comedy of his time, his early work on Chappelle’s Show and his early stand ups untouchable to this day, but in fact would not be made today under the fraught and conservative mess the U.S. has let itself become. Further, Dave Chappelle is a strong black man in America who yet has maintained an active funny bone. He really does crack himself up. And he finds laughter in the absurdities of life, as you must. But he delivers serious wisdom.

“Everything is funny until it happens to you.” Put another way, something has to happen to you or affect you before it becomes important to you. We are all self-interested. We all need to reflect on this statement.

Dave Chappelle has given us a lot of good things, meaningful ideas, challenges, and plain funny jokes. In Equanimity he both cements his legend by drawing circles around all the beautiful points and ways of delivering truths he’s known for in his wheelhouse, then steps right outside of his realm into the cold wind of the lanes he’s been forbidden to enter. Because that is his job. And he does so better than he has before, tackling the most dicey of subjects in America today: Islamophobia, politics, the audiences and bystanders who never watched or were fans who love to be angry and who he’s lately angered. Chappelle wades right in, and still does not lose his hardcore. Why should he? Says who? He’s a surprise, here in 2018. And surprisingly, Chappelle has never been so full of hope in a time of darkness that really needs to laugh, to lighten up, to stop and take a breath, to regroup, to calibrate as we say we will do as 2017 turns to 2018. He’s even grown. He read and thought about the sensitivities of people who get hurt by jokes, even though he will continue to tell them and will not be muzzled. He tells a fart joke & a masturbation joke and is still miles more mature & fit to lead than the U.S. world leader. You gotta laugh to keep from crying. He’s more lovable than all of Hollywood. He’s a living legend. In Dave we should trust. Or will we lose him again?

Let 2018 be the year of looking at real artists within their context, not deliberately taken out of it. The new era of careful reflection, not easy anger. I hope you don’t miss that Dave Chappelle just sailed in at the top of his game out of nowhere and dunked – because he may just as quickly have retired.