Dave Chappelle’s return and the state of African American stand-up comedy

Chappelle arrives back on the scene amid a new wave of black comedians, some of whom fit the Def Comedy Jam mold while others take after his offbeat humor

Its hard to believe that Dave Chappelle hasnt hosted Saturday Night Live before. It seems impossible that someone who has influenced comedy like he has would have never received a career-defining moment like that. Then again, Chappelle made himself scarce in the years after walking away from his massive hit series Chappelles Show. Plus, SNL though the launching pad for Eddie Murphys meteoric rise to superstardom has rarely been amenable to the talents of black comedians. That Chappelle is choosing this as his major comeback vehicle (and bringing A Tribe Called Quest along with him) is significant, especially at a time when its fair to wonder where black comedy is headed in the second half of the decade.

Ive seen Dave Chappelle perform live twice: at the height of Chappelles Shows success at a mid-sized theater in Fresno, California, and this year, in Los Angeles, on the eve of the Academy awards. The latter show took place inside a Latin dance club near Echo Park. We were made to hand over our cellphones so as not to spoil a raucous evening that included guest appearances by Oscar host Chris Rock (testing out material for his Oscar hosting gig) and Christopher Kid Reid from Kid n Play. That Fresno show was tight, controlled and traditional. The LA show included a running gag about orgasming, lots of cigarettes and the occasional blunt. It was a stream-of-consciousness monologue that would be familiar to anyone whos seen Chappelle live in the past few years as if late-period Lenny Bruce didnt have to fight against censorship and could just get high on stage and ramble. That formless, meandering style lends itself to glib, controversial rhetoric like his recent comments on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at the Cutting Room in New York. He called Trump the most gangsta candidate ever and while acknowledging that he voted for Clinton, said that shes not right, and we all know shes not right.

Chappelles canonical status as a comic allows him these sorts of indulgences and I cant say I didnt enjoy myself, but I cant help but yearn for the focused, hungry Chappelle who I worshipped as a young adult. As an awkward biracial kid in a small town, Chappelle was the first black comic I could relate to. He straddled the line between worlds in a way that even Eddie Murphy couldnt. Chappelle was vulnerable before white comics like Louis CK and Marc Maron made that cool, and well before black stand-ups like Hannibal Buress and W Kamau Bell could get away with it. But he was never patronizing or disinterested in his own blackness the way Bill Cosby could be.

Historically, black comedy has been about bravado, about decibel levels, and about playing to the crowd Murphys swagger in Raw and Delirious, Richard Pryors bare emotional intensity and confidence, Redd Foxxs bawdy misanthropy, and Bernie Macs grumpy old man ferocity. Its a tradition typified by Def Comedy Jam, the Russell Simmons institution thats returning to TV this weekend, the same night that Chappelle hosts SNL.



figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> The Eric Andre Show on Adult Swim: one of the shows that continues Chappelles tradition. Photograph: null/PR company handout

The special, All Def Comedy, is a revival of sorts for the Def Comedy brand and a spinoff of a digital series produced by Simmonss All Def Digital multi-platform brand. Looking at the lineup it seems that black comedy hasnt changed much since Chappelle went home. All Def is hosted by Chris Rocks brother Tony, a fixture at LAs Laugh Factory and the go-to MC for shows like this. Tony also hosted the short-lived Showtime at the Apollo revival, Apollo Live on BET. A glance at some of the YouTube clips of the listed performers reveals common themes that run through the history of black stand-up: the inscrutability of black women, infidelity, the great mysteries of the bowel movement and the trials and tribulations of being broke.

The supremely confident, strong black comic is personified today by people like Kevin Hart, arguably the biggest comedy star in the country today at least in terms of his ability to consistently draw fans to movie theaters, football stadiums and various home media devices. Theres certainly self-deprecation in Harts work: his persona is that of someone who projects authority and self-esteem, but constantly subverts that image. Its a deft modernization of the black comic standard. Theres also SNL cast member Leslie Jones, who derives many of her laughs from her booming voice and unshakeable belief in herself, a character trait that became invaluable during her recent struggles with Twitter trolls and the alt-right.

But that was never Chappelle. From the conceptual absurdity of his drug-dealing baby bit to the laconic stoner humor of Half-Baked, Chappelle never seemed to embrace the theatrics of Rock or Murphy (and their descendent, Hart). His crackly voice and lanky frame didnt lend themselves to the gravitas of those people. His tendency to crack up or appear mystified by his own jokes (signified by a habit of slapping his microphone on his thigh) was endearing, not intimidating.

His inviting, non-threatening persona might have opened the door for the complicated response to Chappelles Show that drove him away from the spotlight. A recent piece in The Fader by Amos Barshad looked back at the sketch that pushed Chappelle away a racially charged bit of satire that a white audience member enjoyed way too much for his liking. Without the air of menace, the sex appeal, or authority that Rock, Murphy, Pryor, Foxx and others brought to their work, Chappelle might have made the jokes we all tell ourselves in the barber shops or basketball courts acceptable to white folks putting black pain on a Hot Topic T-shirt.

That he walked away says more about his intelligence and keen sense of empathy than anything else in his body of work. He couldnt stand to profit from work he didnt believe in, which is not necessarily true of many of his peers in black comedy. After all, Robert Townsend directed BAPS and Bill Bellamy was in whatever this was supposed to be.

The influence of Chappelle is felt in comics such as Buress, the Lucas Brothers, Wyatt Cenac, Eric Andre and others acts that dont struggle to appeal to white audiences and dont really fit in the baroque Def Jam mold. Black comedy today is seeing the same sort of divide between alt-comics and club comics that fundamentally altered the white comic landscape in the 1990s and 2000s. Chappelle could do both and based on the diverse makeup of the tiny club show I saw, he still can. The thing is, the Def Jam comic will always be a necessary part of the black cultural experience. He or she is a conduit for our frustrations, an avatar of strength in the face of rampant prejudice, and a keen observer of a world most people dont understand. Theyre also, to borrow a phrase, for us and by us in a society dominated by whiteness as status quo. Chappelle might have retreated from the siren song of the mainstream because they didnt really understand him (or even care to), but hopefully what we will see on Saturday night is a reminder of how he got so close in the first place.

  • Dave Chappelle appears on SNL, Saturday; HBOs All Def Comedy airs at 10pm ET, Saturday

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/nov/11/dave-chappelle-snl-black-standup-comedy

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