It’s been nearly ten years since audiences were treated to a Dave Chappelle stand-up comedy special. But now, thanks in part to Netflix, Dave is back. Chappelle’s special, The Age of Spin, filmed at the Hollywood Palladium, is an uproariously funny look at a range of subjects, from his meetings with O. J. Simpson, to his experiences in Hollywood — as well as what some would say are taboo topics, such as rape, transgenderism, and homosexuality.
It is these last three subjects that have raised the ire of social-justice warriors to thermonuclear levels. Early in the show, Chappelle recounts his first meeting with O. J. Simpson. Chappelle notes that Simpson’s “soon to be slain wife” was with him. When he hears some of the audience react somewhat negatively to that comment, Chappelle remarks, “Ladies and gentlemen, man the f*** up or you’re not going to make it through the end of this show.”
Naturally, the rest of his material is just as edgy, and many an audience member or viewer (myself included) will find himself asking, “Did I just laugh at that?” But the realization that you’re laughing at what Chappelle says is a testament to his skill as a comedian — not a reflection of your worldview or opinion about the subjects in question. Those who refer to Chappelle’s comedy as “homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic rants” and ignorantly claim that he shouldn’t be “allowed” to joke about those subjects suffer from two conditions:
1. They have no understanding of what a comedian’s goal for his audience is.
2. They feel that they’re the arbiters of what subjects are worthy of laughter and what is off limits.
Comedians have long argued that their art form is meant to be provocative; that it’s a medium in which “political correctness” is anathema to the cause. But as others have argued, it’s absurd to act as if there is no moral responsibility in comedy. Comedy that targets societal oppression can be funny and incisive, even (or especially) as it stokes discomfort. Comedy that ridicules marginalized groups is just hateful and damaging, evoking more explicit hate speech. Don’t comedians have a responsibility to create content that does not cause harm?
Moral responsibility? Comedians are not philosophers or sociologists. Their job is to tell jokes. A comic’s goal isn’t to concern himself with societal norms but instead to connect with an audience and make people laugh. Not all comedians are “provocative.” Comedians such as Jim Gaffigan, Brian Regan, and Jerry Seinfeld get their audiences laughing and discussing what otherwise might be considered mundane topics such as family life, travel, and marriage. Having watched stand-up comedy for 30 years (when I was growing up in New Jersey, a local cable station broadcast taped shows from Rascal’s Comedy Club in West Orange) and knowing several comics myself, I can say that they’ll all tell you there’s no greater fear they have than an audience that doesn’t laugh at their material.
As for the subjects of comedy, it does not fall on the shoulders of the perpetually outraged to dictate what topics are worthy of humor. Comedy, like all other forms of art, is subjective. Some people don’t find Jerry Seinfeld discussing walking around an airport or flying on a plane funny. And while I suppose Amy Schumer talking about the smell of her vagina is meant to be provocative, I don’t find it funny at all. Comedy is subjective, so to each his own. That said, there’s nothing edgy about Schumer’s jokes.
Much of the anger directed at Chappelle revolves around a bit where he’s pretending to pitch two Hollywood types on a mediocre superhero who can unleash his powers only after lightly touching a woman’s vulva. The superhero in question is very unattractive and women refuse to give their consent. Thus, he needs to resort to raping women to save others. A critic, Lux Alptraum, wrote in response:
Chappelle seems to think he’s being very deep as he asks us to consider the possibility that maybe — just maybe! — a rapist might be capable of a great deal of good, too. “That’s the dilemma for the audience,” [Chappelle] says, “Because he rapes, but he saves a lot of lives. And he saves way more than he rapes, and he only rapes to save. But he does rape.”
Alptraum completely misses the point. Chappelle is not asking his audience to consider anything. He’s relaying a non-existent anecdote about an absurd pitch he made up on the spot. That the two bozos he’s pitching to think what they’re hearing is a good idea for a movie is the punchline to the joke.
Comedy, ultimately, is a form of art. It will always be subjective, with opinions varying significantly. As with other forms of art, it is up to the consumer to decide what he likes (or doesn’t). The self-appointed guardians of what comedians are “allowed” to joke about may hold themselves up as virtuous, but all they’re really doing is telling people, such as Dave Chappelle, to shut up.
— Jay Caruso, a lifelong Yankees fan, is the assistant managing editor at RedState and a co-host of the politics and culture podcast, The Fifth Estate.