Film & TV

Dave Chappelle and the Art of Telling Ugly Truths

Dave Chappelle in The Bird Revelations (Netflix)
The comic as American hero

Dave Chappelle starts his new Netflix comedy special, The Bird Revelation, with a brief statement of the problem of democracy. Funny things are often mean, and everything’s funny until it happens to you. It’s hard to have comedy anymore for that reason. We cannot bear the thought that the public would like to humiliate us. The problem is not one comedian who says something nasty — it’s how many people spontaneously laugh, and thereby reveal that they take pleasure in our humiliation. That makes us lonely, which is hard to bear. Jokes are inevitably at someone’s expense, and we the people cannot tolerate to be laughed at.

We live with this fear of public humiliation, and our nice, inclusive public life is all about avoiding giving and taking offense, which ends up killing comedy, albeit unwittingly. This is because we take insult at so many things directed not at us personally but at any number of more or less abstract group identities. We become outraged early and often these days, and that reveals, behind the labels and categories of politics, our existential fears and a deeply personal sense of shame.

Comedy becomes a mere weapon of partisanship. This is because the primary way we take responsibility for public things is to divide them up into partisan camps where people have to be nice to each other, savage to the other camp. You can humiliate people of the other party, but not of your own. We split human nature into parts we like and parts we don’t — and then congratulate ourselves for perpetrating this mutilation! But of course comedy is part of our nature, just like indignation, and it should give us a self-understanding broader than mere partisanship.

For that’s what lies behind the enthusiasm and hysteria of politics: human nature, the one thing that cannot be discussed in public in America. But we all know it is there and we know that we cannot remove from our nature our awareness that we constantly, inevitably, do and say crazy and stupid things, often without realizing it. That flaw is part of our nature, and so is the knowledge of it. We are defined by knowing how ridiculous we can be. Once you see this, you begin to suspect that we organize a lot of partisanship just to be able to acknowledge, without feeling ashamed of ourselves, the crazy built into human nature — it’s only the other party who is flawed and laughable.

This is the agony of comedy: To be human is to be superior and inferior to the public image we make of ourselves. We are more noble and more contemptible than we are supposed to be. We do not correspond to the public, respectable image of ourselves. We all have things about ourselves we would be ashamed if they became public knowledge, but we are inevitably curious to learn why! Comics are the only people we allow to state them publicly and to theorize about the sources of our deep longings, which lead us into temptation. But to have access to comedy, we have to admit that we are not ourselves the solution to every problem — and that the partisans of other ideologies are not the problem. This is getting harder to do.

This brings us to Chappelle, a very liberal guy, who just published a Netflix special in which he says things no one in his audience wants to hear about sex and beauty in America. Liberals are the party of nice in America, so he makes it his business to attack their pretenses. He starts from obvious things that turn out to have profound consequences. In America, he says, beautiful people are told they’re beautiful; ugly people have to figure it out for themselves. Being nice means avoiding ugly truths. This reveals the major threat to comedy, because it reveals when we feel free to speak and when we feel compelled morally to be quiet. When we can be spontaneous and honest and when, because we are moral, we have to pretend.

There are truths we leave unsaid, which is where comedy does its work. But uttering the truth is getting more and more dangerous in America. Telling the truth is now done in a mood of anger, if not hatred; almost never in fun. Chappelle knows this, and his Netflix specials as a whole are a reflection on his career, which is threatened by the change in public mood over the past decade. Does comedy even have a future? Sociologically, it’s now liberal class contempt. Real comics, unlike late-night TV hosts, cannot abide that. So it must be very strange to be Chappelle: You climb to the top only to see the entire edifice threatening to collapse.

There are truths we leave unsaid, which is where comedy does its work.

We want him to be funny — Netflix is throwing money at him because of his popularity, and his audience laughs at his jokes even if they punch through liberal ideology. Chappelle is now the highest prophet of the church of laughs. But can we allow him to be funny? Can we risk hearing what he might come up with? After all, not even he can be funny while obeying the pieties of all-inclusive liberalism. And though he trains most of his fire at liberalism, he’s got plenty of nasty things to say about conservatives, too, so everyone gets a chance to learn whether they’re there for the comedy or only to be flattered when their ideological adversaries are humiliated.

He starts with the ugly and the vulgar things, his bread and butter. That’s why we’ve made him the biggest success in stand-up comedy — so much so that plenty of conservatives like him too. And the truth is, we need Chappelle up there on that stage because we can’t handle the truth. He has lasted so long because he can — he doesn’t turn ugly truth into partisan hackery. In an America threatening to come apart, he’s almost a hero for refusing to commit to the fratricidal mess.

So Chappelle is famous not because he’s funny: Kevin Hart is funny as hell. Chappelle is famous because he knows the ugly truth about us and likes us anyway. We’re not as beautiful as our moral statements make us seem, but we’re still human. None of us would admit to being bad people — and why should we? Evil is always taking place somewhere else, by someone else’s hand. We dare not admit it’s also in us. Instead, we’re nice. We don’t tell ugly people they’re ugly. Chappelle does. Hooray for us; boo for him. But, as he points out, the beauty capital of America is L.A., and we’ve spent a season in hell finding out that it’s full of evil doings and evildoers.

Hollywood is built on our love of beauty, which we buy and sell with every movie ticket, to say nothing of the tabloids. It’s bipartisan, and it suggests that beauty trumps morality. That’s one ugly truth that feminists cannot accept — and neither can most decent people. But if we do not deal with it better than we have up to now, factories of beautiful fantasies end up treating real human beings like garbage. We’re all paying for them to be able to  keep doing it. It’s not our fault that there’s evil in the world, but how can we keep paying evil people who sell us beauty?

Talent, too, trumps morality, as Chappelle points out. Lots of people would have liked to see how House of Cards would have ended. They would have had the chance to keep admiring Kevin Spacey for a few more months. Couldn’t the ugly truth have come out after the season was over? Is that too much to ask? Well, you want to see how it ends? You want the big revelation? Here it is. House of Cards is a show about how D.C. is absolutely corrupt and political murder is a casual Friday thing. It caters to a mindless liberalism. But the revelation is that the evil guy is liberals’ moral authority, Kevin Spacey himself, not the silly caricature of politics he portrays on screen. Quite a twist, wouldn’t you say?

None of us would admit to being bad people — and why should we? Evil is always taking place somewhere else, by someone else’s hand. We dare not admit it’s also in us. Instead, we’re nice.

It’s part of American insanity that people who’d like nothing better than to spit on Vice President Mike Pence could think of nothing better than to fawn over Kevin Spacey and lavish adoration and Oscars on him. I’m not saying this as a conservative taking potshots at liberals: Pence comes in for some nasty humor himself in Chappelle’s tour de force. Embrace the nastiness, is his message. There is deliverance in our disgust, if we learn to go beyond partisanship to a morality that we idealize but cannot practice all that much. We can overcome the insanity, but only if we’re willing to see that we’re not all that pure.

And this goes beyond Hollywood. New York, the publishing capital is the same. For all the moral authority (even if nowadays on a partisan basis) of the press, the evil is real and rampant there as well. Nobody seems to have done much about it, for all the ideology of speaking truth to power. D.C. is the same. The only surprise is how many reports of sexual outrage are coming from state capitals and how few from D.C. Perhaps political power is still more serious than other forms of influence when it comes to concealing evil.

Two thoughts. First, is Silicon Valley next? An article and forthcoming book about Silicon Valley orgies suggests that there’s kindling for the bonfire of the vanities there as well. Second, we have these super-centralized systems in which success and celebrity are produced, and we like to think of them, at least the ones we like, as meritocratic. And yet they can treat people like garbage. We all think we’re in some way important — that our humanity makes us special. But a lot of people who want to get some success are treated as though they’re not even human! What have we done with America?

We vote for these people; pay for their entertainment; pay for their writing — we have to assume some responsibility, however distant, because their careers depend on us the audience, the consumers, the partisans of beautiful people and beautiful writing and beautiful public deeds. This chance to be responsible is what Chappelle offers. If we go through all the laughs and all the disgust, we’ll come out with knowledge that there’s a real America out there, with triumph and tragedy, that doesn’t depend on Hollywood or New York or D.C. It’s not pure, but it beats success worship, and it might be able to bring liberals and conservatives together, at least to an extent.

Chappelle’s primary audience is liberals. We conservatives do nothing to invite him into our world so he can see this other side of America. This is a real problem. I’d feel more comfortable criticizing his understanding of American politics and civil rights if anyone on our side had made the effort to teach him about natural rights, for example, and give him access to a view of American history that’s not purely partisan. As things stand, we have to take the best we’ve got.

Nor do we have an alternative to Chappelle, although we need someone to do for us what he does for liberals, just as we need to notice that there are no more all-American comedians. That’s how deep the separation is: People do not laugh together anymore. We’re in danger of not being able to understand ourselves, because we’re obsessively focused on people with whom, we know in advance, we disagree.

There are no more all-American comedians. That’s how deep the separation is: People do not laugh together anymore.

Chappelle points out that a liberalism simultaneously committed to fearlessness and terrorized by every form of misconduct is crazy. Either that contradiction will break the ideology or the ideology will break the people themselves. This is what both sides need to learn about themselves. He says outright that feminism fails if it cannot produce a lasting peace in its crusade against sexual misdeeds of various categories. And cycles of enthusiasm and hysteria cannot allow for lasting peace. You listen to him and begin to think there may be hope for Americans to come together, just a little, and that’s not a bad way to spend an evening.

So listen to Chappelle, because he gives you ugly truths with every laugh, and that is true morality — the things you admit are true against your own vanity or self-righteousness. He tells you, yes, that Martin Luther King Jr. had affairs with women and was immoral — but he was also a moral and political hero, and better than the people, liberal and conservative, who wanted to bring him down by spying on his sexual misconduct. Maybe it’s not an accident that he was also the last political champion of natural rights. Yes, liberals want progress, but they also have to learn to stop fainting like fainting goats. It’s bad for them and bad for America and bad for comedy, because you can’t laugh if you’re busy throwing fits.

We are today caught up in a cycle in which the only conception of justice is to punish the wrongdoers, whom we happen to identify as people with ideology different from ours. That’s not going to work. Americans must learn again to be American, which means allowing for one another’s flaws. Better to laugh at each other than to foam at the mouth in outrage. The first step is for people on each side to win the right to make fun of their own and to practice the art of bringing people around to a common good. This is what comedy reveals when it reveals that we’re not as haughty as we think when we look down on our adversaries.

Chappelle has won all the fame and fortune America can offer him. There’s nowhere to go but down now. His self-interest should lead him to keep quiet or just follow the fashionable opinions of latter-day liberalism. He’d be safe, as would his legacy. He is a principled liberal, but not just that. He’s an American, too. At his best, he is an example of a strange form of public spiritedness, of civic duty, of taking some risks on behalf of America. I don’t know if he will succeed, but I hope so. We should all hope so. Strange as it is to look for even a little heroism in comics, the people at whom we most laugh, our times are stranger still, so we might as well.

We need to learn from him and then to find similarly astute and daring comedians on our own side. They will combat the rising tide of outrage, if we let them, and maybe support them. They will bring down the partisans who become so arrogant that they want to sacrifice the public good for their own success. They will cause us to laugh against ourselves and thereby bring us back to a common American identity. Sure, they make fun of virtue in some ways, but they make virtue fun, too, and that’s an all-American attitude.


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Titus Techera hosts the American Cinema Foundation movie podcast. He is a Claremont Institute Fellow and a contributor to Law & Liberty.

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