Dave Chappelle has long been known for his crass humor, incendiary remarks, and wanton political incorrectness. He uses frequent profanity and smokes on stage. He ridicules transgender people, Asian audience members, and celebrities in equal member. He opens his Netflix special trying to prove he can land a joke with a punchline about kicking a woman in her genitalia. There is no universe in which you could argue he is a comic for the soft-hearted. So is his comedy going too far in the wake of the #MeToo Movement? This argument I believe comes down to one of political correctness, something that Chappelle regularly scoffs at, saying early on in the special “as a rule, I don’t feel bad about anything I say up here.” That’s all fine and good; if we start limiting what people can say for fear of offending other people, we enter into a dangerous and slippery slope of censorship. However, what is a problem is trying to diminish or defend the gross misdeeds of powerful men in Hollywood like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Louis CK.
The latter man is a frequent subject of Dave Chappelle’s recent comedy special The Bird Revelation. A longtime friend of Chappelle’s, Louis CK is a stand-up comedian also caught up in the #MeToo Movement who was accused of masturbating in front of a number of unwilling women, many of them fellow comedians. This is disgusting behavior but in a New York Times article titled “Dave Chappelle Stumbles Into the #MeToo Moment”, they point out that Chappelle doesn’t seem to be as upset about it as many others, saying that the woman who reported CK’s behavior had a “brittle spirit”. The article muses that his bit about the misconduct “often have the feel of someone digging a hole to prove he can escape.” But they also note that it seems “like tired shtick.” People seem to be less amenable to his brand of hyper-offensive, “shock-jock” style of comedy. One must therefore ask the question of whether he goes too far with his apparent minimization of sexual misconduct in Hollywood, or whether people are being too thin-skinned in the face of
While I agree with him that there is definitely a more conscious sentiment with most Americans nowadays, I don’t believe they are necessarily “brittle”; they are more concerned with helping fight discrimination now than they were in the past, more willing to speak up about injustice (and they now have a much stronger voice because of social media). I would never want to prevent Chappelle from saying whatever he wants to say, but I do think he and other comedians with his style of humor will have to accept that what audiences found funny 10+ years ago they will no longer find funny today in the wake of these widespread scandals. What is important though is that people be allowed to say what they want in a comedic setting, even if we don’t find it funny; it’s a right of all Americans to be crass and potentially insensitive, and a comedic setting provides a more cathartic environment to discuss otherwise depressing and even painful subjects. Comedians can be very blunt and direct with criticisms and analyses of current events under the umbrella of comedy and a lot of good can come of their discussion, bringing to light issues and various perspectives that other mediums would be afraid to broach.
But does Chappelle’s special offer this kind of frank discussion of the issues? Or is he minimizing the experiences of the victims in order to defend his friends and heroes who have been caught up in scandal. Paste Magazine argues that it most certainly does not in an article titled “Dave Chappelle Can’t Shock Jock His Way Out of the #MeToo Movement”. Writer Jamie Loftus says that Chappelle did the piece as “his way of exercising his right to ‘fuck around.’” But to Loftus, that means he didn’t “come prepared to talk about one of the most significant national conversations of the decade but still inexplicably devote your entire set to it.” That he “assumes he will be able to riff out a comedic symphony, and does not.” His material doesn’t spark the kind of new perspectives and icebreaking commentary on the issue, meaning he comes off as an ignorant dick who cares more about his hero Bill Cosby and his friend Louis CK than he does about the victims who started the #MeToo Movement.
But despite all this, Loftus argues that there is some merit to this; she says “The Bird Revelation isn’t interesting to me for its comedic value, because it’s not insightful, memorable or particularly funny given Chappelle’s bar of excellence. Instead, think of it as a time capsule, a way to capture a very particular system of thinking just as that system of thinking is becoming a massive liability.” And this is true. American audiences in the past have been far too willing to overlook the transgressions of artists and entertainers because we are seriously entrenched in a celebrity culture; we worship the funny people we see on TV and the great auteurs that create masterpieces on the big screen. One need only look at Roman Polanski and Woody Allen’s continuing body of work that “great men” get almost unlimited leeway in our culture.
Is this way of thinking changing however? I’d like to end with a look at an article from The Guardian titled “Kevin Spacey deserves to be scorned. But can I still watch House of Cards?” Author Hannah Jane Parkinson asks whether or not it is wrong to appreciate works of art by deeply flawed artists. She wonders whether we “should regard artists as products of their times” but then says that “nothing ever changed when good people did nothing.” If we continue to allow artists to do work after committing heinous acts like rape or assault, we continue to give passes to them because of their talent. So she says “good, may they never work again,” a sentiment I fully agree with. But the hard question is whether or not “we also stop appreciating their oeuvre”. This is a challenging question and one that Parkinson notes could have many factors. Does the artist’s transgression make a difference? Can we appreciate the art of someone who masturbated in front of a woman but not someone who raped a drugged 13-year old? Do we regard them as a product of their time, giving leeway to old artists for whom racism was commonplace? The problem I see is that these rules are subjective; what some people would find unforgivable others would be willing to overlook if they liked the artwork enough. And while I personally think we should be able to separate art from artist and appreciate it outside of the transgressions of the creator, in most cases doing so provides financial support and name recognition to the artist, so it is certainly a wicked problem and one that I honestly don’t have a good answer for. I see the draw to both sides and would not be willing to put forth an absolute position either way.