Comedy, despite popular opinion, is not an easy skill to master. As comedy depends on surprising an audience, no comedian can rely on the same tricks over and over expecting any kind of success. The audience will eventually get bored and cease laughing. Because of this, there can be no standard of comedy that comedians can follow. While there are some characteristics that remain for the most part true over time, comedy must constantly be reinvented in order to maintain its edge. This becomes especially true for comedians that attempt to make compelling statements about society or societal issues in their comedy, as what is considered provocative and what is considered over the line is constantly changing, and in reality is completely different for each individual. In this way, a comedian’s job of pleasing an entire crowd is literally impossible; there is simply no way of ensuring that your comedy will reach every member of an audience the way that you intend. I, personally, am of the opinion that there is no such thing as ‘over the line’ when it comes to comedy. Comedians should be given free reign to make any kind of statement they want because that is their job. In other words, comedians’ job is to be unrestricted and comment about whatever they please. However, while I do believe comedians should be allowed to make fun of whatever they want, I also believe that they have an obligation to do it in a way that is tactful, and more importantly, funny.
Dave Chappelle has always been a comedian that toes the line of what can be considered appropriate. His old hit show, The Chappelle Show, made a lot of striking commentary surrounding many issues, mostly race, and did it in a way that was extremely humorous and memorable. However I have to say, his new comedy specials The Bird Revelation and Equanimity lack the same kind of comedic edge that allowed viewers of The Chappelle Show to laugh along with his more offensive humor. Again, Dave Chappelle has never been one to shy away from controversial topics, and that has not changed. In these two specials, Chappelle tackles issues such as rape, sexual abuse among popular celebrities, and the #MeToo movement. And as expected, he does so very unapologetically, saying whatever he feels is pertinent without holding back any of his more controversial opinions. This is, too a degree, refreshing, and a reminder of what comedians are supposed to be: challengers of the social norm. However, they way Chappelle talks about these issues is often very hit or miss. On one hand, his sardonic wit hasn’t dulled, and his comedic timing is often impeccable. On the other hand however, his lack of tact and propensity to victim-blame often makes his jokes come across as offensive only for the sake of being offensive. In other words, a lot of his humor seems to be trying to to provoke a reaction out of the audience more so than actually attempting to have them question their ways of thinking. I know that, to a degree, this is sort of the point. Chappelle states numerous times that peoples’ ears are “Too brittle” these days, and he is attempting to challenge that notion by pushing people to their breaking point. However, by focusing on the controversy instead of the message, Chappelle risks making his stand-up come across as childish instead of provocative. But beyond all of that, Chappelle’s biggest mistake in these specials is that his jokes often simply aren’t that funny. I feel as though the audience would be much more willing to forgive the nature of these jokes if they found themselves laughing at them more often than they do. As it stands, the awkward silences that often separate his weaker material screams louder than any of the jokes that actually land, and that is a major problem. Perhaps the best example of this would be his joke about the Weinstein scandal where he states that if the criminal had been Brad Pitt, the situation would have been taken much less seriously. This joke is not only outdated and offensive, but also tired. As Jason Zinoman notes in his article about these specials, the joke has been done before by Chris Rock, and it wasn’t especially funny then either.
I believe that people should stop criticizing Dave Chappelle for his controversial statements and begin criticizing him for the real problem: his sudden inability to make us laugh. Because a comedian can’t be faulted for speaking his mind, but he can be for not being funny.