Black Comedy: Why is Dave Chappelle's malice so winning?
By Matt Feeney Posted Thursday, March 4, 2004, at 10:42 AM PT
Mining humor from the racial divide
If comedian Dave Chappelle's eponymous show isn't the funniest half-hour on television, it is only for the
inconsistency from which all sketch comedy suffers. Now in its second season (with the first season
available—uncensored—on DVD), Chappelle's Show (Comedy Central, Wednesdays, 10:30 p.m. ET)
certainly provides some of the funniest moments on television.
A challenge, though, when watching Chappelle's Show, is to resist the temptation to grant it—because
Chappelle is black, and because he deals in harsh racial caricatures, and because you're laughing your ass
off, and because you want to believe you're a progressive person—a political significance that it doesn't
have. New York Press film critic Armond White, for example, credits Chappelle's Show with "subverting
racism, sexism, and the clichés you might call blackism." But Chappelle doesn't "subvert" these things—
he exploits them. That is, he takes eager advantage of an obvious double standard: White comedians have
either to avoid race or treat it with exquisite caution, but black comedians like Chappelle are able to
extract laughs from America's racial hang-ups, not necessarily from a solemn underlying commitment to
racial justice, but often with an unfettered and indiscriminate comic malice. I'm not complaining, though.
At least somebody gets to do it.
Chappelle—a tall, lean D.C. native whose stand-up act is delivered in a languid drawl that evokes the
much deeper South—grounds his comedy in America's Big Problem. But, stylistically, it is reminiscent
less of the politically circumscribed satire of Lenny Bruce or Dick Gregory than of the gleeful, cruel
slapstick of the Three Stooges—the jarring, unwarranted violence of poked eyes and conked heads. Of