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No one walks a rhetorical tightrope as deftly as Dave Chappelle.
That thought nagged at me as I watched Chappelle’s much-anticipated appearance last night on Saturday Night Livewhere its relays after major electoral events have become a tradition.
But Chappelle didn’t devote much of his monologue to the midterm elections, even though news broke earlier in the day that Democrats had defied expectations to likely retain control of the Senate. He spent more time talking about Kanye West and anti-Semitism.
“Early in my career, I learned that there are two words you should never say together,” Chappelle noted during his opening monologue. “Those words are… ‘the’ and ‘Jews’. I never heard anyone do good after saying that.”
Chappelle was already a controversial guest; critics – including me – slammed his 2021 Netflix special The closest for his homophobic and transphobic jokes. He didn’t apologize. As I said in my review, Chappelle seems to think he’s above criticism; for him, race seems to trump everything.
This modus operandi was there on Saturday evening. As his monologue unfolded, Chappelle negotiated a fine line – admitting that West, now known as Ye, said such terrible things that even Adidas, a company founded by brothers who were members of the Nazi Party in the 1930s, was offended (“I guess the student outmaneuvered the teacher.”) But at the same time, the comic seemed to suggest that Ye’s talk about Jews controlling the media and the show business—echoing classic anti-Semitic tropes—were not entirely wrong. (“I went to Hollywood – there are a lot of Jews,” he snapped. “Like, a lot.”)
He also joked about Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving being suspended after posting a link to an anti-Semitic film, called From Hebrew to Negroes: Wake Up Black America, which asserts that the Holocaust never happened. Chappelle noted that “Black a – was nowhere near the Holocaust”.
One line in particular seemed to stun the audience, before they offered up scattered applause: “I know the Jewish people have been through terrible things all over the world. But you can’t blame that on black Americans. “
What it has to do with a professional athlete posting a link to an anti-Semitic film without any explanation – then taking several long days to disavow the film’s anti-Semitic content – I don’t know.
What I do know is that one of comedy’s boldest and most incisive voices had the chance to provide insight into the long struggle that black America has had against anti-Semitism. But instead, his monologue seemed filled with justification and minimization — failing to mention, for example, claims that Ye expressed his admiration for Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
Yes, comedy is not a report. But if we want to elevate particularly talented performers like Chappelle – because we feel their work also contains powerful truths about society and life – then we also need to note when they offer material that does the opposite and obscures a problem that should be cut and dried.
The rest of Chappelle Saturday Night Live the appearance went like a better than average episode. A pre-recorded HBO parody Dragon House featuring additional black characters, some inspired by characters from the legendary Comedy Central comic book program Chappelle show (and Ice T as the light-skinned Larry Targaryen) was particularly on point.
Another track featuring white anchors joking with a black blues artist over his album title potato hole — until he told them it was a crevasse dug by slaves to hide their most prized possessions from plantation owners — also scored.
But Chappelle’s monologue had already unsettled me; another moment when an artist who fans admire for illuminating issues in surprising ways chose a different path, letting us all down in the process.
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