WORDS: MYLES E. JOHNSON | ART: DONTE NEAL

When you know better, you do better. It’s the promise and the discipline I was taught by elders throughout my life.

It is the calming idea that the more that you know as a person, the better you’ll do, the less harm you’ll perpetuate, and the more wisdom you’ll be able to share. Naively, I believed this, and maybe even more importantly, I believed that this was the truth for most people. I believed that goodness and wisdom were goals for all people, and acts of ignorance or evil were simply caused by a lack of guidance and knowledge. Moments in pop culture disillusioned this childish fantasy and helped me realize that knowing better and doing better is not of the highest priority when greed is involved.

As a queer feminist thinker, I, of course, failed to arrive at the enlightenment or relief promised in the humor.

Dave Chappelle recently released his first comedy program in over a decade via Netflix. The two sets were filled with violent ideas on rape, trans folks, and gay people. As a queer feminist thinker, I, of course, failed to arrive at the enlightenment or relief promised in the humor. But, fortunately for him and the mostly white crowd, I doubt I was the centered gaze when Chappelle was writing his script. As a Chappelle fan, I was disappointed for reasons that were less political. I had an artistic beef with Dave Chappelle in this moment. When did he get so lazy?

Whether I agree with Dave Chappelle or not is of no real consequence. I am frankly not surprised that the same nation that elected a man that grabs women by their pussy without consent would also produce someone who jokes about rape in a way that minimizes the impact of the act as opposed to interrogating, through humor, the world that makes these actions possible. The naive child inside of me, still, is shocked. I know Dave Chappelle is smarter than these moments. I know, even if I do not agree with where he arrived, that there were more complex and interesting spaces for him to explore. And I know that he could have done it, but he did not.

There is money to be had by performing ignorance and by making others who are committed to ignorance feel better about their choices.

In this moment of reflection, on Dave Chappelle’s comedy special, my internal child has to suffer to arrive at the truth. The truth is that in a white supremacist capitalist society, there is money to be had by performing ignorance; the more critical, the more intelligent of a moment you attempt to have in this society, the more you are putting your professional body at risk to be silenced and the less likely you are to profit. If Chappelle were to push his mostly white audience to the cutting edge of cis-heterosexual black male thought and concern, he would be risking his comeback into the mainstream. Chappelle of all people knows because he acknowledged and once left the mainstream, that there are certain things you do not perform or push in order to entice the imagination of the nation that elected a fascist bigot. It is safer for Chappelle’s pockets and brand to explore the ways that patriarchal domination manifests in blackness and whiteness; especially when you reveal on further inspection that it’s all fundamentally the same. Bill Cosby is to Dave Chappelle what Donald Trump is to the vast majority of white menPPW-Dave-Chappelle-Spot-Illo living in this country. Chappelle chose to have an audience bond over their shared lust for domination instead of exploring the opportunities of humanity in a nuanced way.

Capitalism calls for you to be average and Dave Chappelle obeyed. It calls for you to be ignorant despite moments, even fleeting, of critical enlightenment. It calls for you to suppress anything that does not perpetuate the culture of domination that asks you to reproduce violence in place of empathy. He is not unique. Tomi Lahren did not get fired from her job for being pro-choice. She got fired for having an intellectual, critical moment. She transgressed domination despite her obvious commitment to fascist wickedness. Bill O’Reilly did not say that Maxine Waters’ physical appearance mirrored James Brown because he believed it or because her hair was that distracting. He used misogynoir as a vehicle to disrupt someone having a critical, intellectual moment. He was protecting the very system of domination that has made him possible. He was performing loyalty to ignorance. There is money to be had by performing ignorance and by making others who are committed to ignorance feel better about their choices. There is not much stardom or money to be had in disrupting imaginations and pushing intellectual thought to the edge.

It is not that Dave Chappelle’s special was special. I was not especially offended, even though I do recognize these comments were offensive. I was more so shocked that someone who had publicly criticized domination and rejected the desire to collude with it for profit had been “reformed” or “fixed”. The alluring nature of wealth and fame took time to break Mr. Chappelle down. But it did, indeed, break him down. And now, he’s back. Even if it is just a shadow of who we fell in love with over a decade ago.

7 replies on “Dave Chappelle and Performing Ignorance

  1. You for real just called one of the greatest satirical comedians who has ever lived “average.” That is all that is to be taken from this piece. Dave Chappelle wasn’t lecturing on a college campus; he was performing satirical comedy – which, by definition makes humor out of the dark irony of life itself – and did it with flying colors. Yet, somehow, you’ve taken his comedy to be anti-minority, anti-woman, anti-LGBQT, and pro-rape. You have failed to understand, not only the comedian, not only the genre of comedy, but indeed the content itself. It speaks volumes to your lack of knowledge about the subject matter at hand, which despite your self-centered indulgence of how YOU would discuss the topics Dave talked about, the subject matter at hand is NOT those topics themselves, but rather, Dave Chappelle’s stand-up performance as a brilliant stand-up comedian who specializes in satirical comedy. Go watch whatever stand-up comedy that does not offend you; satirical stand-up is obviously not for you. But I would hazard a guess here and say, there is no stand-up which does not offend you based upon your own criteria of what’s offensive. Having said that, again, I reiterate: If you were to judge Dave’s merits as a performer while taking into account the GENRE his work falls under, then you would have to agree, his work was fantastic. If you don’t agree, you’re biased and/or uneducated about the historical context of the genre which the work that Dave has put out falls into. To that end, since his comedy is oppressive, do you find rap music that degrades women equally as oppressive and average (best answer is: it is far more oppressive than Dave Chappelle’s comedy). Go write THAT article then get back to whining about Dave Chappelle. That is all. – WRITTEN BY A CRAZY ASS AMERICAN RADICAL FEMINIST WHO SEES THROUGH THE BULLSHIT.

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  2. It’s interesting how people always say creating comedy dealing with topics of rape and other hot button issues is lazy, yet when there’s a drama about rape it’s considered “important” or deserves attention. It’s an art from dealing with a topic. Chappelle’s topic of choice was rape and his art form of choice is comedy. He wasn’t making pro rape jokes. Context is everything.

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  3. I appreciated reading this piece, though I cannot agree with it. I think that too many cultural critics just read comics as “straight” and not as playing a character. Sometimes the character on stage is an exaggerated version of the comic’s self; sometimes, a wholly performed being; often, some strategically ambiguous in-between.
    This critique seems to overlook some of the ways in which Dave regularly plays a blowhard–does he actually say such rude things to his wife (that joke about what part of his penis would get wet/stay dry when on his guys’ road trip)? Highly doubtful… Blowhard Dave’s jokes often come at his character’s own expense or self-exposure–subtextual fears/phobias, fantasies, hypocrisy, self-inflated praise, and other less than admirable qualities. And yes, I guess one could say that he blurs the lines when he also gets serious and thoughtful, or political on stage.

    I guess that all of my favorite comics really push and manipulate this line between being the person and the comic stage-presence: Richard Pryor, Larry David, Louis CK, Sarah Silverman, Dave. I don’t really think it is fair to compare Dave with the rapist Bill Cosby and pussy-grabbing Trump. That seems a grotesque over-simplification. I guess that I am pretty comfortable with comedy that makes me cringe and laugh; I think that there is something important in that social discomfort, in edge-pushing satire. I don’t think that he is merely “performing ignorance”; I do think that the “performing” part deserves close scrutiny and even critique, but I cannot confidently believe that the comic is the man… (a long-winded way of say that I like and appreciate Dave–and I think that he is smart, and actually decent).

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  4. I think your piece is very important in its critique of how pervasive capitalism is. Reading this has honestly deterred me from watching Chappelle’s specials. I am relieved to be saved from having to do so because, like you, I was rooting for Dave Chappelle, but it seems he’s not rooting for people like me in his special. Many of my queer and trans friends have also brought up similar points that you’ve raised and I trust their opinion on matters that affect their lives more so than a comedian who probably has not had experiences like those he chooses to make a joke.

    It’s equally disappointing to read that people who have read your article still can’t differentiate between making rape a joke and giving it space to be discussed appropriately. “Art” doesn’t give anyone a pass on being ignorant, especially with someone like Chappelle who has a following of millions, and has had a slew of examples of other unsavory comedians who have received well-deserved critiques for their ignorance.

    I agree with you to the fullest that it’s disappointing to see someone who you thought was trying to subvert systems of power with his art, only to discover that making money the easy way takes priority. I applaud you for writing this article despite Dave Chappelle’s popularity and the obvious backlash you’ve received for daring to critique a celebrity.

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  5. It’s interesting that your takeaway on Chappelle is lazy as you’ve only tipped a half a toe in the water on researching what his comedy and form is truly about. Or, you just don’t understand it. His remarks on Cosby and other awfulness are sharply satrical – as is the rest of his content. In the same special he quips about his own wife (he’s happily married and even remarks on still being in love) as well as throwing dirt at other comedians that he openly applauds in real life. Way beyond that – you claim that Chappelle has reemerged and fallen to capitalist greed – he lives in suburban Dayton Ohio. Well below his means. He contributes to charitable causes, in private, and is amazingly humble in the way in which he utilizes his celebrity to promote fairness and goodwill. (Have you seen his snl monologue)?

    There’s plenty of other asshats out there to fling the queer fem position upon, but you’re simply off the mark here.

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