Dave Chappelle Punches Up

In his new special, the comedian speaks up and draws the ire of his critics

Art Tavana
Sep 3, 2019 · 12 min read
Dave Chappelle in Los Angeles (September, 2018) | Credit: Vivien Killilea (Getty)

According to Nietzsche, maximum nihilism is reached in the overthrow of old systems by actions that amount to total destruction; to be nihilistic, one must lack the capacity to go beyond obliteration. This is one interpretation of Nietzsche. At least since Lenny Bruce’s obscenity trial, this has been the role of the comedian: to search, destroy, and savage establishment institutions the bourgeoisie views as sacrosanct—usually without concern for progress or collateral damage. The problem is that we’re so polarized today that defining the establishment (especially in comedy) has become a dizzying affair.

For example, is Hannah Gadsby anti-establishment or part of the establishment? Probably both. But if Gadsby went on social media and campaigned against a comedian they found “homophobic” or “transphobic,” they could count on support from the press and influential voices on Twitter. Dave Chappelle has no such influence or capacity for political mobilization—certainly not on social media. While he does carry more influence in comedy clubs and studios, Chappelle cannot launch a social media campaign that could legitimately threaten Gadsby’s social standing. But Chappelle seems to be just one poorly delivered joke or comment away from being boycotted by what seems like a revolutionary army on social media. As a result, his comedy has to be a rather ingenious combination of mockery and defensive maneuvering. In this regard, he’s comedy’s most gifted tightropist. This is how you know Dave Chappelle has never said anything rooted in homophobia or transphobia; because if he had, there would be no Netflix special or praiseworthy profile in the New York Times.

But still, I ask, who is the current establishment in comedy? Are Dave Chappelle or Hannah Gadsby a part of it? It depends on what you believe the function of comedy to be—America is divided on this.

Currently, there’s a kind of civil war brewing in comedy. One side believes that comedy has a responsibility to be a didactic tool for progress; the other sees it as something more nihilistic and mischievous: a “punching up” against the uniform and coordinated efforts of the media’s peer-pressure groups. The latter group views itself as running counter-hegemony to the more hyper-progressive wing of comedy. One group believes that less ideological comics (e.g., Dave Chappelle) are punching up. Are they? The general public is confused about who is being punched and from what direction.

For the ascendant minority who wield most of the power on social media—a group including Gadsby and their allies—punching down is a patriarchal power-play. Sometimes it is, but certainly not in Trump-era comedy, where the marginalized have gained considerable power in the arts. As underdog comedians, it is in their best interest to downplay the appalling amount of power they possess by redirecting all the focus to the grotesqueries of Donald Trump. If “President Pussy-Grabber”—the bigoted brute with an allegedly small penis—possess all the legitimate power, then the likes of Gadsby, etc., are the rebels (never mind that moralistic pedagogy is in opposition to subversion, especially in comedy). This is why the narrative of punching up and punching down is so confusing when dealing with comedy. Again, nobody knows who is punching who; comedy is now a blindfold match between groups who cannot determine what weight-classes their opponents are in. I hope you’re as confused as I am.

Historically, for generations, it was clear that the establishment in America was the Christian right or the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) majority who ran the publishing and TV networks. That’s who the comedian pelted from the 1960s onward. That is the group that comedian Bill Hicks targeted in the early ‘90s. But they no longer influence popular culture; only politics and reactionary Fox News-style punditry.

In the 1980s, MTV was broadcasted through cable networks run by conservative moguls like John Malone; the president was conservative, and most of the studios, sports leagues, publishing giants, and record labels had either a conservative bent or functioned within a traditionalist framework. This was the establishment Bill Hicks made fun of — and now, it has “gone woke.” Most of today’s entertainment and media moguls either subscribe to this peer-pressure orthodoxy or at least conform to it under the watchful eye of editors, their interns, publicists, pop stars, talk show hosts, activists, and occasionally even comedians. What this means is that popular culture is often molded in accordance to social media norms. The “digital mob,” as some refer to it, can even force corporations into channeling its talking points. Some corporations see value in social media or cultural currency (which is a normative position). You see this with Nike sponsoring Colin Kaepernick, who received a multi-million dollar “star deal” that included billboards promoting his message, a shoe deal, etc. So, is Colin Kaepernick the establishment or the underdog? If you side with him, he’s Che Guevara. If you do not side with him, he’s as corporate as Air Jordan (though I don’t expect today’s Republican to buy Kaepernick’s shoe).

Today’s more hyper-progressive celebrities, which include Kaepernick and Gadsby, hold sway over most of the press the way conservative moguls once held sway over television. The difference is that they are publicly advocating on behalf of marginalized groups. Which is how they’ve punched up into positions of political and social influence. For the more apolitical and less ambitious entertainers—which include impish comics like Dave Chappelle—punching down is now punching up, because they feel more culturally voiceless than they ever have before; they feel as though they have little say in how culture is communicated to the masses or what is voted up or down as acceptable or problematic. For the un-woke minority or majority (depending on how you view such power structures), a comedian savaging institutions they view as the establishment provides a feeling of crisp and sensational relief. They also don’t care about the power-dynamics of comedy; perhaps they should, but they do not. For them, comedy has one function, to produce laughter by any means necessary.

Of course, this is exactly how critics of Chappelle feel when a comedian derides toxic masculinity, when Gadsby emasculates the patriarchy, and when a female comic opens with, “I’m a feminist,” as the audience applauds in support. There’s pleasure derived from empowering speech and fight songs—group solidarity is intoxicating. Any comedian who disempowers these groups is deemed problematic or un-PC. For them, Dave Chappelle is punching down at these groups.

Right-wing reactionaries like The Federalist have their own Dave Chappelle complex. They’ve gone as far as trying to co-opt him by remixing his joke on abortion as something “subversively pro-life.” It is not, and he is nothing of the sort. According to his parochial right-wing “fans,” Dave Chappelle is punching up on abortion. They’ve obviously missed the punch line.

For the apolitical viewer or un-woke comedy geek, Chappelle produces the sort of comedy that makes them feel accepted. As long as he is in performance mode, Chappelle’s politics are irrelevant. He reminds them that it’s OK to have a transgressive sense of humor. Chappelle has the talent to pull this off without seeming cruel or bigoted. This is what separates the gifted comic from, say, Steven Crowder. Then again, I suppose we have to be sensitive enough to realize that we cannot always decide what is or is not “cruel” and “inhumane” in the genre of comedy.

In comedy, the intersectional usage of punching up and punching down creates a hierarchical shaming system in which any joke directed at progress is described as “punching down.” The actual power dynamics are mostly irrelevant. This becomes the equivalent of bullying when Chappelle jokes about the trans community, for example. For those who don’t get to decide who can and cannot have a platform, Chappelle is Johnny Rotten in 1976 snarling into a BBC camera in a mohair sweater and molten-orange hair and saying something vulgar. Netflix is the millennial BBC, or more accurately, their MTV. It’s artist-friendly, as opposed to progressive or conservative. Chappelle has a platform because he has an audience that wants him to be ruthlessly funny—not to raise awareness or empower any particular demographic. This is simply not his role. There are comedians who do this; Chappelle isn’t one of them. He’s a member of a new brat pack of comedy, which includes Jerry Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle, and Ricky Gervais. They infuriate the new Woke Media Inc. because they are, as the saying goes, “too big to fail.” Netflix is willing to platform and profit of their subversiveness. Netflix isn’t being ideologically diverse; just savvy enough to know that fans of comedy generally want their comedy to remain liberated from any particular cause or “ism.” They want Chappelle, not reformed Chappelle or activist Chappelle (though this depends on the milieu). This doesn’t mean Chappelle cannot be progressive, in fact, I would argue that he’s already very progressive and sensitive to the plight of marginalized groups. His comedy just isn’t didactic. It doesn’t have to be. He has no responsibility to educate or advance the discourse. He’s a comedian without an agenda.

Because Chappelle’s comedy doesn’t side with the modern definition of progress, his critics take their anger out by punching him with blatant ageism. A comedian like Chappelle — middle-aged, wealthy, cisgender, and misanthropic — has suddenly gone from a caustic philosopher to a bitter curmudgeon who’s “dug in his heels” like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino (2008). This reflexively ageist view ignores the fact the George Carlin was in his comedic prime well into his 60s , and that some of his best bits revolved around making fun of the trends and the peculiar habits of America’s youth. Nobody said he was “out of touch” or “ignorant.” Age has gone from being “just a number” to being a political profiling tool.

Chappelle is ignorant, according to Playboy, when just two years ago he was their folk hero. Because he’s someone who can’t be added to a blacklist or sent packing to the unemployment line, he must be problematized to the point where audiences can no longer talk about Chappelle without feeling guilty or suspected of being “problematic.” Because they can’t mute him, they’ve decided to transform him into an “unlikable property.” This is accomplished by pummeling Google with negative headlines that portray Chappelle as an aging, tone-deaf chauvinist. Chappelle is 46, which isn’t old, but he’s “retrograde” when he satirizes some of the lifestyle predicaments facing trans people (it’s important to note that he has the talent to pull this off without dehumanizing them). Others quickly accuse him of being the mouthpiece for transphobes and Trump’s America. The Root said Chappelle is the comic that, “the worst white people” love. This is a preposterous and cheap rebuke. But it serves a purpose. The youth gravitate towards contrarians. Convince them that Chappelle has lost his edge or become more corporate, and you’ve made him less popular. Of course, one can reap financial rewards and still be contrarian. But his critics want you to believe that Chappelle is a sellout. Why? Because it makes them feel more righteous to be punching up instead of having to look in the mirror and realize they’ve become the heavyweight establishment.

Chappelle is suddenly “out of touch” because he’s communicating how fed up people are with the current orthodoxy in pop culture and media; who’ve turned America into a high school cafeteria food fight that’s going to end in a shooting. Chappelle is the figurative school shooter in Sticks & Stones, a Netflix comedy special where he’s managed to turn the cafeteria (i.e., Twitter) into a crime scene where every eyewitness has a different perspective. Was it a roaring success or a flop? Was it the tragically outdated lament of a jaded Gen-Xer or a savaging of the status quo? Was it comedy or cruelty? That depends on your perspective of who is being punched and from what direction and whether any of this even matters. I believe it was devastatingly funny.

But what’s even more bizarre is that many of Chappelle’s critics seem to be working off the same script. They are almost uniform in declaring that Chappelle is now the spokesman for those complicit in Trumpism, transphobia, homophobia, and elitism. Chappelle is exploiting “old tropes,” as Playboy argued; his comedy is the face of “toxic ideologies,” which is how Complex reviewed him; he is “adamantly opposed to change,” according to The Ringer—as if the comedian’s job is to be the voice of progress. It is not.

Vice went so far as to say that Chappelle is misogynistic and transphobic. And yet aside from a few messy punch lines, there’s no evidence to suggest he is actually misogynistic or transphobic. None whatsoever. I recall the same misguided arguments from a small percentage of feminists who decided that the author, Bret Easton Ellis, was a misogynist because he wrote a dark satire about a misogynistic sociopath. Satire is exaggeration; it is not journalism or scholarship. It is certainly not something that should be fact-checked or used as a corrective tool. It serves no higher-purpose than to make people laugh or derive some amusement out of the absurdism of it all.

The argument that Chappelle—simply because he is successful and cisgender—has some fundamental misunderstanding of power isn’t based in any sound logic. An editor at Paste argued that Chappelle sounded increasingly entitled because he’s a millionaire, forgetting, of course, that the entire driving force behind comedy is to be so entitled as to stand in front of people and expect them to want to know how you feel. Every comedian wants special treatment; this is inherently part of their peculiar need to pontificate and use the spotlight as a therapy session. Hannah Gadsby gets paid handsomely to be entitled. Sarah Silverman is certainly not middle-class; neither is Chelsea Handler. Wealth does not disqualify the comic from being able to satirize groups they once belonged or may not belong to. Funny is funny. In other words, there is funny and then there’s unfunny. The mind of a comedian is not determined entirely by their identity, politics, age, or creed. Out of all the reviews of Sticks & Stones, Salon’s was the only one that did not put comedy in a subordinate position to the popular defintion of progress:

Comedians are supposed to express the things we can’t or won’t say. … Black comedy is like The Hunger Games; it’s not a place for respect or rules. People who can’t take that should not tune in, just as I chose not to watch the racist NFL. Comedians aren’t political activists.

But that’s just one voice in a massive chorus of condemnation. And while his critics cannot “cancel” Chappelle, they certainly can make sure the comedy career of any future Dave Chappelle is aborted long before it reaches viability. For a lot of his fans, Chappelle is funny because he is humorizing the things they’re being told they can no longer humorize. Chappelle is punching up because he’s refusing to comply with what he views as as the popular culture establishment. He’s playing in the key of punk. This kind of cheeky insubordination is no longer acceptable in mainstream intelligentsia. Contrarianism is no longer in vogue. Comedy must be hyper-progressive and practically family-friendly; or else it’s “trolling,” which is a criticism The Root levied on Chappelle in a shameful attack on his craft—for which he is a master.

Chappelle’s greatest talent isn’t his musical delivery, where he transitions like a jazz musician, or the way he scores a smooth uppercut by leaning back on the ropes like a boxer who confuses their opponent. It’s his comedic IQ, which weaves nihilism together with the storytelling of a sage that oscillates between drunk uncle and aged philosopher who rarely loses an argument. In this regard, he is America’s sharpest battle rapper. This is why his fans need him to remain as sharp and nonpartisan as a Hattori Hanzo sword or preposterously un-PC Eminem record. Whether he’s right or wrong is irrelevant to them. They don’t need him to be an ally or an evangelist. They don’t need him to be “subversively pro-life” or some populist folk hero. His fans believe he’s leveling the playing field between the voiceless and the sensitivities of the pundits who get decide what direction we are all punching in.

I view Chappelle as nothing more than a nihilistic comedian; a madman with three decades-worth of not giving a shit what anyone thinks of him. He is not an activist. He is not a journalist. His function is to make us laugh. In this regard, he’s a master of his craft and imperfect in every other respect.

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