Screw You, Dave Chappelle
Remember when Chappelle used to do comedy and Kanye used to make music?
“You know what sucks? Realizing that everything you believe in is complete and utter bullshit. It SUCKS.” - Tom, (500) Days of Summer
In high school, around the time I was reading Holden Caulfield’s take on the world, I saw one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen; it still makes me laugh to this day. I’ve had to recreate it here to the best of my subpar drawing abilities, but in our American History textbook, on the page describing how Benedict Arnold became America’s biggest traitor, somebody had scrawled this in angry pencil:
Perhaps because it was punctuated well, I like to think this was a good student who just got far too into any subject he was learning. (It was probably a boy, let’s face it.) What cracked me up, beyond the stunning visual, was how somebody could be so pissed off about something that happened two centuries ago. Like, this 16-year-old is seething and can’t get past any kind of phony move, no matter how long ago and no matter how far away.
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During the course of my life, I’ve had many such moments, but the one that actually kept me up last night was seeing the pathetic images of Dave Chappelle and Elon Musk together on a San Francisco stage.
The shittiness of the picture quality is the least shitty thing about it.
Chappelle looks White. I’ll come back to that.
In the United States, we’re raised to believe that money will set us free. Turns out that this cynical view wasn’t cynical enough. Money’s a trap. If you earn enough of it, you enter the club. The club George Carlin described so thoroughly.
“It’s a big club — and you ain’t in it.”
It’s exactly why Bernie Sanders, the supposed socialist, voted for the CARES Act, which was the largest upward transfer of wealth in human history. That’s the way this country works: you become successful and famous and then you’re invited to parties and get to hang out with the cool kids so you forget about the little guy. Sanders demonstrated it might be impossible to maintain any degree of integrity. The machine is simply too powerful: rage against it and you eventually become it.
The Dark Knight quote has been passed around so many times that I hesitate to throw it in but it’s so apt:
Diversity’s a Joke
“There's something in my eyes
You know it happens every time
I think about a love that I thought would save me.”
The tragedy, of course, is that diversity was supposed to save us. If we could only get enough women and people of color in the mix, that’ll disable the patriarchy and give us a voice. Not only have they not done that, but they’ve also actually made things worse. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) wears a Tax the Rich dress but God help her if she missed the Met Gala. She’s no better than Bernie Sanders.
So, back to Chappelle’s washed-out White appearance: it’s obviously due to a crappy shot, but it’s ironically fitting. It’s a reminder that the color in this country that counts is Green.
And that’s all fine.
It’s not all fine. But most of us already knew this.
Here’s what’s new:
Comedians were supposed to be different. Many of them have turned out to be terrible people. Louis C.K. Jerry Lewis. Johnny Carson. Ellen DeGeneres. Roseanne Barr. Tracy Morgan. Bill Cosby.
That last name should illustrate that it’s a sliding scale, of course. But this has been one of the great disappointments of my life.
And to some extent, this is also still fine. It’s not — especially when it’s a crime. But for argument’s sake here, people’s offstage behavior is their own business. (Again, not excepting violations of others’ rights.)
However, what comedians do onstage is very much our business. It’s literally called show business, because you’re showing people what you’re doing.
And when it affects my craft, this is where I draw the line.
In recent years, Chappelle has become harder and harder to defend. Many of my readers know I have, in fact, done so, albeit harshly at times.
When Chappelle sets out to drop some knowledge, he’s among the best. When Chappelle sets out to showcase his antics, he’s among the worst.
Dave has anointed himself the truth teller of American society. And at times, as in his recent SNL monologue, he’s spot-on.
But bringing Elon Musk onstage? That piece-of-shit, puny-penised, enemy-of-the-working-man hypocrite? And make no mistake: he’s a hypocrite. His die-hard douchebag supporters have bought into his lie that he’s somehow some champion of free speech. Yeah? Then why has he blocked accounts that make fun of him? The man doesn’t know comedy and he doesn’t know humor. There’s a difference:
Comedy speaks. Humor listens.
That’s why it’s called a sense of humor. It’s something that you take in. You don’t have to be funny to possess a sense of humor. But you do have to have some degree of humility to absorb jokes about you.
And this is what I’m sick of: living in these douchebags’ world. A taxi driver in Cairo once told a comic friend of mine: “You know we’re all working for, like, 40 families, right?” #BigClub I’ve known this for years, but I’m finally hitting my breaking point, standing around and being constantly bombarded by their high jinks.
To a comedian, Donald Trump’s mortal sin is what I summed up in my 2019 political solo show, The Man in The Middle:
This is what is so particularly distressing to comedians. They aren’t so offended by Trump’s racism — after all, so many of their careers depend on racism. It’s Trump’s assault on the truth. Comedians are truth-seekers. They have to be — people laugh only when their jokes make sense. Hence the phrase, “Funny ’Cause It’s True.” The problem is that Trump claims to tell it like it is but he doesn’t. The size of his… Inaugural crowd. That Obama wiretapped him. That Mueller exonerated him. All lies.
Trump passed himself off as some hero to the working class and yet his policies only screwed them over more. Not that the Democrats are much better, the way they railroaded railroad workers.
And now Chappelle’s doing the same. Not through governmental legislation, naturally, but by purporting to speak for the disenfranchised and then walking out onstage with the world’s richest man (and introducing him thus).
For years, the charge against Chappelle was that he was punching down. And many of us argued that it’s tough for a Black person to do so, given the uniquely painful struggle. But after years of attacking the trans community, the picture is coming into focus: Chappelle sold out to the rich a long time ago and he now has no qualms about blatantly flaunting his status. In fact, in Equanimity, he directly states this:
“I know the rich White people call poor White people ‘trash.’ And the only reason I know that is because I made so much money last year, the rich Whites told me they say it at the cocktail party.”
He goes on to say he’s not “with that shit.” Whatever, Dave. You’re one of them now.
But why does this all bother me so much?
Because this isn’t why I got into the game. I essentially launched my standup career by opening for Chappelle five times. It’s not easy to kill your hereos. But maybe I need to begin where I began.
Look, when I worked in Corporate America, I knew business was ruthless. In The Founder, Michael Keaton plays McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc and he lays it on the line:
While you two boys were content to sit back and become a couple of also-rans... I wanna take the future. I wanna win. And you don't get there by being some "aw shucks" guy sap. There's no place in business for people like that. Business is war. It's dog eat dog, rat eat rat. If my competitor were drowning, I'd walk over and put a hose right in his mouth. Can you say the same?
Part of the reason I quit P&G is that the bureaucracy beat me. I could feel my soul slowly dying, and if I didn’t get out quickly, I’d have nothing left.
But now, after years of being an aw-shucks guy sap, I’m wondering if I need to reinvent myself again. A gay friend of mine out here in LA told me it was actually harder for him to tell his gay friends that he’s a bear than it was for him to tell his straight friends that he’s gay.
Leaving Corporate America was coming out. Now, I guess I have to admit I’m into hairy dudes. Wait. What? No, that’s not it. But you get the analogy: doing comedy full-time has been amazing. And yet, I still feel like I’m holding back. Yes, I'm a great host, but my real thoughts on things are much darker.
“I’m not Mr. ’NSync. I’m not what your friends think.” — Eminem
This is the problem, though: if Dave Chappelle can’t hold onto it, then what chance do I have? Wouldn’t I get enveloped by the same system? And this is precisely what is so dispiriting.
Maybe what’ll help is to look at the ways Dave and I are different.
Fortunately, I’m not nearly as talented, so that’s one.
The other thing working against me is my refusal to package myself. My Director at P&G, who remains a mentor of mine to this day, summed it up:
“You hate placing yourself in a box. You love being all over the place. That’s great for you as a person, but it’s horrible if you want to be a brand.”
Truth comes in many forms. Sure, it can present as aphorisms. But to get to the bottom of things takes time. It takes long discussions and long podcasts and long columns mostly devoid of humor, like this one. And the shortening of our attention spans plays right into the agenda of the Powers-That-Be. Few have the time to deep-dive into something like this.
Leap and the Net Will Appear
So, I’ll probably have to remain content to be a comedian who’s successful but far from a household name. Someone who’s a real-life Larry David. This happened last week:
New female acquaintance of mine: “I’ve put on a lot of weight. I need to lose some.”
Me: “Yeah, I saw some of your earlier Facebook pics and you were pretty hot. So, if you lose some pounds, I think you’ll be pretty fly again.”
Who talks like that? And I don’t say this stuff so that I can write about it later. I say it to be helpful.
Newsflash: People aren’t really into being told they’re fat. Especially fat ones.
And that — maybe, just maybe — could be why I’m not farther along.
But I don’t care. I’d rather be true to myself than be successful. The worst thing you can do is do what Chappelle just did and lose yourself (to quote Eminem again).
And the reality is that acquaintance texted me the next day and we’re fine.
“My name is George. I’m unemployed and I live with my parents.”
“I’m Victoria. Hiiii.”
And don’t worry about me. I’m not on the edge of any kind of breakdown. For one, “there’s a fine line between genius and madness.” And I ain’t no genius.
Moreover, I love my life (and myself, let’s face it) too much. I adore my wife and am totally obsessed with my son. I feel like the subject of that Talking Heads song.
But society makes it tough. People have become too sensitive. You can’t really tell anyone anything because your insurance covers your therapy sessions and we’ve all set up cameras in and around our homes to capture our every move (and we wonder how 1984 arrives). We’re the prisoners who built the prison. And again, that’s why Chappelle’s move is so egregious: the standup comedy stage is supposedly the last bastion of free speech in our world. When you bring an anti-free speech advocate to the stage, you desecrate it.
In conclusion, one of the great questions is…
Why don’t comedians get funnier with age?
It’s not like athletics where your body breaks down. The best theory I’ve heard came from a PR person who took me to Largo to go see (and meet) Patton Oswalt, David Cross, and Kumail Nanjiani. What a lineup. She and I grabbed drinks afterwards and she theorized: “Perhaps it’s because so many of you are angry. Anger’s funny. But after the years pass, you become bitter. And bitterness isn’t as funny.”
Hey, I happened to walk into the Comedy & Magic Club when Russell Peters was opening for George Carlin. Russell was… Russell. And George… wasn’t funny. He didn’t have it anymore. He ranted but it largely went nowhere. I loved the documentary that dropped earlier this year, but he should’ve hung it up years before. And Dave, that’s what I’m telling you to do. Call it.
Perhaps you were playing 4D chess by humiliating Musk on a large stage. And that would’ve been hilarious. But judging by what you said, it didn’t seem like this was your intent. And as a comic, I can pretty much tell when you’re going for a joke and when you’re not. What’s more likely is what Maya Angelou said:
“When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.”
The first time was a long time ago. But what’s more likely is what we see right in front of us:
When you tell jokes, you’re still a man of the people.
But when you pull stunts, you’re just another rich douchebag.
If you’re gonna continue to do comedy, I’ll give it a chance. (And I’ll leave our photo up in my studio and your testimonial of me up on my website — I’m not that bad at packaging.) But if you’re gonna pull bullshit like this, honestly, you’re part of the problem, you Benedict Arnold.
Rajiv Satyal is a comedian who’ll never sell out… but who’s buying, anyway?
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I honestly love you, Rajiv. You and I don’t always agree, but I love how you live outside the box, and you are willing to listen, discuss, learn, grow, explore. You are also damn funny. One doesn’t have to be a household name to be a superstar. You make a difference.