Remember Evel Knievel? In the 1970s and ’80s, Robert “Evel” Knievel Jr. leaped into the American zeitgeist and became one of the most famous people in the country by electrifying audiences with his motorcycle stunts.
He leaped over 14 buses on a motorcycle. Millions of people watched him attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon. Knievel got rich because of nothing but his fearlessness and a motorcycle. Kids everywhere bought the action figures. People dressed like him for Halloween. If you grew up in the ’80s, you had to build a bicycle jump ramp just to see what it felt like to fly like Evel Knievel.
I once tried to explain Evel Knievel’s awesomeness to my daughter, but she didn’t get it, so I pulled up his attempt to jump the fountain at Caesars Palace on YouTube. I still had butterflies in my stomach as he revved his engine. When he crashed his bike and almost died, all the prepubescent disappointment returned.
My daughter just shrugged and asked, “Why would anyone watch that?”
Remember Dave Chappelle?
When Chappelle’s Show premiered in 2003, Chappelle already had a decade of respect and fame as a stand-up comedian and comedic actor. But it was that Comedy Central sketch show that catapulted him into superstardom. The show’s combination of irreverent humor, political incorrectness, and—above all else—fearless commentary on race and racism put him into the conversation about comedy’s Mount Rushmore. His black blind character, Clayton Bigsby, who also happened to be a white supremacist, bordered on comedic genius, and Charlie Murphy’s “True Hollywood Story,” about Rick James, might be the funniest piece of television ever created.
That was more than 10 years ago. Subsequently, Chappelle abruptly left the show and disappeared from sight. After a hiatus, he returned to stand-up comedy and crisscrossed the country practicing the art that was his first love.
On March 17, Netflix released the first of two comedy specials by Chappelle, for which he was reportedly paid $60 million. It was his first comedy special in 17 years, and even though the specials were filmed in 2015 and 2016, they confirmed that Dave still had his fastball. His acerbic wit and impeccable comedic timing hadn’t gone anywhere. He demonstrated his storytelling ability, and his stage presence was still as good as anyone’s in comedy in the country.
But something had changed. Something was ... different. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then I realized what it was.
Time had changed. It’s 2017.
There was a moment toward the end of one of the Netflix specials, when Chappelle joked about homosexuality and transgender women, that stirred up backlash from people who are sensitive to those topics. What really outraged and made a lot of people uncomfortable, however, was the extended amount of time he lingered on the topic of Bill Cosby and rape. Even some people I spoke with who are predisposed to like Chappelle said that it gave them the heebie-jeebies. Some were even more obstinate in their indignation, insisting that he wasn’t funny. They didn’t specify that he wasn’t as funny. Just not funny.
Comedy is an art form. Whether a joke is funny is as subjective and dependent on the sensibilities of the audience as is whether a painting is beautiful. To argue about whether or not something is funny is like bickering about a poem or a song. We can agree that all limericks and anything by Lil Uzi Vert is trash (yes, we can all agree), but most pieces of art exist on sliding scales of appreciation.
Even though I hate newfangled groupthink terms, I can understand why people would call Chappelle’s comedy special “problematic.” I can even see why people say they were offended by it. But writing him, or his work, off as “not funny” is disingenuous and ultimately negates your criticism as unintelligent.
I believe in an artist’s right to say anything he or she wants, and I am often perplexed by people who are butt-hurt over jokes—things that are by definition absurd. When Tracy Morgan was pilloried for saying he’d stab his son if he found out he was gay, my only thought was, “Do they know who Tracy Morgan is?” I’ve always felt that being outraged over comedy is like crying every time Cartman dies on South Park.
Or maybe I am wrong. One of the things that piss me off the most is when whites become judge and jury for their own racism. It completely drives me up the wall when someone does something offensive and—when called out on it—immediately declares, “That’s not racist” or—like our rooster-headed president—swears that he or she is “the least racist person you know.” I always want to chop people like that in the throat and ask them why their eyes are watering as they gasp for air, because what I did wasn’t hurtful. As a straight black man, therefore, I cannot referee whether gay or transgender people should be offended by something someone says.
But here is the problem with all of this: Both things can be true.
The narcissism of social media and the internet leaves no room for nuance, but we do not live in a binary world. Chappelle might not be the “alt-right” Antichrist or the comedic equivalence of Lil Uzi. It is quite possible that he is simply a comedic genius who said something fucked up.
This isn’t the same world that existed when Chappelle’s Show was around. Maybe public sentiment or the art form hasn’t passed Chappelle by; maybe it’s just his audience’s sensibilities. Perhaps it was decade-old, stale outdated humor, as if he were telling “Take my wife, please” jokes. It wasn’t the old Dave Chappelle whose hilarious insight dissembled convention and forced you to look at a premise from a different perspective. The rapey transphobia came off as if he were trying to be shocking for shock’s sake. We wanted to fall in love again with the skinny, awkward outsider from 2003. It turns out we found a muscle-bound multimillionaire who just wanted a one-night stand.
To be fair, the specials aren’t new; they were filmed when the Cosby accusations were at their height. The two shows might not be at all representative of his current work. His next Netflix special might be a full hour of the brilliant Chappelle that we saw stuttered glimpses of in this special.
It might be our fault.
Maybe we are holding him to a 15-year-old standard that he set and can never achieve again. Chappelle is still armed with the same genius and comedic fearlessness, but maybe time, fame and money have rendered him an old man trying to do tricks with the same level of difficulty—only this time, we get to see him crash and burn.
Why would anyone want to watch that?