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This piece, one of my application essays for graduate school, was written before Dave Chappelle’s voluntary leave-of-absence (still continuing) from popular culture. At the time, not much had been written in the academy on his work as a turning-point in representations of race. To the best of my knowledge, it still hasn’t. When I got to Yale and was interested in studying the intersections of blackface, Dave Chappelle, and popular performance, many teachers seemed puzzled. “Do you have a personal relationship with him?” I remember one teacher asking. I didn’t, even though he grew up in an Ohio town not far from where I went to college. -DL

“That word, if you could sum up the story of America in a word, that might be the word that I’d pick.  It has connotations in it that society has never dealt with.” – Dave Chappelle, on “60 Minutes”

“No word has more meanings, and all of the meanings are present in every usage, if not out front then singing backup.”  – John Leland

The final sketch in the first episode of Dave Chappelle’s self-titled variety program on Comedy Central, “Chappelle’s Show,” revolves around a fictional white supremacist named Clayton Bigsby.  Bigsby, the author of such fictional racist screeds as “Nigger Stain” and “I Smell Nigger,” is a blind man who also happens to be black.  He is unknowingly living a “white man’s life.”  Over the course of the sketch, Chappelle-as-Bigsby espouses an ideology of extreme racial intolerance, informed by popular misconceptions and exaggerations of ethnic caricatures. 

“Sir, my message is simple,” he says.  “Niggers, Jews, homosexuals, Mexicans, Arabs and all different kinds of different Chinks stink, and I hate them [emphasis mine].”  When asked to elaborate on his views of “African-Americans,” the character of Bigsby (played by Chappelle) is even more graphic in his depiction:

How much time’ve you got, buddy?  Where will I start?  Well, first of all, they’re lazy, good for nothin’ tricksters, crack-smoking swindlers, big butt-havin’, wide nose breathin’ all the white man’s air.  They eat up all the chicken.  They think they’re the best dancers, and they stink.  Did I mention that before?

Not content to let Bigsby finish with this observation, Chappelle follows up with a final, similarly exaggerated, observation on white supremacist culture:

As a matter of fact, my friend Jasper told me one of them coons came by his house to pick his sister up for a date.  He said, ‘Look here, nigger, that there is my girl.  Anyone who has sex with my sister, it’s going to be me.’

This brief exchange functions as a primer for the comic methodology employed throughout “Chappelle’s Show.”

Through the mediating force of laughter, Chappelle uses the word “nigger,” in all of its infinite permutations, in an attempt to recontextualize popular conceptions of blackness within the comic sphere.  He complexly lays bare and exploits cultural stereotypes, claiming them as authentically black while simultaneously discrediting them and mocking them from within as constructions of a racist white society.  This interplay between internal and external perceptions of blackness is what W.E.B. DuBois calls the “double-consciousness” of black experience.  By exploring the meaning of these stereotypes, Chappelle is able to comment on the cultural tensions underlying contemporary American society.  In doing so, he engages with the foundational elements of popular American comedy: the minstrelsy and blackface traditions of the eighteenth century.

Vital in the formation of the vaudeville form, which in turn contributed to the bulk of American popular culture, blackface and minstrelsy were systems of cultural representation that portrayed blacks onstage through a series of conventionalized stereotypes, almost entirely offensive and pejorative in nature.  In today’s politically correct climate, most African-American comedians have sought to minimize and deny the impact that these stereotypes had on representations of ethnicity in popular entertainment up to the modern day.  In seeking to lay bare these stereotypes, update them for contemporary audiences, and present them honestly and with neutrality to a mixed audience, Dave Chappelle has shown how blackface methods of representation continue to reveal truths and biases about the American condition.

Chappelle himself can be reticent and retiring on the cultural implications of his comedy, content to let the performances speak for themselves.  He is, however, clear in the motivations for his comedy.  “The idea was I wanted to do a variety show,” Chappelle explains in an interview, “that was very personal. . . And I think we were very successful at it in the sense that we do things on the show that are almost nightclub, that are – I don’t know – things I’m not even used to seeing on television.”  In a separate interview with the New York Times, Chappelle says, “Our M.O. is to dance like nobody’s watching.”  By self-consciously to pattern his show after a “variety” format, Chappelle nods to comic traditions extending back to the vaudeville stage.  But Chappelle also expands the vocabulary of traditional comic representation within a modern context, alternately conforming to and ignoring different comic methods.  The result is a creative vision that is both comprehensive in influence and original in its voice; redefining the boundaries of what is allowed to be comic while taking inspiration from devices extending back to the origins of American comedy.  Chappelle is fully aware of the problematic elements originating with blackface, and he exploits these shortcomings to enlightening effect.

The most obvious characteristic of Chappelle’s comedy is his widespread and proliferant use of racial, sexual, and class stereotypes in an attempt to examine the corrupt formations of American culture.  Whites in the Clayton Bigsby sketch are depicted as overweight, inbred bigots, whereas special bile is reserved in the mouth of Bigsby (played by Chappelle) for blacks.  Blacks are alternately depicted in the sketch as drug-using, chicken-eating primitives who smell.  Chappelle’s use of stereotypes, somewhat shocking in its explicitness, is nevertheless extremely complex.  Bigsby’s characterization of blacks as “tricksters” carries associations with the trickster of African mythology.  His obsession with the smell of blacks also carries a double connotation, as it equates a racial prejudice with traditional class-based biases.  By ham-handedly fingering classic examples of negative stereotypes, Chappelle reveals the extent to which these prejudices remain formative in our perceptions of society, thus forcing us to laugh at the absurdity of our submerged culture, a culture which has still not dealt with the complete ramifications of racism.

Chappelle explores uniquely black sensations of racial and cultural self-awareness in a manner that is also aware of the popular African-American comic tradition.  Like his most prominent black influences, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, Chappelle examines issues of black masculinity and identity in a manner intricately connected to the cultural fabric of the times.  The three of them form a trio of outsider black comic voices, commenting on developments in society as they embody them in comic discourse.  All three have a dual function as purveyors of popular taste and critics of the conservative status quo, dragging the mainstream along through their transgressive social message.  Where Pryor’s comedy is an “attempt to restore the injured African-American body,” and Murphy’s is an attempt to “protect (the African-American body) from injury, Chappelle’s is an attempt to shift the cultural conversation from the physical sphere to the metaphysical.  His comedy is marked by the absence of masculine physical threat.  Although Chappelle’s characters are frequently violent, they are always portrayed as inherently impotent and foolish; as clowns.  Unlike Murphy and Pryor, who transmute the tension resulting from the fear of black masculinity into laughter, Chappelle creates laughter from a different kind of tension: the fear of a corrupted society.  His body is a cipher, mirroring images of blackness found in culture which are funny and sad, outrageous and simplified.  Whereas Murphy and Pryor practice forms of aggressive comedy, projecting an image of society shaped by their individual consciousness, Chappelle’s comedy is inherently reflective, his creative consciousness channeling images of society which exist in the collective subconscious.

This comic reflexiveness is an innovation on typical African-American comic forms, a method more akin to such subversive comedians such as Lenny Bruce and Andy Kaufman.  Chappelle’s awareness of cultural patterns of representation and his manipulation of mediatized forms are fundamentally innovations of comic form, not content.  Like Kaufman was, Chappelle is interested in context as well as content.  The cultural critic Philip Auslander talks about the treatment of context in conceptual performance:

Conceptual art was ‘about art’ partly in the sense that, following dada, it treated the concept of ‘art’ primarily as a context then investigated the conditions and limits of that context largely by placing within it objects traditionally excluded from it, often objects that self-reflexively raised questions about the nature of the context and their own participation in it.

Chappelle utilizes this technique, injecting foreign cultural and racial elements into familiar scenes, thereby questioning the cultural status quo.  Chappelle’s comedy fuses the rhetorical strategies of conceptual art with the intentions of polemic observational and racial comedy, resulting in a hybrid form that is aware of the contradictions inherent in our contemporary cultural and racial discourse.  In his sketches, Chappelle challenges the notions of relative “reality” and “unreality,” terms used by the cultural critic John Leland which I will explore later in this paper.

Like Kaufman, Chappelle also seems to exist, as a comic persona, both within and outside the comic world that he has created.  Murphy and Pryor, who adhered to the traditional Hollywood representational dialogue between star-performer and receptive audience, basically played themselves in every creative endeavor they ever undertook.  Conversely, Chappelle is chameleonic and Brechtian in his method, adopting a persona even as he plays himself.  Kaufman sought to physically divide the comic self, adopting a series of ever-more concrete guises.   Chappelle, on the other hand, is content to “let the mask slip” while playing characters, so as to further alienate the self from the actions committed by the character.  “Kaufman succeeded,” explains Auslander, “in keeping (Clifton’s) exact status suspended on the borderline between reality and fiction.”  Kaufman wanted to completely destroy the boundaries separating reality and unreality.  By proving the “reality” of Tony Clifton to his audience, he proved the inherent falseness of the mediatized entertainment format.  Chappelle, picking up where Kaufman left off, seeks to accomplish the opposite effect.  By letting the audience know that his is a fundamentally fictitious representation of the real world, Chappelle is able to glean specks of honesty from an inherently fictional format

Chappelle deconstructs American society from two viewpoints, one external and one internal.  In his stand-up persona he is the black American Everyman, commenting from the outside margins of suburban comfort on the unspoken racial divide in our country.  This persona, a false construction, also contains the role of the handsomely paid celebrity railing from within against the very corrupt system that pays him.  Paradoxically, both of these roles are as much a Kaufman-like performance-art pose as they are depictions of reality.  This dually paradigmatic position is conveyed by the closing logo of “Chappelle’s Show,” which depicts Chappelle as a bare-chested slave in chains, grinning and holding crisp hundred-dollar bills in his upraised hands.  As Chappelle in voiceover intones “I’m rich, beeyatch!” he is simultaneously playing at the role of the vulgar black “slave,” celebratory at his good fortune attained in the oppressive white society of an unchanging American landscape. Chappelle is also commenting on his role as omniscient celebrity and creatorial voice of the show, handsomely paid by the corrupt and false establishment of show business.

Chappelle’s impersonation of the musician Rick James is an example of his ability to, like Kaufman, comment on characters in his own voice as he portrays them, achieving a fundamentally presentational comic style.  In an episode-long sketch entitled “Charlie Murphy’s Real Hollywood Stories,” the real-life Charlie Murphy recounts a real-life encounter with the eccentric and, at the time, wildly successful James.  Chappelle, playing James, takes the scenario into the realm of unreality by using unrealistic exaggeration, creating a persona rather than a characterization.  The figure of James, a grotesque of black behaviors rather than a specific character, functions as an icon of black culture, excess, and pathos.  The character is simultaneously representative of James, Chappelle playing-at-being James, the excesses of ‘80s disco culture, and the travesties visited upon the black populace under the Reagan administration in the form of economic fealty and drug addiction.

Another example of this historical sense from a cynical black perspective is found in a popular sketch featuring one of Chappelle’s most famous original characters, the crack addict Tyrone Biggums, in which he tells a class of elementary students how to buy drugs, concluding with the scatological climax of defecating in the school trash can.  The faux-credits at the close of the sketch pay special thanks to the Reagan/Bush Administration.  These fake credits at the close of the sketch, complete with acknowledgments of fictional characters or nods to celebrities from other walks of American popular/black culture (Keenan Ivory Wayans is identified as the director of the short, apocryphally), are an example of the often parodic sense which Chappelle displays as part of his creative process.  The slave logo at the close of the show, the fake-documentary style employed in the Clayton Bigsby and Rick James sketches, the nightmarish distortion of educational programs presented in the Tyrone Biggums sketch, each serve to blur the distinction between fake and realistic media.  In this manner, Chappelle’s comedy serves as conceptual art, challenging traditionally held notions of media representation by perverting them into untruth.

Chappelle often takes culturally trusted forms of the media, news magazines or documentaries and portrays them as purveyors of fallacious content: cultural lies, misconceptions, and distortions of a fundamentally white, racist society.  By altering the context within which we perceive the media, Chappelle is able to make a comment upon cultural content without overt polemicization.  He exposes submerged truths and belies benign cultural myths which function in our society.  Significantly, Chappelle seems to be indicating that content and representation function together, indeed, that they are incapable of operating independently.  Not only is the news a series of white-manipulated lies and biases, but the form of these news programs are themselves suspect.  Chappelle undermines the validity of all modern forms of presentation, and calls into question the possibility of neutrality in an increasingly hypocritical society.

A good example of how Chappelle reveals cultural biases through the parodic perversion of forms of media is the game show segment, “I Know Black People,” in which real people are pulled off the street and asked blunt questions centering on black issues.  The most famous exchange in the sketch results from the question, “How shall black people overcome?”  The various answers by each contestant reveals a separate bias about black culture, each of which is an uncomfortable truth often glossed over in public discourse: black culture as centering on disposable pop music (“This is a rap lyric?”), the prevalence of internal racism and violence (“Stop cutting each other’s throat.”), relying on handouts from a patriarchal, white, and racist society (“Reparations.”), and as ultimately impotent (‘Staying alive.”).  Each of these answers is identified as correct.  The punch line comes when a contestant attempts to pay heed to any notion of black political capital.  The hopeful answer of “Get out and vote?” is met with “That is incorrect.  I’m sorry,” by Chappelle, who plays the role of game-show host, an authority figure undermined by Chappelle’s goofy comic charisma.

This is perhaps Chappelle’s most interesting subversion of American cultural archetypes: his personification of authority figures, notably white news anchors.  In his characterizations, Chappelle goes one better than Richard Pryor’s vocal mimesis of whites by donning a veritable “white-face” makeup, complete with a “composite” white dialect.  In Pryor’s comedy, the white dialect is intended mostly to emasculate the white male and to desexualize white discourse.  Pryor was one of the first black comics to portray whites as bumbling and inept.  In John Limon’s paraphrasing of Pryor, “Whites even swear badly.”  Though obviously influenced by Pryor’s depiction of white ineptitude, Chappelle is uninterested in undermining white authority in the sexual and masculine arenas.  Rather, he is interested in exploring the tacitly accepted position of white authority in society and exposing it as a dangerous fallacy.  “(T)here’s a lot of black people that I know who have really never had any personal experience with white people . . . . outside of being authority figures: Officer, Your Honor, you know, it’s a teacher or principal, but always some kind of authority figure. . . .  their experience across the color line normally happened via television.”  The media, in Chappelle’s comic cosmology, acts as a determiner of racial and social roles within American society.  As such, the media invariably is depicted in his sketches as carrying a sizably white and racist bias.  Again, Chappelle is illuminating his racial and cultural content through a redefinition of contextual representation.  The content reveals the fallacy of the form, and the form likewise reveals the fallacies of content.

Chappelle turns this racist bias in the news-media, indeed in the breadth of society, on its head with his “Slave Reparations” sketch.  The sketch is a simple bizarro-world formation, in which social norms are turned on their head after money – which Chappelle presciently identifies as the fundamental force of class stratification in contemporary, capitalist American society – changes from white to black hands.  With the simple, socially revolutionary change of economic capital from white to black come ensuing shifts in the popular culture.  Stocks in malt liquor and chicken go through the roof; the richest man in America is a Harlem resident who won his fortune by playing dice.  Interestingly, Chappelle portrays black culture in a negative light, filled with irresponsibility and greed.  The reasons for this are complex and manifold, and have to do with Chappelle’s conflicting notions of black nationalism, moral responsibility, and human nature.

Herman Beavers explains this strange manifestation of pride in a dangerous black subculture by paraphrasing the prominent black scholar Cornel West in an economic and sociological argument:

If a consumer culture is, as Cornel West has asserted, driven by acts of stimulation, we can see the alternate strategies (e.g. drug culture, gangs, or random violence) that black men enact as attempts to manifest power, make it visible, to create a new material state and thus feel themselves to be part of an alternative social body.

In this sketch, Chappelle stages the ascendancy of the subculture, or formative “material state,” as a way of asserting black pride and simultaneously bemoaning the shortcomings of greed and selfishness created in the contemporary black condition by the divisive archetypes dominating American culture.  Chappelle’s examples are more benign and comic in tone than West’s (a black man buys a truck to hold all of his freshly bought cigarettes, Al Roker quits his job in a bit of comic violence), yet they carry a serious undertone.  Roker is violent and destructive after he gains economic freedom.  The man hoarding cigarettes is acting out of self-interest and greed, instead of compassion.  Chappelle is able to write characters that are comic yet unsympathetic, and Chappelle does not judge them, he merely portrays them as they are: products of a viciously warped society.

Chappelle, playing Roker, again translates the threat of black violence through a figure of comic celebrity, as he does with Rick James.  This device, a recurring one for Chappelle, alleviates the tension produced by the ever-present threat of true subversion and violent black rebellion which was represented in a much more concrete manner by Richard Pryor.  Pryor was physically imposing and threatening, a confrontational figure embodying fears of racial tension and transmuting them into laughter.  Chappelle, on the other hand, is a fundamentally non-threatening and amiable presence, laughing alongside the audience at the absurd truths of his comic vision.  Beavers examines the relationship between black masculinity and violence, perhaps providing reason for Chappelle’s reluctance in presenting a black male figure of truly threatening proportion, besides qualms of conscience.

African American males have no historical or cultural niche as patriarchal protectors by which to contextualize violence.  Hence, rebellion is deligitimized as a form of resistance.  Riots are singularly viewed as the collapse of order rather than the perception of hegemonic menace that evokes a violent response.  Thus, the presentation of African American men in the public sphere manifests issues of security.

Chappelle is already staging a scene of social revolution and riot in the Reparations sketch.  He wants the audience to think about the ideas driving the sketch, not to exhibit fear of a fundamentally false, mimetic performance.  By making his anarchic figures also fundamentally foolish, Chappelle consciously juxtaposes the serious with the ridiculous. He forced the audience to interact with ideas of substance rather than temporary feelings of emotional discomfort.  More evidence of Chappelle’s mixture of the threatening with the impotent can be found in the cameo of Wayne Brady (who sheds his Uncle Tom image in an episode by appearing as a psychotically violent black male), and especially in Rick James.

Through his exaggeration of stereotypes, be they situated on a cultural personage or collective group, Chappelle frees the audience from specifically evaluating characters, allowing them to focus on the bigger truths.  The audience is thus able to see both the methods by which prevailing cultural stereotypes form in American society and how they are received by a person or ethnic group.  Chappelle portrays Rick James as a self-destructive madman, and also as an idiot savant.  “I’m Rick James, bitch!” James’/Chappelle’s catch-phrase within the sketch, is a brilliant summation of racial and cultural zeitgeist, an exultant mission statement that trumpets racial identity while staging a commentary on black masculinity, American celebrity, and sexual violence in four words.  Like Al Roker, Wayne Brady, and Prince (in another sketch wherein the popular musician incongruously plays basketball), James is an example of black American celebrity turned into cartoon and back again in Chappelle’s comedy.

This blend of realistic anecdote and exaggerated cultural myth is not a trait unique to Chappelle.  The popular culture critic John Leland, in his interesting dissemination of American culture Hip: the History, discusses the important role played in society by “tricksters,” those “whom the culture invents to undermine its own rules.”  Describing the hipster black comedian Dick Gregory, Leland seems to be describing Chappelle, Pryor, and indeed every black comedian or cultural critic who has sought to dissect American culture and prejudice.  “This (joke) was not an escape from reality, but rather, as Clive James said of Mark Twain’s humor, an escape from unreality, from the greater absurdities that define race in America.”  In acknowledging James’ absurdity, Chappelle is acknowledging the absurdity of racist American cultural constructions, whether it be the internal racism practiced by James (calling the dark-complexioned Charlie Murphy “Darkness,” another catch-phrase), the rampant sexism and violence of everyone involved in the skit (including Murphy), or the hedonism and indulgence of a ghettoized black culture.  Chappelle’s experimentation with reality and unreality in his portrayal of black figures also mirrors Kaufman’s conceptual attempts to confuse the barrier between reality and fiction in performance.  Both Kaufman and Chappelle are interfering with the interpretive process of the audience by injecting elements outside traditional mimetic representation, resulting in a different series of associations.

The dramatic action of the Rick James skit is therefore not the humiliation of James the comic fool, but rather the revelation of American society as an inherently corrupting force.  James is recast as a tragicomic fool, throwing meaningless parties in a philosophical and cultural vacuum.  When the real life James, interviewed for the skit and spliced throughout, utters yet another catchphrase, “Cocaine’s a helluva drug,” it is both a wildly funny acknowledgment of self-destructive burnout as well as a chilling glimpse at the ravages suffered by an entire racial subculture from American capitalist excess.

James, in Chappelle’s depiction, is a complicated figure.  A victim of cultural prejudice, he nevertheless indulges both in the oppression of others, and in abusive personal vices such as drug abuse, misogyny, and violent physical abuse.  Richard Pryor’s life followed almost exactly the same trajectory, and much of his autobiographical performance art dealt with a troubled personal life.  Herman Beavers, in his article “The Cool Pose,” dissects the masculine associations in the comedy of Pryor and Eddie Murphy.  He sees Pryor’s failings as the inevitable outcome of wounded black ego in a hostile and hypocritical white culture.

The implication is that his addictions and other antisocial behaviors are the results of a self-hatred precipitated in a racist society; his attempts to loose himself from its demons are often driven by his embrace of other demons: violence, addictive behavior, and infidelity.

Chappelle’s art is never simply autobiographical.  Unlike Pryor, Chappelle establishes levels of comic alienation between his own persona and the darker side of black identity within society.  He is content to mock, while not condoning, the hypocrisies of American culture.  In the Rick James sketch, as in many others where he is not playing himself, Chappelle shifts the threat of masculine violence from his own figure to that of the role he is playing.  He does not have the personal stomach to slap Charlie Murphy across the face in the cavalier manner, so Rick James must be created to act out the role of primal masculine aggression.  Chappelle is able, through this imitative form, to stand both within and outside the persona of the abusive clown, commenting on the action while he simultaneously plays the role.

This level of removal is central to Chappelle’s comedy.  It is what enables him to freely use offensive terms, such as “nigger,” “bitch,” and so on, without advocating the appropriateness of their usage.  When speaking in reference to the Clayton Bigsby sketch, Chappelle said, “I like that skit because it doesn’t draw any conclusion.  It just paints a portrait of this insane dude.”  Chappelle does not want the audience to necessarily identify with any characters, as long as they are able to comprehend the issues at play and laugh at the ideas, not the words used to convey those ideas.

In talking about Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn, John Leland points to this distinction as the source of continuing controversy and misinterpretation over the novel.  “The (objections) arise less from the book than from the very racial myths it engaged; the word nigger, which apologists excuse as just the language of the period, was loaded then, and remains loaded today.”  Chappelle’s skits, when they are deemed offensive, are labeled so less because of the use of the word nigger, and more so because of the acknowledgment that the term still has weight in contemporary society.  As a result, Chappelle’s comedy eternally runs the risk of being misinterpreted by an inattentive, passive, or even a willfully ignorant audience, one that purposefully misinterprets racial lines as racist ones.

This is an easy scenario to imagine, as Chappelle’s irony can be deployed in such a matter-of-fact manner as to leave him wide open to misinterpretation.  Chappelle has talked about the possibility of misinterpretation by his audience, and has so far shown an ambivalent attitude.  Chappelle at times sounds slightly optimistic about the good faith held by his audience, saying recently in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, “The audiences are just generally smarter than people ever give them credit for.”  Just before saying this, however, Chappelle contradicts himself, speaking of an instance wherein he threatened to walk off the stage at a standup concert because of an aggressively ignorant contingent.  “I don’t resent people liking the Rick James sketch,” he said.  “I resent people screaming out, ‘I’m Rick James, bitch’ in the middle of a sentence.”  Whether he is willing to accept it or not, Dave Chappelle’s comedy is operating under a typology which stares unflinchingly at cultural prejudices and asks the audience to laugh at their ridiculousness.  He should not be surprised when parts of the audience miss the double-sided nature of his art and laugh, not at the ideas, but at the vehicles of those ideas.  “I’m Rick James, bitch” is a phrase that, misunderstood, is capable of reducing a tragicomic construction to a blackface grotesque.

Of course, Chappelle has no way of knowing who comprises his audience, he can only know the size.  The Season One DVD of “Chappelle’s Show” is, after all, “the third best-selling television DVD of all time.”  Chappelle, who has talked about the massive cultural divisions within this country, has nevertheless united an extremely large portion of it in loyalty to his innovative and fearlessly critical brand of comedy.  Popular success, if not mass success, is his.  Whether his audience is active, passive, aggressively hostile, or willfully ignorant, in the end result, they all laugh at his comedy.  The theater critic John Lahr recently reviewed the Australian comedian Barry Humphries, who is playing a drag character named Dame Edna on Broadway.  His words could perhaps apply to Chappelle:  “Her act is really a vaudeville turn, and she has almost single-handedly taken that tradition of glorious frivolity into the twenty-first century.  The spectacle is not just exhilarating; it’s heroic.”  Whether Chappelle exhibits “glorious frivolity” is in the eye of the beholder.  A purely subjective answer is that of course he does, even though it coexists with a glorious depth.

Works Cited:

“Dave Chappelle!; Dave Chappelle’s life and career.”  Narr. Bob Simon.  Sixty Minutes.  CBS.  20 Oct.   2004.  Transcript. 

Leland, John.  Hip: the History.  p. 166 New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2004.

“Chappelle’s Show.”  Season One, episode one.

See Mel Watkins’ exploration of this in On the Real Side.  New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1994:

“In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois alluded to a perceptual peculiarity that underlies much black behavior and directly influences blacks’ view of themselves and others: ‘It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.  One ever feels his twoness –an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.’”  p. 26

Chappelle, Dave.  Interview with Terry Gross.  Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Nat’l Public Radio.  2 Sept. 2004.  Transcript.

Ogunnaike, Lola.  “Nothing Is Out of Bounds for Dave Chappelle’s Show.”  The New York Times.  18   Feb. 2004.  late ed.: E1+

See Lhamon, W.T. Jr.  Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998.  for an evaluation of the trickster archetype in blackface performance.

An example is Orwell’s examination of the lower classes and the stigma of smell as evidence of class prejudice:

“That was what we were taught – the lower classes smell.  And here, obviously, you are at an impassable barrier.  For no feeling of like or dislike is quite so fundamental as a physical feeling.  Race-hatred, religious hatred, differences of education, of temperament, of intellect, even differences of moral code, can be got over; but physical repulsion cannot.” P. 128

Orwell, George.  The Road to Wigan Pier.  San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1958.

Beavers, Herman.  “The Cool Pose Intersectionality, Masculinity, and Quiescence in the Comedy and the Films of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy.”  Race and Masculinities.  253-85.  p. 257

Auslander, Philip.  Presence and Resistance: Postmodernism and Cultural Politics in Contemporary American Performance.  Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1992.  p. 140 

Charlie Murphy is the less-famous, real-life brother of Eddie Murphy.  His status as a member of the cast of “Chappelle’s Show” indicates the extent to which Chappelle is self-consciously part of the black comic tradition.

Chappelle often talks in interviews about how Eddie Murphy has been a personal and professional influence on his comic career.

Fresh Air With Terry Gross. Ibid.:

“(E)ven when I started writing, actually, that advice came from Eddie Murphy. . . . We were doing ‘Nutty Professor.’  Eddie Murphy was like, ‘You know, you should really write, because the way you tell jokes,’ he says, ‘is like you see jokes in pictures,’ which is kind of true.  It’s like, I’m just kind of explaining these images I have in my mind.  And he said, ‘you should write, man.  You got, like, a writers’ mind.’ And you know, I think that’s when I started to write more, just trying to self-generate.”

See also: John Limon’s article “Scatology: Richard Pryor in Concert,” from Stand-up Comedy in Theory, or, Abjection in America, Durham: Duke UP, 2000.  pp. 83-104. for a more complete evaluation of the link between black humor, shock of the audience, and scatological devices.

From Mel Watkins’ On The Real Side, a Richard Pryor performance in white dialect: “Pass the potatoes . . . thank you, darling.  Can I have a bit of that sauce?  How are the kids coming along with their studies?  Think we’ll be having sexual intercourse this evening? We’re not, oh, what the heck.”  p. 547

Limon, John.  “Scatology: Richard Pryor in Performance.”  Stand-up Comedy in Theory, or, Abjection in America.  Durham: Duke UP, 2000.  p. 84

Chappelle, Dave.  Interview with Charlie Rose.  The Charlie Rose Show.  PBS  1 April 2004.  Transcript.

Rosenthal, Phil.  “Chappelle lights up, takes off”  Chicago Sun-Times.  1 Sept. 2004.  pg. 71

The Charlie Rose Show.  Ibid: “Well, I mean, we live in a country that is incredibly culturally diverse.  More so than racially diverse.  You know, even in white culture, there are so man subcultures, so many different cultures that might not even interact, even though they’re all the same race.”

Lahr, John.  “The Destiny of Me; Dame Edna, Woody Allen, and the selfish gene.”  The New Yorker. 6 Dec. 2004:  122-123