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Trusting Dave Chappelle

The comedian’s 8:46 show is a stand-up special with few jokes

This article is part of Kieran Setiya’s series on the successes and failures of online comedy in a time of coronavirus. Click here to read last week’s piece on Daniel Kitson.

Who should speak about race in America? Who has standing to condemn the past of slavery, the failures of Reconstruction, Jim Crow—the now of economic oppression, mass incarceration, police brutality?

Not me. Growing up in Britain, I had little experience of racism: being called “Paki” on the playground or on the streets outside of school; occasionally running home in fear. I haven’t been a conscious target for more than thirty years.

Not white celebrities, who posted videos on Instagram and Twitter with the hashtag #ITakeResponsibility, admitting that they looked past racist jokes and biased casting. They were mocked on social media as “white saviours,” vapid and self-serving, despite being part of a campaign coordinated by the NAACP.

If poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, what is stand-up after the death of George Floyd?

Then Dave Chappelle: a superlative stand-up and an African American with a history of addressing race, poverty, and violence. Could he not speak to what is happening in the streets? In his impromptu special about the murder of George Floyd, released by Netflix on 12 June, Chappelle airs an ambivalence that amounts to what philosophers of language call “pragmatic contradiction”: a speech act that refutes itself. In the first near-joke, seven minutes in, he mocks CNN’s Don Lemon for calling on celebrities to “step in front of the streets and talk over the work these people are doing … I kept my mouth shut and I’ll still keep my mouth shut.” He doesn’t.

The question of address runs through the twenty-seven minutes, twenty seconds of 8:46, which begins with the eight minutes, forty-six seconds in which Derek Chauvin kneeled on the neck of George Floyd. “I don’t mean to get heavy, but you gotta say something,” says Chappelle, then asks why people want to hear from celebrities like him. “It’s serious,” he protests, it’s because we trust him to tell the truth when every institution lies. But even as he owns this responsibility, Chappelle begins and ends by disavowing it. “You kids are excellent drivers,” he affirms at the start, “I am comfortable in the back seat of the car.” And at the close: “The streets will speak for themselves, whether I am alive or dead; I trust you guys.”

Growing up in Britain, I had little experience of racism

Chappelle’s position is unique, but he makes himself a stand-in for others, wrestling with the margins of private and public, the personal and the political. When he opens with his own experience of the Northridge Earthquake in California, thirty-five seconds of slow-motion fear for his life, it’s to provide an intimate scale for 8:46. That is, he tells us, incidentally, his time of birth, on the morning of 24 August. Chappelle’s physicality is intimate, too, crunched up on a barstool in black with his sneakered foot tucked under him, his upper body cantilevered out as if to crane into the audience, making contact that mere words cannot. The space feels close even as the audience scatters in socially distanced lawn chairs, masked.

The effect of the personal here—the earthquake anecdote, the trivial coincidence of the time at which he was born—is more pragmatic tension. The inadequacy of one’s own experience to reach the horror of what happened is the tool by which one reaches for that horror. Words fail, at key moments we watch silent video of the killing of Eric Garner, a photograph of Trayvon Martin, footage of the protestors and police.

Chappelle ends the show with an enigmatic remark: “We’ll keep this space open … this is the last stronghold of civil discourse.” What space? Not the venue, or YouTube, or stand-up comedy, but an abstract, notional, perhaps impossible space. No-one can fully speak to the moment. Words feel inadequate or obscene—only silence is worse. If poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, what is stand-up after the death of George Floyd?

On the Freudian interpretation, laughter is the release of psychic energy. Steve Martin saw his early stand-up as an attempt to stress-test Freud:

What if there were no punchlines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anti-climax? What would the audience do with all that tension?

For Martin, the answer was comic incongruity: setup after setup hilariously deflated, no punchline ever supplied.

The laughs there are spring mainly from the hostile or obscene

8:46 is a stand-up special with few jokes. The laughs there are spring mainly from the hostile or obscene, Freudian paradigms of der Witz (the joke). The black conservative commentator, Candace Owens, damned George Floyd as a criminal. Chappelle’s response is emphatic: “I don’t care if he personally kicked Candace Owens in her stinky pussy”—followed by a riff on the fact that he isn’t sure it stinks but will let us know if he finds out. It may be the biggest laugh of the night, muted as it is.

Near the close, Chappelle returns to Candace Owens carping that George Floyd was not a hero:

We didn’t choose him [as a hero]; you did. They killed him, and that wasn’t right; so he’s the guy … We’re not desperate for heroes in the black community. Any n***** that survives this nightmare is my goddamned hero … This is not funny at all … I got some pussy jokes, too, I could do …

To watch this special for the first time is to watch in the impossible expectation of laughter. Chappelle is a stand-up comedian: he tells jokes. But how can he find humour now? The tension is released only in moments of comically exaggerated rage, directed at celebrities like Don Lemon or Candace Owens—not at the police, or at institutions, for which there are no jokes and no relief.

The real emotion, the rage, is never discharged. What if we create tension and never release it? What if protests aim for justice or restitution but all that is delivered is anti-climax? What will people do with all that tension? We may find out.

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