In 2005, famous comedian Dave Chappelle returned from his disappearance to Africa. Chappelle had walked away from a $50 million offer to renew “Chappelle’s Show,” one of the most popular TV comedy series in US history.
He appeared on Oprah, whose body language and speaking tone supposedly indicated that she did not like him (granted, the show did have a skit in which Oprah had Chappelle’s baby). The reason that Chappelle sat in front of a disapproving looking Oprah, besides to dispel rumors about his mental state upon disappearing, was to make the point that he had quit his show out of concern that what he was doing was socially irresponsible, pertaining to race. Dave Chappelle’s 2005 racially charged comedy was as successful as it was controversial, with famous comedic skits ranging from the adventures of a crackhead, to the life of a white family with the last name “Niggar.”
While many celebrated the show for some extremely clever subtext that aimed to point out the absurdity of racial prejudice rather than elevate it, it appeared that many also were laughing for the wrong reasons. In the end, Chappelle said that his main motivation for quitting the show was out of concern that his jokes were encouraging racism, not eradicating it. Comedy Central, the channel that aired the show, was also accused of pushing him to take a more caricatured direction (not to mention failing to honor his original contract, and even threatening to destroy his public image). Oprah, for better or for worse, seemed to use this as grounds to maintain a scolding tone throughout the program rather than look at some of Chappelle’s Show’s deeper intentions.
What’s clear about this now more than ten year old interview, besides the fact that society is facing the same issues of race today, is that sometimes even our best attempts to dispel prejudicial ideas end up hindering the ability to have an open discussion about them. The culprit here is actually not Dave Chappelle — it’s Oprah. By almost entirely condemning racist jokes and other offensive topics brought up by comedians like Dave Chappelle, one does not end up making a less racist or less discriminatory society, but a more censored one.
This matters because a more censored society is actually LESS likely to have the critical analytical conversations that dispel racist dogma instead of elevating it. It’s not a bad thing when a comedian like Dave Chapelle chooses to take a different course, but that choice shouldn’t devalue the positive aspects of Chappelle’s Show. One of the great things about the show, and indeed all comedy, is that it can ease social tensions around some of society’s worst problems by presenting them as entertainment. The comfort zone created by this entertainment encourages further thought about things that we might perhaps otherwise be inclined to sweep under the rug, such as racism.
That of course doesn’t mean that all comedy is in good taste, or that all racially-based humor has purely good intentions. There are certainly poorly constructed jokes made by individuals and professional comedians alike that are hateful, or even just not that funny (though that’s to be decided by the viewer). The truth remains, however, that getting mad at others for their comic portrayal of prejudices does nothing to eradicate prejudice. A recent article in The Washington Post argues that Amy Schumer, another comedian with a successful Comedy Central show, is “playing with race” and exploiting the plight of different racial groups for her own commercial benefit.
The problem with this argument is that if any financially successful comedian ever tells a joke that offends someone, it all too easily can be canvased as making money off of less fortunate people. The article also argues that Schumer’s jokes about other topics besides race have actually been rather progressive, saying that she has “shined a light on rape culture, misogyny, and sexism.” But it could easily be argued by others that Schumer’s jokes were insensitive, or even desensitizing in regards to the critical problems that foster rape culture, misogyny, or sexism. Humor is in large part a subjective entity. It can never clearly be proven that any joke is 100% offensive or progressive. At the same time, even if you could prove that Schumer’s jokes about race are completely exploitative or maliciously concocted, that still doesn’t mean that they aren’t shining a light on racial issues.
Comedy’s responsibility, if it has any, is not to be the shining role model on which society bases itself, but instead must highlight elements of truth regarding the human condition and in a way that viscerally affects us, hopefully through laughter. Given that people are far from perfect, this more often than not leads into territory that is biased, controversial, and even malevolent. If comedy is not given free range to point out, even crudely, society’s darker side, then we are all worse off. As the creators of South Park once said, “Either it’s all okay, or none of it is.” That is the nature of freedom of expression. Comedy, especially the politically incorrect kind, is designed to be a very cathartic form of entertainment for presenter and viewer, and there is no such thing as real social progress absent catharsis.
Political correctness, though not a bad thing and certainly not something to be outright discouraged, more often than not makes the mistake that the only kind of humor that is beneficial to society must be humor that is in good taste or has a deeply informed message. Often the darkest, most cruel, and most insensitive humor is what is the most revealing. Take this man who in protest of confederate flag products being discontinued by WAL-MART, commissioned the creation of an ISIS cake.
Now, this is not a standup comedian, and you may not find it funny. It certainly doesn’t look like he’s trying to be funny. But there is a clear irony to uncover here. Whether you are for or against the current banning of confederate flags, or whether or not you found the above video funny, you are inevitably faced with the dilemma of WAL-MART giving an okay to an ISIS cake and a no to a confederate flag — at least as far as cakes are concerned. This reality would never have been made present to you absent the biases and beliefs of this particular individual. This absurd situation that he has engineered, regardless of his intentions, does rather bluntly point out that WAL-MART is not primarily motivated by being socially progressive. It cares about sales. If it becomes a burden to sell confederate flag gear, they’re not interested. If there is more demand for than rejection of ISIS in their icing, they’re all for it. To laugh at this also does not somehow negate your ability to be concerned by it. If anything, the two feelings are connected.
The social herding that even educated, well-minded people commit when they try and divide the world of comedy into the good jokes and the bad jokes eventually leads to a breakdown of complex intellectual discussion, and with it a tangible place in society for analyzing what moves us to believe what we believe. Nowhere is this more evident than on college campuses, where fewer and fewer comedians are willing to book gigs.
Ironically, in the interest of making a society that is more liberal and more open, we often discover large segments of some student bodies making themselves more conservative. Fear of being socially ostracized leads to a fear of being offensive. Again, this comes mainly from a good place. We do not want to hurt others, or devalue the magnitude of tragic events such as the shooting of Michael Brown, or the deaths at Sandy Hook. But if our way of doing that is to not talk about the underlying problems that create such tragedy, with or without comedy as an aid, then it’s all in vain. We’re better off with an offensive person spouting out horrific generalizations, because at least it sparks debate.
The somewhat recent protests against political comedian Bill Maher’s commencement speech at Berkely, (Maher is very outspoken against Islam, and indeed all forms of organized religion) was fundamentally set up with good intentions. Students did not want to encourage a mentality that many believed was prejudicial and harmful to some of their piers. To be fair to Maher, however, it’s not so different from Chappelle getting scolded by a disapproving Oprah. Being offended by one person’s portrayal of an idea becomes more important than hearing out the basis of that person’s views. We get so caught up on a single joke, opinion, or idea, we end up seeking to censor someone before we know them. Keeping this in consideration, are we really condemning prejudicial ideas like racism when we are condemning jokes from a comedian? Perhaps. But that on its own certainly doesn’t do anything to stop racism, and it does everything to promote censorship.
Comedians do not command massive audiences by brainwashing people into thinking that they’re funny, or even correct in their views. More often than not they tap into an emotional part of their fans that already exists. Showcasing the ideas and feelings that come from those deep corners of who people are, whether they are in good taste or bad taste, is a critical part of understanding ourselves and each other. It’s critical because it forces us to deal with the very views that we don’t like. It mandates a second look at tabooed ideas by repackaging them. Comedians ultimately are a reflection of our own feelings. If they are doing something in poor taste, a simple lack of laughter will do. Aggrandized expressions of offense may leave an individual feeling morally superior, but they don’t help anyone either.
If an individual’s ability to be offended is so great that a handful of profane ideas really are a massive threat to their beliefs, then the real truth is that those beliefs aren’t so strong to begin with. Laughter is not just entertainment. It’s the bedrock of an open mind. Without open minds, offensive content will be the least of our problems.