FEBRUARY 19, 2021
DURING HIS Saturday Night Live monologue following the 2016 presidential election, Dave Chappelle repeatedly generated laughter from the palpable anxiety Donald Trump’s victory had produced, but he closed with an uplifting anecdote about the Black wealth and political power he had recently seen assembled for a BET party at Obama’s White House.
In marked contrast, Chappelle’s 2020 election week monologue was purposefully undisciplined. He indulged numerous tangents and withheld consideration of the occasion. Even though Joe Biden’s victory was being raucously celebrated just outside the studio, Chappelle mentioned the president-elect’s name only once, glancingly, in a joke about Trump.
The 2020 monologue ends without any hint of the hope Chappelle had modeled in 2016. Instead, he harangues the audience for what he perceives as a bipartisan tendency to turn personal grievances into corrosive hatred of a monolithic opposition, whether immigrants, or cops, or libs, or MAGA hats.
As different as these two monologues are, what brings them together is Chappelle’s insistence upon the primacy of “Black vision,” a capacity for insight and empathy he ascribes only to Black men, like himself, because their suffering within this cycle of grievance and hatred has been the most prolonged and the most intense. In a recent episode of The American Vandal Podcast, Jalylah Burrell argues that Chappelle’s recent public quarrels with other marginalized people, particularly in the LGBTQ community, have been motivated by his need to preserve the primacy of Black vision. “This status as a victim is something he’s consistently drawing upon,” Burrell says, “That’s the authority from which he’s able to speak, from which he makes his jokes. I see him as thinking that authority’s eroding and being very defensive about that.”
The opening of the 2020 monologue supports Burrell’s point. By imagining his enslaved great-grandfather as witness, Chappelle foregrounds the victimization of Black men in America, while also reminding an audience he presumes to be punch-drunk on electoral success of the long, dark arc of violence and oppression in which any promise of political reform is embedded.
But what Chappelle actually discusses his great-grandfather witnessing is not the ascendance of a Biden/Harris administration, nor the disastrous failed presidency which unfolded between SNL appearances, nor the supposedly concurrent emergence of cancel culture. Instead, Chappelle imagines his great-grandfather passing judgment on his own personal failure to maximize the financial returns on his intellectual property.
“Netflix started streaming a show that bears his name, Chappelle’s Show. And HBO Max is streaming it. And I didn’t get paid for any of it,” Chappelle says. Then, in a line I won’t reproduce here, he conflates his inequitable residuals arrangement with Comedy Central with being bought and sold as a slave.
It’s a bitter and solipsistic joke, and a dissonant note to strike on a night many were experiencing as a symbolic triumph for democracy and collective action. It was also Chappelle’s characteristically contrarian reminder that even if this was the beginning of the end of the alt-right fascist creep which had dominated the last five years of US politics, there was still, at best, a return to dehumanizing corporatism waiting in the wings.
Chappelle signals, repeatedly, as few other SNL hosts have, using everything from his lit cigarette (increasingly taboo on network television) to rhetorical invocations of the show’s famed executive producer, that he stands before us because he has negotiated a contract with a corporation. And the express aim of that corporation is to commoditize his person, and to keep as much of the proceeds from that process as possible, at his expense.
Paying Dave Chappelle to host SNL during election weeks is not, for the network which cuts the check, a promise of any kind of solidarity. NBC is simply pairing two notoriously expensive comedic brands in a market context which promises maximal returns on the investment. The sketches we are about to watch, Chappelle reminds us, are not so much the fruits of creative collaboration as they are the result of a political-economic calculation. His celebrity, the durable prestige of SNL, and even the election itself are, for NBC, just inputs on a spreadsheet formatted for currency. By his presence Chappelle guarantees the highest-rated episode of the season, but in the offices upstairs, the credit for that success will likely to go to an algorithm, and the executives who placed their trust in it.
Chappelle has been a counterparty in negotiations with all four of the biggest media brands in comedy since the 1990s: Comedy Central, NBC, HBO, and Netflix. He has as much firsthand knowledge of how satirical political speech is defanged through a process of quantification, commoditization, and financialization as any comedian working. This process, which I call neogliberalism, reduces laughter to a measurement, then uses metrics derived from that measurement to regulate and censor the speaker. As Chappelle says, “I can’t even tell something true unless there’s a punchline behind it.”
Chappelle is, in part, echoing a classic complaint of the American humorist. In an installment of the column which kept Atlantic Monthly solvent in the years following its launch, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. describes the curse of the comedian, “People laugh with him just so long as he amuses them; but if he attempts to be serious, they must still have their laugh, and so they laugh at him.”
“If I were giving advice to a young fellow of talent,” Holmes wrote in February 1858, “I would tell him by all means to keep his wit in the background until after he had made a reputation by his more solid qualities.” Mark Twain read these words, and seems to have internalized them. He resisted cultivating his evident talent as a humorist for many years. Only reluctantly acknowledging, the month before his 30th birthday,
I have had a “call” to literature, of a low order — i.e. humorous. It is nothing to be proud of, but it is my strongest suit, and if I were to listen to that maxim of stern duty […] I would long ago have ceased to meddle with things for which I was by nature unfitted and turned my attention to seriously scribbling to excite the laughter of God’s creatures. Poor, pitiful business!
The weight of the comedian’s curse is so great upon Twain that the letter in which he proclaims his commitment to the profession which would lift him out of poverty ends with his explicit discussion of suicide. Over the next decade, the “pitiful business” would make Mark Twain into one of the first world-renowned comedy brands. In the process, he would help to build the infrastructure from which the contemporary club circuit (that Chappelle often credits for his career) directly descends.
Twain would never stop trying to extricate himself from the commercial infrastructures of comedy, whether by declaring his permanent retirement from touring, refusing (selectively) to be a celebrity prop for special interests, experimenting with sentimentalism and polemic, advocating unpopular political positions, or, most of all, trying to wrestle control over the production and distribution of his work away from publishers, editors, booking agencies, and advertising firms.
This persistent ambivalence and occasional resistance to comedy’s commodification is what makes Dave Chappelle the most fitting recipient of the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize in American Humor, which he received in 2019. The epochal choice in Chappelle’s career, his decision to break his Comedy Central contract, costing himself and the network untold millions, is something Twain could’ve related to. In 1880, Twain walked away from a mutually remunerative relationship with the American Publishing Company. The next two decades of Twain’s career make the volatility of Chappelle’s decade-long exodus from public life seem like pretty still waters.
Both men learned, in their quests for self-determination, to expect betrayal, perjury, plagiarism, slander, and embezzlement. By network executives and publishing magnates they are regarded as employees, and in our Gilded Age, just as in Twain’s, employees are expected to be simply grateful for the opportunity. Disloyalty is to be crushed at any cost. But, as Twain asked a dumbstruck banking executive preaching the loyalty creed in 1901, “What is the matter with loyalty to yourself?”
Worrying the Man
In Unforgiven, published on Instagram in December, Chappelle describes his own “call” to comedy. He did not answer it reluctantly, as Twain did, but Chappelle frames himself much as Twain does, as somebody possessed by an irrepressible native talent which he must indulge merely to have peace. “From the first time that I ever held a microphone,” Chappelle says, “I was sure this was it. I knew I was home. I knew I had found my thing. […] I got good. Matter of fact, I was good from the moment I started.”
Chappelle also shares Twain’s never abating anger at the “poor, pitiful business” of comedy, a seething, unquenched rage at those he believes have profited by imitating, plagiarizing, skimming, and outright stealing from him. Audaciously, he intends, even in the face of powerful forces aligned against him, to have vengeance.
Unforgiven borrows its title from Clint Eastwood’s nihilistic revenge fantasy, a movie about getting even without expecting justice, which was a vehicle for Eastwood’s (sometimes antisemitic) grievances against major studios. The commercial and critical success of Unforgiven gave Eastwood the autonomy to become the most arch-conservative mainstream filmmaker in Hollywood.
Chappelle’s Unforgiven is, transparently, a declaration of war on Comedy Central, HBO, and ViacomCBS, as well as a boast that he has already cowed one media giant, Netflix. According to Chappelle, on the same day he agreed to host SNL, Comedy Central licensed both HBO Max and Netflix to stream Chappelle’s Show, deals which Chappelle had no power to prevent and from which he would earn no income. His commodification has never been more apparent. Without both his past and present labor the market for Chappelle’s Show would not exist, yet the entirety of its profits redound to employers for whom he does not work, has never worked, or which made no investment in the production of the show.
The indictment of HBO is perhaps the strongest. Chappelle recounts being asked when he pitched the show to the cable network many years earlier, “Why do we need you?” Now HBO is streaming and profiting from Dave Chappelle’s labor and likeness without paying him a cent, and Chappelle justly returns the question, “Why do they need me?”
His conversation with Netflix, the company with which he has released five specials since 2017, earning at least $100 million in the process, apparently went very differently. Chappelle reports, “I called them and I told them that this makes me feel bad. And you want to know what they did? They agreed that they would take it off their platform just so I could feel better. That’s why I fuck with Netflix.”
The rich irony to this statement, of course, is that Dave Chappelle has spent much of the last three years lecturing us on how the prioritization of our petty feelings is corroding civil discourse. His obvious hypocrisy is what makes the Netflix lines funny. But this line is also loaded in another way. It is a threat.
Netflix has chosen to make Dave Chappelle happy because that’s what people who have power do for other people who have power, particularly when they are hesitant to find out who has more power. Netflix has an existing contract with Chappelle which, simply by maintaining the status quo, promises to remain highly remunerative for both parties. Chappelle has already demonstrated his willingness to kamikaze a mutually beneficial relationship over something as ambiguous as “the wrong laugh.” Why would Netflix risk losing the proceeds from Chappelle’s future specials?
But, in Unforgiven, Chappelle is claiming power not only over Netflix, but also over corporations with which he has no formal relationship, just as they have claimed power over him. What is the nature of such power and how far does it extend?
Turning to the banking executive, James Cannon, in 1901, Mark Twain said, “The employer should be the worried man and the employee the happy one.” During the final phase of his career, Mark Twain had a book deal with Harper’s, valuable for all involved, but there were also innumerable outlets — newspapers, magazines, theaters, clubs, syndication services — which he could utilize, thanks to his celebrity, to circulate whatever variety of speech he chose through whatever medium he elected to whatever audience he wished. Such immense cultural power, he believed, if wielded precisely, could keep Harper’s honest in their dealings with him, could even, Twain speculated, influence governments. It could certainly crush lesser mortals, like James Cannon.
Since the last special he released to Netflix, over a year ago, Chappelle has kept himself more or less constantly in the news cycle by using diverse platforms: the Kennedy Center, David Letterman’s show, Instagram, the Emmy Awards, Joe Rogan’s podcast, and YouTube, where he released his half-hour routine, 8:46, for free.
The diversification of platforms and mediums was central to Twain’s cultural power. Ours is a very different media environment, certainly, but Chappelle seems to be positioning himself in an analogous bully pulpit. Unforgiven suggests that he is doing so for the purposes of exposing, disrupting, and potentially reforming the industry in which he works.
Of course, neither Twain nor Chappelle is a typical laborer, and for exactly that reason they are empowered to make executives sweat by interrogating the foundational assumptions of American corporatism. To unravel the mechanisms for monetizing comedy, Chappelle will have to begin by decentering and deconstructing laughter, by overcoming the curse American comedians have been laboring under since at least the 1850s.
Many of Chappelle’s peers are willing participants in their own defanging and dehumanization. In a 2016 episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, host Jerry Seinfeld converses with John Oliver, whose HBO show, Last Week Tonight, had become a hit, in part by channeling the outrage generated by Trump’s campaign. The week the Comedians in Cars episode aired, Oliver was covering the Republican National Convention. In a segment exemplary of the comedy news tradition, he used obscure bonus footage from the DVD box set of The Apprentice to highlight Trump’s long-held authoritarian aspirations. The point now seems banal, but to say, as Oliver did, his message is “the message of every strongman ever: the world is dangerous and only I can make you safe,” was to give voice to those who were elsewhere being called Cassandras.
That Oliver was one of the first media personalities with a large platform to accurately forecast the fascist creep lurking within Trump’s candidacy, makes it much harder to hear him say, as he does to Seinfeld, “the internal logic of comedy” is “that you’ll do anything for a laugh, like a sociopath.” Seinfeld enthusiastically concurs. Oliver summarizes their shared ethos by saying, “That was a sequence of words that you knew had a laugh at the end of it. So you said them.” To which Seinfeld replies, “That’s it. You’ve just described my entire brain.”
Here are two of the most iconic comedians of the last 30 years, one of whom is closely associated with comedy news, a genre born of this era and frequently dubiously associated with political progressivism, unselfconsciously acknowledging that they have internalized the basic economic logic of neoliberalism, that actions are to be judged exclusively by what they pay. The ideological content of John Oliver’s newscasts is just a vehicle for its rapacious capitalist form. Oliver accepts this unabashedly, because if he didn’t, HBO would no doubt ask, “Why do we need you?”
Comedy has become the primary, if not the only, way to sneak critique into the mainstream. To get critique out through the gates of the academy or up through the grates of the political underground, it has to be swaddled in humor. And this isn’t because critique is being censored, not in the conventional sense. Rather, comedy has been branded as the American public’s preferred medium of critical consumption. The Daily Show and its spinoffs, the essays of Damon Young, the podcasts of Marc Maron, the films of Adam McKay, and the deluge of Netflix stand-up specials: all are examples of platforms in which critique is tolerated, so long as it can coexist with comedy. Oliver Wendall Holmes warned Twain that the American public would not take him seriously once he had established himself as a comedian. In contemporary America, being a passable comedian is increasingly a prerequisite to having your perspective taken seriously.
Comedians like Oliver enjoy a capacity to influence the American electorate, yet I fear that the migration of critique into comedy may be less about the legitimization of the humorist, as Twain had hoped, and more about the subversion of the critic, a reduction of evidence-based, rigorous, disinterested analysis to the level of mass entertainments like sitcoms and punditry, genres which always unflinchingly submit to marketing metrics as standards of evaluation.
The way Oliver and Seinfeld talk about laughter as the sole and transparent measure of their self-worth and an end against which any utterance can be justified, adapts very naturally to neoliberalism’s preference for economization, quantification, and metricization. The successful solicitation of laughter is directly observable, even measurable. Laughter is much easier to gauge than other factors that might determine popularity: relevance, accuracy, accessibility, inclusion, or justice. To a network executive, laughter sounds like Nielsen ratings.
The Laughless Hour
To his credit, Chappelle has not internalized the economic logic of neoliberalism as Oliver and Seinfeld have. He has been positioning himself to combat that logic since long before Comedy Central signed the licensing agreements which Unforgiven explicitly objects to. Escaping the collective authorship and corporate oversight of the television studio set the stage for his resistance to neogliberalism.
Now, his primary strategy is being not funny.
Or, at least, not funny within the easily quantifiable formulas which his first Netflix special, The Age of Spin, reveals he has mastered. His 2020 SNL monologue has far fewer discernible punchlines than the one from 2016, and 8:46 and Unforgiven have none at all.
They are still recognizably stand-up. They deploy the cinematography of HBO, Comedy Central, and Netflix specials and the recognizable props, choreography, and narrative techniques of stage comics since the 1970s. But these forms of stand-up, which one might argue were developed to anticipate and emphasize the punchlines, operate in Chappelle’s recent work independent of his expectation that we laugh.
Sometimes, production choices may even be made to suppress laughter. In most specials, the camera is reserved for attractive audience members cracking up. But in Chappelle’s work, even as early as 2017, the cameras often find and hold on people expressing discomfort, even disdain.
Yet, in spite of the sometimes squeamish silence of the live audience, every indication is that consumers still have an insatiable appetite for Chappelle’s work, much as they did for Twain’s during the first decade of the 20th century, as his politics became increasingly incendiary. The abdication of laughter in “comedy” sets which tens of millions of people are watching is a hell of a thing. What is a comedian who no longer chooses to be funny, but still commands attention while he talks about police murders, corporate theft, class warfare, and structural racism?
Kinda sounds like a revolutionary.
But … the other thing Chappelle shares with Twain in this mature, angry phase of his career, is a growing spite toward the masses who make up the audience he needs to motivate in order to successfully exercise power within the industry he hopes to revolutionize. In 1899, Twain chastised William Dean Howells, the editor of Atlantic Monthly, where he had published his first attempt at literature with no humor, by saying,
I suspect that to you there is still dignity in human life, and that Man is not a joke — a poor joke — the poorest that was ever contrived — an April-fool joke, played by a malicious Creator with nothing better to waste his time upon. […] Man is not to me the respect-worthy person he was before, and so I have lost my pride in him and can’t write gaily nor praisefully about him any more. And I don’t intend to try.
Chappelle’s obsessive diatribes about “cancel culture,” intruding into even his best work in recent years, betray a similar misanthropy. If Unforgiven is a jeremiad to corporate executives, Sticks & Stones, his last Netflix special, is an equally acrimonious repudiation of the very audience who has paid to see him. After a purposefully flat, tone-deaf, and demeaning impression, he asks the audience to guess who he’s imitating, only to proclaim, “That’s you! That’s what the audience sounds like to me.”
8:46 is the most interesting document of Chappelle’s very busy and productive pandemic year, as well as the bridge between Sticks & Stones and Unforgiven. 8:46 is carefully designed to feel like an unscripted and sometimes awkward public response to George Floyd’s murder. But, like much of Chappelle’s work, it uses a very carefully composed nonlinear narrative to place Chappelle in many places and times at once. We are processing numerous high-profile police murders of Black men as he narrates them, creating an illusion of mutual discovery. Within the narrative structure Chappelle creates, the gruesome patterns and repetitions of events spread over several decades are starkly revealed.
The final statement of 8:46 begins as another, rather stale allusion to cancel culture — “We’ll keep this space open. This is the last stronghold for civil discourse.” — but concludes with a threat that foreshadows Unforgiven: “After this shit it’s just rat-ta-ty-tat-tat-tat-ted-dy-tat.” It is a classic liberal ultimatum. Chappelle asserts his alliance with the protesters in the streets while also positioning himself as somebody who has the ear of power, warning the oligarchy that if they don’t start making some concessions, the structures upon which their powers rest may come crumbling down.
Stand-Up For What?
Taken together, Chappelle’s work from 2020 states pretty coherently, Pay me, or I’ll start a riot. If this is not exactly an antidote to neogliberalism, it is, at least, a lifting of its veil. If HBO has been wondering since 2002 why they need Dave Chappelle, Dave Chappelle may now justly ask why, in the era of the Instagram influencer and the YouTuber, he needs a network.
On the first day of 2021, HBO unceremoniously pulled Chappelle’s Show from its streaming platform. It was a quiet acknowledgment that Chappelle’s cultural power extends past Netflix. Chappelle did not allow it to remain quiet for long. Last week he released another short set, Redemption Song. Fresh off a bout of COVID-19, dressed in peacoat and scarf like a character in a Tony Kushner play, Chappelle announced he had reached a deal with ViacomCBS, to restore his licensing rights for Chappelle’s Show, as well as pay him millions in backdated royalties.
Chappelle presents Viacom’s decision as a triumph of collective action. “I never asked Comedy Central for anything,” Chappelle says, “I came to you. Because I know where my power lies.” Consumers, at his behest, boycotted the show, revealing that the highly financialized infrastructure of contemporary comedy can be put to work against the corporation. Chappelle’s fanbase made the value of a much-coveted content asset race toward zero. “You made the show worthless,” Chappelle explains, “Because without your eyes, it’s nothing.”
The man who three months ago treated the defeat of Donald Trump as an occasion to chastise Americans about cancel culture, now characterizes his own bank account as a measure of the unrealized potential of the demos. This is probably not the end which revolutionaries like Marcus Garvey had in mind when they advocated for Black capitalism.
On the surface at least, Chappelle exemplifies the conflation of social activism and narcissistic entrepreneurship which is endemic to the platform economy, the philanthrocapitalist class, the influencers and the micro-donors. We won. I got paid, is a patently neoliberal logic. ViacomCBS calculated the rational price of absorbing Chappelle back into the oligopoly. No harm. No foul. No justice. No liberation.
But, as Twain’s career shows, it is a very dangerous thing to give a culturemaker proof of his power. The ability of a stand-up comedian to dictate to his industry from the bully pulpit of social media was a purely theoretical thing when Chappelle released Unforgiven. Now it has a praxis. Comedy may be a “poor, pitiful business,” but Chappelle brags, “The trick to minding your own business is know what is your business.” In a period of just over a year, Chappelle has shown that there is no person connected to the big business of comedy whom he cannot make sweat, whether network executives, or booking agents, or club managers, or, unfortunately, the up-and-coming women and LGBTQ comics who might be inclined to critique him. Can we regard this power as revolutionary when so far it has been wielded primarily to further line his pockets?
Just as the subtext of Unforgiven was embedded in its allusion to Eastwood’s film, Chappelle foreshadows future possibility with his titular appropriation of Bob Marley. “Redemption Song” is, famously, the peroration of the Marley songbook, the final song on his final studio album, uncharacteristically performed without the Wailers, who did not yet know that Marley had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Whereas Marley’s “Redemption Song” adapts its most potent lyrics from the Jamaican revolutionary, Garvey, Chappelle’s echoes an American civil rights icon, James Baldwin, when he says, “If you could solve Black America’s problems, this country would have no problems.” It is another invocation of the primacy of Black vision, as Chappelle contrasts the “very basic wrong” of Black enslavement with what he regards as trivial “talking about pronouns,” but it is also part of his attempt, through analysis of January 6 storming of the US Capitol, to synthesize the divergent grievances of Edward Snowden, Colin Kaepernick, the Capitol Police, the Ferguson protestors, the Trump-inspired insurrectionists, and an ambiguous “you” whose only discernible unifying characteristic is Whiteness.
“Redemption Song” is, as Cedella Marley wrote last year, “an anthem for times of conflict and despair and calls out the systematic oppression that continues to plague all levels of society.” It is sung from the perspective of an enslaved man, proud of the achievements of his generation, but uncertain of the prophecy of emancipation which he recognizes he will not live to see. Expressing wavering faith in both “the book” which “some say” explains why “they kill our prophets” and “these songs of freedom” which “are all I ever had,” Marley pleads for somebody to “help to sing” on a recording which has no backing vocals.
The conflicting connotations of redemption — spiritual and financial — epitomize the song’s tragic ambivalence. Adhering to his Rastafarian beliefs, Marley resisted attachment to private property. As he well knew, his death would set in motion a decades-long battle for the proceeds of those “redemption songs,” pitting his family members against record companies, musical collaborators, and potentially each other. Ziggy Marley has testified that his father’s last words were, “Money can’t buy life.” Cedella Marley acknowledges that the singer in “Redemption Song” cannot escape “the instinct of an individual,” though he yearns to “rise above individualism,” because “if every individual only pursues what they believe is rightfully theirs, there can be no laying down of arms.”
To appropriate “Redemption Song” in what is simply a commercial for an old TV show with a newly advantageous residuals arrangement would be an egregious betrayal of the song’s ethos. If it were simply such, it would not be airing exclusively in venues over which Chappelle retains full control. The message in the medium of Chappelle’s Redemption Song is that he has tamed the networks, but there’s no reason to stop there. To ask, as Twain did, “What is the matter with loyalty to yourself?”, is not in itself enough. If Chappelle’s captivated audience is not being stirred to laugh, it is nevertheless being stirred. What shall they help to sing?