There’s a ton of stuff that has already been said in regard to Dave Chappelle’s The Closer. I’ve read some of it but then I started to feel stupid about not paying attention to other things. I felt like I was up to date on the fact that he’s a shithead. But since television is my favorite drug and his face is plastered all over Netflix I continued thinking about it.
Laughter is a fundamental component of human sociality. It’s ground zero. Babies do it, and babies have no idea what the fuck they’re talking about.
I loved stand-up comedy as a kid, and through some odd wormhole of parental distraction I watched a ton of it on television. The present age is a cultural epoch away from the early 90’s. Flagrant and hateful disrespect for anyone who existed outside of a narrowly defined ‘normal’ was still commonplace (and I guess it still is), and stand-up was even more retrograde. To watch a Sam Kinnison or Andrew Dice Clay routine was an exercise in misogyny and homophobia and I thought it was all very funny.
I was a paralyzingly insecure child and adolescent and I hated myself. I compared myself to everyone around me and never measured up, and so hateful humor was very attractive to me. It did nothing to make me feel better about myself, but it did allow me to participate in the degradation of other people, which was alright as a consolation prize. When the adults that I wanted the approval of invited me to listen to a racist or homophobic joke I was very excited and laughed like crazy at the punchline, like a fucking donkey, not because they were funny jokes, but in relief at the idea that I’d earned some acceptance.
At a certain point, I graduated from being an insecure child to being a dangerously angry adolescent with absolutely no impulse control. Whenever I did something shitty that embarrassed me or made me feel ashamed it was a reliable conclusion to get together with my friends and laugh about it. It made me feel okay. Painful things happen, people are bad, I’m bad, and it’s all just a punchline. It wiped the slate clean and allowed me to fail to learn anything.
As the Unite the Right defendants get sued and the January 6th imbeciles and Kyle Rittenhouse go to trial, I think about humor. Not because I think any of what they’ve done is funny, but because it reminds me of the ways that right-wing extremism courts adherents.
In the evolution of internet fascism, it is hard to miss the prevalence of memes. We all know this. It’s a soft-sell to boys and young men. The ‘edge-lord’ says, “Hey! You’re worried about your penis size, or the fact that nobody wants to have sex with you, or that you’re mediocre and the world will kill you for it? Here’s a picture of a lady and a frog and a terrible president and somehow they’re all having sex with each other even though frog’s don’t appear to have dicks and the president is almost 80 and can’t possibly maintain an erection!” Then, a week later, they’re yucking it up to holocaust jokes. Another month and a single trip to Walmart and we’ve all witnessed another mass shooting.
This is the function of edge-lords in contemporary right wing politics. Since internet stuff and pornography are inseparable, let’s put an appropriate spin on it: The practice of edging implies hanging out on the verge of orgasm. But eventually somebody cums. And so goes the humor of the right as it grooms young people for a lifetime of being miserable and trying to bring the rest of us along for the ride. This process requires humor. It’s not funny. It’s not meant to be. It’s the laughter that comes out of a person on the precipice of doing a very dangerous thing for no good reason.
A similar phenomenon is visible in the ‘dirtbag left’ which is really just a doorway to extreme right politics. If you combine socialism with a disdain for women, lgbtq people and racial and ethnic minorities, you’re a particular kind of socialist with a nifty abbreviation for your politics.
The common refrain of comedians is always a disingenuous appeal to freedom of speech, which is a frequent strawdog of people who make their living by being assholes. The general statement is that if they’re not pushing boundaries then somehow woke fascism has won and we’re moments away from turning all the funny people into compost. No one is allowed to say something sucks, unless it’s them.
I remember very distinctly an interview with Chappelle about his departure from his self-titled show. He related his discomfort with observing a white person on his staff laughing at a sketch, and how it made him feel that perhaps he wasn’t accomplishing what he intended to.
I think his discomfort was warranted and understandeable. The sketch involved blackface, which was a comedic device that allowed white people to feel good about lampooning, mocking and dehumanizing black people. Now, years later, he continues to make the wrong people laugh at the wrong stuff.
I think of this through the lens of bullying. For many people, bullying is their first visceral encounter with power and domination, whether they encounter it from a parent, an authority figure, a peer, or (passively) from a celebrity, and through this process they learn about who gets shit on, who they get to shit on, and how to avoid being shit on.
Dave Chappelle is creating humor for people who are comfortable with shit as long as it rolls downhill.