Thursday, December 9, 2010

Dave Chappelle's Dilemma

Comedy as an art has been used for centuries to talk about problems within a society that can’t be discussed openly. The issue of race is no different, as Michel Norris, the host of NPR’s All Things Considered, once said “in the world of stand-up comedy, the subject of race is not so much a minefield, but rather a goldmine, an endless source of great material. That's because comedy provides a comfort zone to discuss uncomfortable topics -- a place where audiences can laugh at themselves and look past pain to acknowledge unvarnished truth."

Comedy on race is extremely popular in the United States right now partially because of this reason. It is a topic which people are well aware exists in our culture but are scared to talk about. Comedians such as Richard Pryor and later on Bernie Mac, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle made this brand of comedy one of the most prominent around.

Proponents of this brand of entertainment say that by poking fun at problems with race in our society, comedy is able to make a meaningful statement about what needs to be done. Conversely, some people are offended by racial jokes, saying that they merely enforce racial stereotypes and broaden the gaps between the races.

There are many different types of jokes in this genre though. We see some jokes centered around the differences between races. Supporters would say these jokes poke fun at racial stereotypes rather than enforcing them, as some people would complain they do. Other jokes make a statement about the interactions and discriminations between races. These jokes say something about our society and how far it has come in terms of race relations. One thing that is for sure is that these comedians are able to make statements about the topic that many people are too scared to make.

In 2004, during the production of the third season of the immensely successful Chappelle’s Show, Dave Chappelle abruptly left the United States for South Africa. Rumors spread that the comedian had left due to a drug or psychological problem. In actuality it was something much more than that. Besides feeling overly constrained by network executives and questioning the direction of his show, Dave Chappelle was starting to question how responsible he was being with his own art. He describes hearing a white man laugh at one of his more racial jokes in a way that made him feel uncomfortable. As William Cobb from puts it, Chappelle felt as though by making these jokes to White and Black audiences, he was letting whites in on an inside joke which blacks shared, only not all whites were laughing with blacks, some were laughing at them.

There is certainly I line you can cross in this genre of comedy, the question is who says where that line is?


  1. I agree that comedy is an area where we can sometimes go farther than we should concerning uncomfortable issues such as racism. I've always thought that Dave Chapelle is hilarious but I found that it was interesting that the article talked about how he was uncomfortable with how a white man was laughing at his jokes. I think a reason we laugh at controversial jokes is because they're a bit unexpected and push limits we normally never would. I do think, however that on his show he enforced both black and white stereotypes with his impressions in order to get more of a reaction from his audience.

  2. Until this school year, I had never seen or really heard of the Dave Chapelle Show. The first time I watched it, I was shocked at the jokes he was making. Joking about race seems like a double edged sword, because there is a fine line between appropriateness and offensiveness. It's always interesting to me that people are able to make jokes about their own race or ethnicity, but become instantly offended when another person (who does not a have a similar background) makes a joke of the similar nature.

  3. I have not watched a whole lot of the Dave Chapelle show, but when I have, to me it's been pretty funny. However there are instances where maybe he does go a little too far. Perhaps if he just based more of his show not on racial comedy, but on another subject it could help out a little bit. I'm not saying he should completely cut race out of his act, I think making jokes about a controversial issue such as race can help to take some of the pressure off of the subject. However he has to draw the line somewhere.

  4. Chapelle Show is still by far the funniest thing I have ever seen. Because we weren't allowed to watch it, my brother and I would have to sneak into our guest room, turn the volume way down, and then laugh until we cried. What wasn't so funny was the next day at school when our white friends would quote all of the terrible things Chapelle said as he played a blind, black, white-supremacist. Racial jokes can be funny when making fun of one's own race because it is understood that the comedian doesn't really mean what he says. When one race makes fun of another, that's when things might get offensive. I can understand Chapelle's problem with being uncomfortable with the amount of racist jokes in his show, but I still feel that he could have continued on making jokes about marijuana, Prince, and Rick James.