The Comedian's Ethic
By the time you will be reading this, Dave Chappelle will have already completed his nine-show comeback tour at Radio City Hall, accompanied by such musical guests as Nas, DJ Premier, The Roots, Erykah Badu and Busta Rhymes. Much has been made about Chappelle’s return to the limelight after his decision in 2004 to walk away from his celebrated Chappelle’s Show, and the $50 million that Comedy Central had offered him to create the show’s third season. People, the logic went, simply do not walk away from that kind of money. Chappelle, who subsequently left the States for South Africa, was quickly labeled by a perplexed and desperately speculative media as having cracked up, having suffered a mental breakdown, as someone who simply could not hack the pressure.
In recent years, Chappelle has put most of the speculation to bed by publicly explaining his decision to walk away (almost ad nauseum: taking to the late night talk show circuit, giving an interview on Inside the Actor’s Studio, going on Oprah, etc.).
Here is a telling excerpt from his interview with Oprah:
Much of what Chappelle revealed dealt with the manifestations of race in America, deftly playing with notions of stereotype and privilege. Chappelle’s material was often brilliant, but the questions always lingered: were people laughing because of the satirical commentary Chappelle was offering on race? Or were they just laughing at the surface of the joke, that is, at the racial stereotypes?
Let me give a couple of examples. Consider this bit from his 2004 special, For What It’s Worth:
Or, take a sketch from season two of Chappelle’s Show in which the way the law treats a white CEO and a black drug dealer is reversed. The crack-cocaine dealer is allowed to turn himself in at his own convenience for fear of upsetting the community, he pleads the fifth (“fif”) at his hearing, and he is ultimately sentenced to a month at Club Fed. The CEO of FONECOM, on the other hand, has a grenade tossed into his home, his dog shot, his wife fondled, and is appointed an incompetent public defender who is unable to get him off the hook from a life sentence.
From these two bits, it is easy to see the danger which Chappelle understood all too well: “If audience members misunderstand the show's use of satire to debunk racial stereotypes and instead see the content of the skits as just plain funny, the show will actually end up reinforcing the very stereotypes it meant to overcome.” 
Unfortunately, in 2004, Chappelle seemed to lose faith that his audience understood his material at the level he hoped they would. After being heckled in Sacramento stand-up performance, he told the audience, “You know why my show is good? Because the network officials say you're not smart enough to get what I'm doing, and every day I fight for you. I tell them how smart you are. Turns out, I was wrong. You people are stupid." 
Chappelle’s insistence that, as a comedian, he is not only responsible for the merit of his material, but also how the material is received by society at large is a moral attitude in real contrast to the ethos expressed in HBO’s Talking Funny, an hour-long roundtable discussion between comedians Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Louis CK, and Ricky Gervais. A half-hour into the show, Seinfeld and Rock agree that a bit Louis CK saw years ago — a young stand-up accompanied by a guitar parodying Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” singing, “Sitting on a Cock ‘Cause I’m Gay” — has comedic merit, and the comics spend a not insignificant portion of the special celebrating the bit. “It’s a funny joke,” Seinfeld says again and again over protests from Ricky Gervais that comedians should challenge their audience, that they should not just go for cheap laughs. But Seinfeld gets the final word: “You can’t be the one who decides why you like something, it doesn’t matter …. You just love a bit that’s funny.”
With these two views on the standard to which the comedian should be held in mind, I’d like to analyze how four other prominent comedic figures in the last twenty-five years dealt with the relationship between comedy and social responsibility. I chose these four comedians because they have each, at one time, been the best-selling comedian in the US, and they each have a distinct approach to their art.
Whereas Chappelle is worried that his audience won’t understand his material, George Carlin spent his career confronting his audience’s morality. He was angry about a lot, and he wanted his audience to be angry too. The above “Seven Dirty Words” bit was, emblematic of his comedic approach, a direct challenge to the sanitized nature of hegemonic discourse.
And as his career progressed, his material became more nakedly political, more caustic, his specials took on more of the qualities of a rant than a routine, and he was given the label of “people’s philosopher.” Consider this bit from his 2005 album Life is Worth Losing:
If you listen to the live recordings of his later specials, especially Life is Worth Losing and It’s Bad for Ya — in which he basically spent both hours yelling about militarism, materialism, corporatism, how stupid religion is, and how Americans were too dumb to realize they were being “fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago,” while sprinkling in a fart joke here and there to make it palatable — you will realize that he was receiving more applause than laughter.
Lenny Bruce, Carlin’s mentor, once said that “the role of a comedian is to make the audience laugh at a minimum of once every fifteen seconds.” Carlin was certainly provocative and succeeded in making his audience think about larger issues of iniquity, but he certainly wasn’t getting a high volume of laughs in his last three HBO specials. This poses some questions: Did Carlin cross the line between preaching and comedy? Is there, in fact, a line to be crossed?
For Carlin, such questions were besides the point. If he were still with us, he’d probably say it was a waste of time for someone like Chappelle to care about how how their material was received. I mean, who really cares what people in America think about anything, anyway? As he put it, “This country is full of nitwits and assholes. You ever notice that? Nitwits, assholes, fuckups, scumbags, jerkoffs, and dipshits.”
All stand-up comedians, Carlin included, utilize innocuous, apolitical material, but Seinfeld managed to become the highest earning comedian of the ‘90s and the 2000s using material that was pretty much entirely innocuous and apolitical. Anyone watching his various stand-up specials or his show, Seinfeld, which he created with Larry David, who I’ll return to later, would have a hard time detecting an opinion one way or the other on any of the “larger issues” Carlin spent his career screaming about. The nihilism of approach is something the Seinfeld creators embraced: in the fourth season of the show, a meta plot developed in which George and Jerry make out to write a “show about nothing.”
But does the decision not to say anything about the larger issues of the day in itself say something about Seinfeld’s political philosophy? I would argue, yes.
In a sense, Seinfeld is a reformulation of Emily Post’s classic book, Etiquette: In Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home. The range of topics covered is the same: restaurant manners (The Soup Nazi), fashion (the puffy shirt), and party etiquette (double dipping). However, Seinfeld takes it one step further. It is not so simple as to say that issues like race, sex, poverty, war, etc., do not exist in Seinfeld’s world. These issues exist in a very specific and consistent way: all issues, even the “serious” ones that Carlin was ranting about, are just matters around which not to make a social faux pas.
A clear example of this can be seen in Season 9, Episode 15 of Seinfeld, in which Elaine’s racism is presented as a problem only insofar as it gets in the way of her pursuit of a dark-skinned man.
For Seinfeld, then, there is no issue so large that it can escape the angling of a narcissistic mind. Perhaps, though, because he and pretty much all of the characters in his show are couched in the comforts of the white middle class, it would be hard to universalize this apolitical comedic approach. It is an obvious point that the larger issues which Seinfeld either eschewed or tiptoed around are more pressing for minorities and the poor, and perhaps Seinfeld was able to get away with a narcissistic, apolitical approach because, unlike in Chappelle’s Show, almost none of the characters were minorities or impoverished.
The Moral Vacillator
Though a good amount of his specials are dedicated to jokes about farting, being fat, and poor hygiene, as he shows in this bit on being white, Louis is at his best when he is funny while also forcing the audience to consider larger issues, in this case, white supremacy:
The intelligence of his material has earned him serious acclaim; one Huffington Post article went so far as to call Louis a modern day Socrates. But in walking the ethical tight rope that Chappelle laid out, there have been times when Louis’ approach has been flawed and offensive. In the opening to his 2008 special Chewed Up, Louis does a bit reminiscent of Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words":
In this bit, if you give him the benefit of the doubt, Louis can be seen as making the following point: words are not inherently harmful, but only become so when deployed with harmful intent. However, as it unfolds, Louis’s bit loses some of his nuance; he shouts the word ‘faggot’ again and again, and the audience erupts each time in laughter. In this instance, if we apply Chappelle’s standard — that is, if Louis is responsible not only for the merit of his material, but how his material will be received — then he has overstepped; it is pretty obvious that what the audience is cackling about at is not the irony with which language takes on pernicious meaning — they are simply laughing at a famous comedian hurling a harmful obscenity.
Or consider this bit from his Shameless special: “You should never rape anyone. Unless you have a reason, like you want to fuck someone and they won’t let you, in which case, what other option do you have? How else are you supposed to have an orgasm in their body if you don’t rape ‘em?” Material like this doesn’t seem to evoke Socrates; for me, it evokes low-brow comedians like Daniel Tosh.
Daniel Tosh’s one-man TV show Tosh.O has been the most watched show in its time slot among men aged 18-34, with more than 2 million people tuning in to watch on Comedy Central. It’s worth taking a quick detour to consider this in a historical context.
In 1887, a comedic socialist utopian novel, Looking Backward 2000-1887, was the third best-selling book in the United States, just behind Uncle Tom’s Cabin, leading to the creation of thousands of Bellamy Clubs which met with the intention of nationalizing American industry. In the 1940s and ‘50s Charlie Chaplin was topping Hollywood’s charts making Marxist satires about capitalist exploitation. Now Daniel Tosh tops the charts. It certainly says something — I’m just not exactly sure what — that someone like Tosh, coming from a comedic tradition which seems content to throw morals completely aside and exploit and fetishize America’s moral backwardness with bigoted material, is flourishing today.
In a segment of his show titled Is This Racist?, Tosh shows Youtube videos of black people acting in concert with societal stereotype. In this clip, Tosh shows a black person counting money and saying ridiculous things, then smiles smugly at the camera and says not being racist “is not easy, is it?”
Unfortunately, racism, sexism, and the like are among the most innocuous of Tosh’s material. When heckled in 2012 while performing at The Laugh Factory, Tosh told a female audience member, “Wouldn’t it be funny if this girl got gang raped this moment, like right now.”
Seinfeld also believes in being funny for the sake of funniness, but while Seinfeld was making jokes about why stall doors in public bathrooms don’t go all the way to the ground, Tosh is making fun of black people and rape. There’s a difference. Seinfeld’s material is unedgy, Tosh’s is immoral. And when more acclaimed comedians like Louis CK or Chappelle deploy intolerant material, there is at least the pretense that they are using the material to make a point. With Tosh, it seems, the point really is just to be funny at all costs.
Having looked at how these four comedians saw the relationship between comedy and social responsibility, could we imagine Chappelle co-opting any of their approaches? The short and perhaps unsatisfying answer is no. But why?
Could anyone imagine Chappelle haranguing the hour away in Radio City Hall about the problems of race in America? I certainly can’t. And not because he wouldn’t have very interesting things to say; he would. And it’s also not just because Chappelle has a different comedic style: Chappelle allows his points to unfold more subtly in the context of a story whereas Carlin beats his audience over the head with his points. There’s a more insidious reason why it wouldn’t be palatable for Chappelle to mark his return with a rant.
As Teju Cole has written, “People of color, women, and gays — who now have greater access to the centers of influence that ever before — are under pressure to be well-behaved when talking about their struggles.” Even the President, Cole argues, has to be careful to not to be perceived as an “angry black man."
The problems in society Carlin was talking about were more or less universal, at least here in America; we are all living in a capitalistic society, we are all living in a society that wages war, etc. Carlin was talking about a big other: those evil CEOs, those stupid Americans. We can listen to his rant and say, yeah, screw those guys. And whether we agree or disagree with Carlin’s politics, we have nonetheless experienced some of what he is talking about.
For Chappelle, the situation is different. Not all Americans have experienced racism; in fact, if Chappelle goes on stage and starts lecturing on race, then most of the listening public will probably be complicit in the issues that he discusses. With Carlin’s rants, all of his audience, perhaps besides corporate CEOs, could empathize; with Chappelle, his white audience can only sympathize.
David Harvey talks frequently about the need for a political union between the alienated and discontent, and the dispossessed and marginalized. Carlin was a member of the former group, whereas Chappelle and those represented in his racial satires can be considered groups of the latter. In America, it is usually the former who talk for the latter. If Chappelle disrupts this pattern and goes on a Carlin-esque rant, he will be at great risk of alienating people who want to laugh about race in America, but who do not really want to be confronted by how Chappelle’s experiences might implicate them in this country’s racial quagmire.
How about Seinfeld’s approach? Can we see Chappelle doing an hour routine that avoids issues of race and politics completely? The answer, again, is probably not. Why, though? Chappelle doesn't need to be edgy to be funny; he has plenty of hilarious, innocuous bits, such as this one:
In 2005, Seinfeld co-creator Larry David did a stand-up routine in which he explained his transition from “radical narcissist to … radical environmentalist.” The answer, in a word: “Tuna.” Mercury in tuna fish poses a problem for David:
Environmental degradation is something that David can be so blasé about because it is not really something that affects him, aside from his hesitancy to now order tuna for lunch. But for Chappelle, racism is a more immediate issue.
Niels Bohr once said that “some things are so serious that one can only joke about them.” Like few other artforms, comedy has the ability to slice right to the heart of an issue society might rather leave untouched. Does that mean Chappelle has a responsibility to go on stage and dissect issues of race? That’s not for me to say. But what I will say is that in the mirage of today’s post-racial society, where affirmative action is getting overturned and the Civil Rights bill is being stripped for parts, there is a societal need to keep conversations on race relevant. And who better than Chappelle to achieve this? Sure, maybe most people tuning in to Chappelle’s Show aren’t seriously grappling with the material, but exponentially more people watch Chappelle’s comedy than someone like Cornel West could ever lure to a lecture, even though they are talking about the same thing: the twisted manifestations of race in America.
But, like Louis CK, though Chappelle has intelligent things to say about race, he has also been known to exploit racial issues in his humor. In a sketch from season one of the Chappelle’s Show, reparations have finally been issued to African Americans. The skit features Chappelle as a news anchor in white-face, and allows a wall street analyst to break down the economic effects:
As Chappelle has repeatedly insisted, we need to “stop worshipping celebrities.” The media needs to stop saying that everything Louis CK does is brilliant simply because he is Louis CK; rather, we need to analyze the merit of each of his routines. Likewise, we need to stop worshipping Chappelle just because he is an intelligent black comedian. In the above bit, though his depiction of a white news anchor who happily pedals racial stereotypes is good satire, the skit gets its largest laughs from its pot-shot racist humor (black people like chicken and watermelon, are frivolous with money, don’t pay their phone bills), and Chappelle is thus perpetuating the same racism he is trying to satirize.
Satirizing race is a delicate balance, and Chappelle, though it pains me to say this, has even stooped to Tosh’s level. This is not just because, like Tosh, Chappelle has his own callous rape joke, in which he refers to a man raping thousands of men as “the most gangster shit.” His sketch "The Niggar Family," a sort of Leave it to Beaver parody in which the white family has the last name “Niggar,” sees Chappelle as a black mailman who gets a huge kick out of repeatedly addressing this family by their last name. If Chappelle is doing something intelligent here, it certainly escapes me. As someone who was attending a mostly white high school during 2003 when this sketch came out, I can attest to the fact that if Chappelle is concerned with the influence of his material, the results are ugly. Mostly, this sketch just give license to a bunch of unthinking young white people to go around and say “Niggar.”
Chappelle is a master at making us laugh about race. And there is the temptation: it is pretty easy to exploit racist sentiment to get a cheap laugh; but if Chappelle wants to make us think about race in a constructive way, he’ll need to return with material that is a bit more nuanced.
In walking away from $50 million because he was not sure how his satirical comedy was being received, Chappelle has set a pretty high moral standard for himself and in doing so has offered us an interesting lens through which to view the role that comedy, and art more generally, should play in society. His is a strict moral view. But is an artist really responsible for how their material is received?
David Foster Wallace wrote lucidly about depression and suicide. Is it his responsibility if one of his reader’s read his work, fell into further despair, and killed themselves? Is Malcolm X responsible for people who read his autobiography, decide that violent revolution is the answer, that all white people really are devils, and proceed to launch an attack on white people in their neighborhood? In this sense, is Chappelle really responsible for the public who fail to understand his racial satire, and thus get to watch Chappelle’s Show and laugh freely at racist sentiment?
In other words: is an artist responsible to the public, or to art itself? Is a comedian responsible to the public, or to comedy itself?
Well, on the one hand, there is the truth behind Mark Twain’s quote: “The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is comedy.” That comedy can be highly influential in the way that the public thinks about the world is something that Chairman Mao understood all too well. In Maoist China, all comedy, all art for that matter, was only to be deployed for purposes of propaganda. I, for one, have no desire to live in a society where all art is purposeful, regardless of how much I might agree with whatever purpose the art is trying to serve. How boring! Art is something which should break us out of the society’s shackles, not conform to them.
And there is definitely an intrinsic value to laughter (so long as it’s not coming directly at someone’s expense). It just seems impossible to quantify what that value is; and so it’s futile to try to balance the laughter that someone like Seinfeld brought millions against what could be achieved by a more activist-styled approach.
Ultimately, Chappelle and all great comedians have one singular power: many of us are eager to listen to what they have to say. And like all powers the power of the comedian is not without its curse, namely, that now that we are listening, there is not only pressure for them to continue to speak, but, whether they like it or not, their words might actually have some influence on the listening public.
//Mark Jay is a co-founder of The Periphery.
Special thanks to Andy Feiler. This final draft is heavily indebted to our conversations about the role of comedy in society.