When it comes to balancing contradictory arguments, no one is more skilled than Dave Chappelle.
While watching Chappelle’s much-anticipated return on Saturday Night Live last night, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was just another one of his ritualistic post-election guest-hosting gigs.
Despite the day’s news that Democrats had surprised everyone by retaining control of the Senate, Chappelle didn’t spend much of his monologue on the midterms. He devoted more time to discussing antisemitism and Kanye West.
“Early in my career, I learned there are two words you should never utter together,” Dave Chappelle said in his opening monologue. “The terms in question are “the” and “Jews.” I’ve never met a person whose life improved after saying that.”
Chappelle was already a divisive host because of his Netflix special The Closer from 2021, which was widely panned for its homophobic and transphobic comedy. He did not provide an apology. My evaluation stated that Chappelle believes he is immune to criticism because, in his mind, the race is more important than everything else.
This strategy was on full display last Saturday. Chappelle walked a tightrope throughout his monologue, eventually revealing that West (now known as Ye) had said things so horrible that even Adidas, a corporation founded by brothers who were members of the Nazi party in the 1930s, was offended (“I guess the student surpassed the teacher.”)
At the same time, the comic implied that Ye’s jibes about Jews controlling the media and the entertainment industry, which echoed traditional antisemitic tropes, were not completely false. “(I’ve been to) Hollywood, and there are a lot of Jews there,” he joked. To put it another way: “like, a lot.”)
Moreover, he made light of the fact that Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving was punished after sharing a link to the antisemitic film Hebrew to Negroes: Wake Up Black America, which argues that the Holocaust never occurred. According to Chappelle, Irving’s “Black a— was nothing near the Holocaust.”
The audience was stunned by one phrase in particular before they applauded in fits and started “I’m aware that Jews all around the world have endured unimaginable suffering. Of course, that’s not the fault of African-Americans.”
I don’t see how this relates to the case of the professional athlete who, without explanation, posted a link to an antisemitic film and then waited several days before apologizing for the film’s antisemitic elements.
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One thing I am aware of is that one of comedy’s most outspoken and astute minds had an opportunity to shed light on the enduring battle Black Americans have fought against antisemitism. Instead, his speech seemed to be full of justifications and downplaying of the seriousness of the claims against Ye, such as his alleged adoration for Adolf Hitler.
To be sure, comedy isn’t the same as reporting the news. But if we’re going to laud really talented performers like Chappelle, since there is a sense that their work holds potent truths about society and life, we must equally highlight when they provide content that accomplishes the opposite and cloud over a topic that should be clear as day.
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Chappelle’s Saturday Night Live performance continued in a high-quality fashion from there. To wit: Ice T as Light-Skinned Larry Targaryen in a prerecorded spoof of HBO’s House of the Dragon incorporating additional Black characters.
Another successful skit showed white anchors making fun of a black blues musician because his record was called Potato Hole; the musician then explained that the name came from the hiding place that slaves dug to protect their most precious items from the plantation owners.
But Chappelle’s monologue had already thrown me off balance; it was yet another example of a time when an artist whose work is revered for its ability to shed new light on familiar topics took a turn toward the disappointing.