Chap­pelle pushes same lim­its as Lenny Bruce

The Morning Call - - TOWN SQUARE - Clarence Page

Part of the fun of watch­ing edgy stand-up co­me­di­ans is what I call the “De­mo­li­tion Derby Ef­fect.”

Just as de­mo­li­tion der­bies were born out of the be­lief that a lot of ticket buy­ers would rather watch cars wreck than race, a lot of peo­ple pay to watch edgy co­me­di­ans in the an­tic­i­pa­tion that maybe, just maybe, any minute now they’re go­ing to (gasp!) go too far.

In that re­gard, no­to­ri­ously edgy comic Dave Chap­pelle takes the prize with his lat­est — and fifth — Net­flix stand-up com­edy spe­cial, “Sticks & Stones,” judging by the vol­ume of complaints buzzing on­line.

But, as long­time Chap­pelle fans — like me — know, that’s not un­usual. What is un­usual is how much the blow­back against Chap­pelle’s spe­cial has come mostly from the lib­er­als and pro­gres­sives and how much praise he is re­ceiv­ing from con­ser­va­tives and the far right.

“Dave Chap­pelle’s New Stand-Up Is Hi­lar­i­ous (And Even Sub­ver­sively Pro-Life)” says The Fed­er­al­ist’s head­line on se­nior editor Molly Hem­ing­way’s es­say.

A head­line on the con­ser­va­tive Town­hall site crows, “Dave Chap­pelle: The Mid­dle Fin­ger Amer­ica Needs.”

But on the more lib­eral or main­stream side, a critic for The At­lantic calls the set “a tem­per tantrum.” The Root calls it “lazy.” Vice urges its read­ers to just skip it al­to­gether. The Guardian sniffs, “Dave Chap­pelle’s ‘reck­less’ #MeToo and trans jokes have real af­ter­ef­fects.”

Trans­gen­der YouTube com­men­ta­tor Natalie Wynn said on the pro­gres­sive TheYoungTu­rks that Chap­pelle’s jokes, par­tic­u­larly about trans­gen­der peo­ple, were stale, “out of touch” and “far from his best.” She charged, for ex­am­ple, that Chap­pelle’s mock­ery of trans­gen­der peo­ple, say­ing “I iden­tify as Asian,” steals from Ricky Ger­vais’ dec­la­ra­tion in his own Net­flix spe­cial ear­lier this year that he iden­ti­fies as “a chimp.”

But trans­gen­der peo­ple are only one of the usu­ally taboo tar­gets Chap­pelle chews over in his whine list.

On abor­tion rights, for ex­am­ple, he sets us up with a dis­claimer about how he sup­ports “the right to choose,” and that “If you’re a man, you should stay out of the abor­tion de­bate al­to­gether.”

But then he whips around to say, “And ladies, to be fair to us, I also be­lieve that if you de­cide to have the baby, a man should not have to pay,” he said. “That’s fair.”

The au­di­ence qui­ets down for a mo­ment as if wait­ing for a punch­line, but that was the punch­line. Does Dave re­ally be­lieve that’s a fair equiv­a­lence? He smiles, says it’s some­thing worth thinking about, then he moves on to his next tar­gets.

“This is the worst time ever to be a celebrity,” Chap­pelle moans in a rant about “al­pha­bet peo­ple,” his term for the LGBTQ rights move­ment. Re­ally? I think the ghost of Lenny Bruce, who was ar­rested in Chicago in 1962, as well as in other ci­ties, for jokes that were tamer than those that Chap­pelle and other edgy comics say ev­ery night.

Bruce died in 1966 of a drug over­dose, but he lives on as a mar­tyr to the sort of free speech that has en­abled co­me­di­ans and oth­ers to break taboos, speak freely, ex­pose con­tra­dic­tions and, at best, move so­ci­ety to­ward bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of Amer­i­can diver­sity and freedoms.

Or as Chap­pelle ex­plained him­self on “PBS NewsHour”: “I don’t think peo­ple pay money to see a guy who speaks pre­cisely and care­fully ... (or) is wor­ried about some reper­cus­sions. They just want to see a guy try to give them some­thing hon­est or some­thing re­lat­able or maybe have some fun with some­thing.”

Right. Above all else, we ex­pect co­me­di­ans to be funny and fear­less. Even when Chap­pelle seems to go off the rails in his mono­logue, he more of­ten than not is rais­ing se­ri­ous con­cerns — such as how the rules for re­la­tions across racial, sex­ual and po­lit­i­cal lines keep chang­ing.

Some­times it is coura­geous comics who pro­vide the catalyst we need for se­ri­ous dis­cus­sions about such tough top­ics. When co­me­di­ans bomb, they may be be­hind the times. Or, as with Lenny Bruce, they may be ahead of their time.

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