In 2003, Dave Chappelle debuted his eponymously titled show on Comedy Central and the rest is comedic history. For two seasons, Chappelle entertained audiences with his impressions of musicians such as Lil' Jon, R. Kelly, and Rick James, political satires such as "Black Bush," and commentaries on race i.e. the racial draft and racism i.e. Black KKK member. Over the past two years, the country has been rife with social, political, and economic change and turmoil. Which begs the question, where's Dave Chappelle when you need him?
Imagine his satiric parodies of Barack Obama's ascendancy to the presidency, first as he battled Hilary Clinton, then John McCain to his historic win. How would he impersonate the President now? How would he take on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Obama's heavily criticized health care plan, Sarah Palin's political rise, or Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation to the Supreme Court? Or picture, his often time collaborator, the genius Paul Mooney, and his Negrodamus predictions. What would Negrodamus see in Chris Brown's future? Or better yet, Michael Vick's?
Comedy has always been, among other things, a temporary elixir in times of intense strife. The best comedians (i.e. Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce) have always integrated social commentary into their biting critiques of popular culture, social norms, and politics. I was in graduate school at the time of Chappelle's show and I must say that I looked forward to the moments of sheer brilliance that that show communicated to its audience each week. But now, I find myself not really moved to laugh and if I do so, its mostly because of some unintentional comedic farce that I just happen to come upon.
In his brilliant book "Hokum: An Anthology of African American Humor," Paul Beatty remarks that the reason he anthologized a book of this nature is "...because I'm afraid that American humor is fading into Bolivian and that Will Smith, the driest man alive, will be historicized as the Oscar Wilde of Negro wit and whimsy". And indeed, after Chappelle's short lived reign, no one has truly commandeered social and political critique through comedy with the mastery and skill of Chappelle. African Americans, especially, have always used humor as a kind of antiseptic to heal past traumas that have seeped into the present. Possible jokes that would stem from Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s arrest, for example, are relatable to audiences of color especially sense there is a collective reality of this experience. Race, racism, gender, sexuality and class have taken a front row seat to the contemporary American cultural stage but still, the conversations around these issues are strangely not substantive enough, barely cracking the surface.
In 2005, Chappelle abruptly left the show during the third season of filming after feeling uncomfortable with some of the images that were being produced, particularly after a crew member was laughing at one of the sketches in a way that made him feel uncomfortable. He felt that the show was moving in a direction that was becoming socially irresponsible. While I supported his decision and his concerns, I find myself every now and then longing for at least 5 or 6 minutes a week I would receive a good laugh at life's absurdities. Damn, I miss Dave Chappelle.