Elizabeth Breitmeyer / Gavel Media

Distinguishing Between Comedy and Commentary

In a study released last year, researchers finally confirmed what was long assumed – comedy is an effective way of communicating about political information. Joking about difficult topics can make them more approachable and understandable. And for a long time, prominent comedians, such as John Oliver or Trevor Noah, have used humor to deliver well-thought-out criticism and analysis of American politics. 

While comedy can be a vehicle for important conversations, it can also work to support problematic messages. Exemplary of this is stand-up comic Dave Chappelle, who has found himself embroiled in controversy. In the 15-minute-long SNL monologue Chappelle recently delivered, he hinted at several conspiracy theories and repeatedly dipped into antisemitic tropes

The worst of the topics mentioned was the 2018 documentary Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America, a film for which NBA star Kyrie Irving had faced suspension for publicly supporting. While discussing this, Chappelle firmly insisted that he knows “the Jewish people have been through some terrible things all over the world. But you can't blame that on Black Americans." This didn’t seem to be intended as a joke, but rather Chappelle’s earnest reasoning for why Kyrie’s suspension was unwarranted. His remarks were met with a deafening silence, as the audience was somewhat unsure of how to interpret what had just been said. 

Chappelle has frequently said that he dislikes controversy and wants to avoid being “canceled.” Yet he continues to intersperse largely indefensible political statements into his comedy routines. Beyond the recent SNL monologue, his Netflix special The Closer drew ire for its blatantly anti-science and transphobic comments. Chappelle defended this speech under the guise of it being a joke. But one has to ask what makes repeating transphobic tropes particularly funny. 

Unfortunately, Chappelle is just one of many comics who will integrate terrible political opinions into their routines, using the fact that it’s comedy to absolve them of repercussions. There always has been, and always will be, a place for politics in comedy. But it’s also not wrong to feel like comedy that boils down to problematic political rambling isn’t really “comedy.” 

Nuance is often lost in the creation of a comedy routine; thus, for SNL monologues or Netflix specials, it’s important to be cognizant of the types of ideas that are being platformed. Dangerous rhetoric like Chappelle’s can directly impact people’s views. And, while parroting hateful political opinions doesn’t make for good comedy, it can give bigots a justification for their beliefs. 

Ignacio Chardos

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