The paternal wisdom of Dave Chappelle

The comedian's George Floyd special is full of profane, essential truths

Dave Chappelle.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Screenshot/YouTube, iStock)

I have said before in this space that I sometimes wonder why we have professional opinion columnists, especially when it comes to the subject of American race relations. Generally rappers, football players, and reality television stars do a better job of speaking candidly than professional scribblers do. It now occurs to me that comedians deserve a place on the list.

During the last 20 or so years, from his early stand-up routines through his glorious but short-lived Comedy Central sketch program all the way up to a triumphant return to Saturday Night Live after the 2016 election and his recent comeback specials on Netflix, Dave Chappelle has been among our most insightful commentators on race, and certainly the most amusing. This is true not least because he is willing to speak about things that highbrow opinion columnists of all persuasions will not go near, for example the absurd disparity between how we evaluate the legacy of Michael Jackson and those of any number of white rock stars about whose crimes we have no doubt whatsoever. He tells the truth and does so with candor, wit, and a sense of righteous indignation that is never strident or emptily moralistic.

I cannot be the only American who has been awaiting Chapelle's response to what, for lack of a better description, I will quote him and refer to as "a f—--- weird time": the killing of George Floyd, the coronavirus pandemic, lockdown, the coming economic depression — in other words, the hideous blur that has been the last few months, in response to all of which we need humor so desperately.

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It is hard to say whether 8:46, Chappelle's new special uploaded to YouTube on Friday morning, fulfills this need. The comedian himself asks the audience more than once whether they are actually enjoying themselves. Speaking only for myself, I was thoroughly entertained. But I would be lying if I said that the main impression I took away from it was one of humor, at least in the sense one generally associates with stand-up comedy performers. At times it felt more like a sermon: "Who are you talking to? What are you signifying? That you can kneel on a man's neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds and feel like you wouldn't get the wrath of God?"

It is difficult to do justice to 8:46 on a family-friendly website. Direct quotation is all but impossible, but suffice it to say that there is material here that will offend conservatives, feminists, CNN viewers, and virtually all persons with superficial notions about good taste.

Everything about the special is bizarre. This includes the somewhat casual manner in which it was shot. I have not been able to discover the outdoor venue in which it was filmed, but anyone who missed the first 20 or so seconds could be forgiven for believing that the show is taking place in Chappelle's yard, as he sits on a stool in front of a stack of firewood chain smoking.

The monologue Chappelle delivers is remarkable, both as a performance and as a text in its own right. (Among other things it left me hoping that he will follow in the footsteps of Norm Macdonald and publish an experimental memoir of some sort.) Viewers of his first Netflix special will remember the ingenuity with which he used the same obscene joke to bookend the routine. In this case the framing device is his memory of surviving an earthquake in Los Angeles that lasted 39 seconds and a series of interlocking coincidences and connections: the titular eight minutes and 46 seconds correspond to the hour and minute at which Chappelle was born just as the late Kobe Bryant’s two numbers, 8 and 24, to the comedian’s birthday on August 24; Floyd with his last breaths calling for his mother just as Chappelle's own father had called for his grandmother, the wife of an African Methodist Episcopal clergyman who was a former slave. He also draws a connection that had not occurred to me between three black men who have killed police officers in recent years, namely, their record of military service.

But the most extraordinary thing about 8:46 is recognizing how Chappelle himself has metamorphosed. While he begins and ends the routine by dismissing the idea that celebrity reactions to Floyd's death and the ensuing protests are of any importance ("Nobody cares what Ja Rule thinks right now"), he seems to recognize at some level that, in his case anyway, there are millions of Americans who are interested in what he has to say. This is because, in the space of two decades, he has changed alongside his audience. He has become, absurdly perhaps but also fittingly, a paternal figure, offering a nation of people who still laugh at his jokes about R. Kelly and crack and black white supremacists something at once similar and vastly more important.

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Matthew Walther

Matthew Walther is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has also appeared in First Things, The Spectator of London, The Catholic Herald, National Review, and other publications. He is currently writing a biography of the Rev. Montague Summers. He is also a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.