For all the problems facing our civilization these days, at least we have an infinite range of entertainment options to distract us. Whenever I find myself discouraged by rising seas, crumbling democracy, and widening economic inequality, I try to think about how inconvenient it would have been to live in an earlier time. Just a few decades ago, I would have had only a handful of channels on my television. Under such circumstances, I might have felt compelled to watch Dave Chappelle on Saturday Night Live.
He was a familiar name on a familiar program, and I once would have considered his appearance appointment viewing. Chappelle’s Show had been a defining cultural touchstone of my childhood, and its subversive creator was not just a master purveyor of jokes but a moral compass who defended underdogs and kneecapped authorities. In the mid-aughts, Saturday Night Live offered an incisive catharsis for an increasingly absurd political reality, mocking the powerful people driving our nation into senseless wars. To a younger version of me, Chappelle on SNL days after an election would have been a balm for my fears that the forces of greed and prejudice were winning, that the rich were getting richer and the oppressed were falling farther behind.
Less than two decades later, Chappelle on SNL is no balm but rather confirmation that those fears were right all along, that the status quo has held as old powers perpetuate old ideas.
Like many others, I stopped watching Chappelle’s stand-up specials after he started making fun of trans people, marking the comedian’s broader shift away from elevating marginalized communities to centering the concerns of people as famous and wealthy as he is. As my colleague Elamin Abdelmahmoud has written, a comedian who rose to success by interrogating systemic racism has transformed into one obsessed with the claim that he is a victim of so-called cancel culture, a specious argument for a multimillionaire still regularly signing Netflix specials and hosting SNL for the third time in six years. However many former fans have turned away from Chappelle, the powerful NBC producer Lorne Michaels is not among them. Chappelle got the hosting gig despite reports that some SNL writers intended to boycott the episode in protest.
I didn’t watch on Saturday night, but not because I was boycotting. I didn’t even realize Chappelle was hosting until the next day, as I caught up on the week’s news. SNL hasn’t been a part of my weekend routine for years, but I’m not one of those people who say it’s gotten worse or anything like that. I think it’s fine. Sometimes I come across sketches that make me laugh. I’m still a fan of Kenan Thompson. It just never really occurs to me to watch SNL, especially when I have so many other important matters to attend to, such as catching up on the 14 other prestige television shows my friends tell me I need to watch and making sure I get my money's worth on the NBA League Pass subscription I pay $100 a year for.
Only on Monday did I get around to watching Chappelle’s monologue, and only because my editor assigned me to write about it. This assignment struck a deep fear in me. I admit I haven’t spent much time thinking about SNL or Chappelle lately. Whatever passionate opinions I once held about either have since dissipated into the archives of my memory, available for review when necessary but covered in dust. Both, to me, are relics of an antiquated age, alongside oversize jerseys, CD players, and neoliberalism.
Indeed, Chappelle’s monologue was a mostly dull commentary on topical issues he didn’t seem to have anything interesting to add to, while echoing antisemitic tropes in provocations that aimed to shock but failed to do so because his current playbook has become stale and predictable.
He opened with jokes about Kyrie Irving and Kanye West, who has legally changed his name to Ye, mocking and denouncing the antisemitism they promoted but downplaying the harm they caused by asserting that their biggest sins weren’t about holding those beliefs but publicizing them. He stayed in the lane that has consumed him in recent years, directing his starkest criticisms toward the social norms his fellow celebrities had run up against.
“He broke show business rules,” Chappelle said of Ye. “You know, the rules of perception. If they’re Black, then it’s a gang. If they’re Italian, it’s a mob. But if they’re Jewish, it’s a coincidence and you should never speak about it.”
In Chappelle’s view, the NBA and the Brooklyn Nets punished Irving because he was “slow to apologize” for posting a link to an antisemitic film, leading his employers to demand a “longer and longer” list of conditions he had to meet in order to return. “This is where I draw the line,” Chappelle said. “I know that Jewish people have been through terrible things all over the world, but you can’t blame that on Black Americans.” He punctuated the point with a punchline about how a fair punishment would be for Irving to post a link to Schindler’s List.
About halfway through his 15-minute monologue, he pivoted to politics, and his jokes about Donald Trump flashed glimpses of the brilliance that once defined him. His assessment of Trump’s appeal was sharp, filled with uncomfortable but essential truths, calling him an “honest liar” who admitted to knowing the system was rigged because he used its unfair design to his own benefit. “And then he pulled out an Illuminati membership card and chopped a line of cocaine,” Chappelle said. He observed that the white people who support Trump echoed complaints that Black people have been making for generations. “Everything white people are mad about, we’ve been on that,” he said. “‘Man, we should dismantle the FBI.’ Word to Martin Luther King, bro, we been on that.”
Those moments were a reminder of the cost of Chappelle’s heel turn, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much more of that cutting insight we could have had in these troubled times if he had not diverted his attention to the frivolous matters that now occupy him.
As if to bring me back to reality, he concluded his monologue by circling back to the issue he found most important.
“It shouldn’t be this scary to talk about anything,” he said. “It’s making my job incredibly difficult, and to be honest with you, I’m getting sick of it.” ●