Is this racist?
by Kate Conner-Ruben
Known mostly as the "lead stoner" in the 1998 film Half-Baked, funnyman Dave Chappelle, in his efforts to establish a new brand of comedy, has in fact established a new brand of comedy, one where uncertain discomfort and bursts of laughter go hand in hand. Chappelle's Show on Comedy Central turns heads and raises the question "Does laughing at this make me a racist person?"
My first impression of Chappelle's Show, gleaned from the continuous previews in the weeks prior to its premiere, was that this would be a repeat of Turn Ben Stein On, Stein's deadpan - and deadly - Comedy Central talk show. But I was sorely mistaken. Chappelle's raunchy, satirical humor, poking fun at both whites and blacks, proves that he finds humor in everything from crack addicts to the Ku Klux Klan - subjects most comics are reluctant to explore.
This D.C. native began performing stand-up comedy in area nightclubs at age fourteen. What sets him apart is his signature willingness to mock his own race - and every other. One result is a TV show that asks audiences to question their reaction to his offensive material.
And there's a lot of that.
The show includes some stand-up in front of a studio audience, but that's just an appetizer for the main course - a variety of parodies in the form of prerecorded skits. In a recent episode, Chappelle plays an itchy, white-lipped crack addict tricked into attending an "intervention" with people he has taken advantage of. In everyday life, obviously, a story like this would not be the least bit funny, but the writing is so good, and the characterizations so right on, that the audience is somehow given permission to laugh. Another skit asks the question "Is it possible that sixties television animals such as Mr. Ed, Rin Tin Tin, and Flipper were all violently racist?" The evidence is presented: the famous footage of a German Shepherd attacking an African
American civil rights demonstrator, a white horse at a Klan rally, and a fake dolphin at an inner-city pool.
Aired Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central, Chappelle's Show is doubtlessly filling the mailbags with complaints. But the fact remains: Chappelle's humor relates to the real world and issues occurring in it, without glorifying or holding anything back. How will a town such as Ann Arbor - liberal, politically correct, and populated with "yuppies" - accept Dave Chappelle's sinful but truthful style of comedy?
We'll soon find out. Dave Chappelle performs two shows at the Michigan Theater on Saturday, April 5.
[Originally published in April, 2003.]