Dave Chappelle

By: Mike Fleisch
August 24, 2013

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“Nice place, Nigger.” Increasingly valued in a culture that so lavishly rewards efficient communication, catchphrases and punchlines connect those in on the joke, except perhaps the joker. But what are jokes really intended to do, and for whom? DAVE CHAPPELLE (born 1973) remains the most scrupulously self-aware of comedians, a master stand-up artist who found gold for the taking in the sketch format on cable. Reality television had arrived just in time; Chappelle’s narrative comedy matched absurdities — extreme racial stereotypes plucked from their generalized, unstated frames and dropped into “real” constructions — two mediated wrongs generating a stream of infectiously quotable characters. The N-word in particular became Chappelle’s stomping ground, performing race as Clayton Bigsby the black white supremacist, Clifton the (Ward- and June-white) Niggar family’s milkman, and Rick James. After two seasons and record DVD sales, Viacom offered him $55 million to keep going, but a white crew member’s over-enthusiastic laughter made Chappelle wonder just how his jokes actually worked. With no clear answer, he abandoned Hollywood for South Africa. Contentious stand-up appearances followed his return, with Chappelle berating catchphrase-screaming audiences for the inability to distinguish between “real and fake.” Critics have identified his representations of class and gender as less than progressive, but nobody else has ever recognized such silliness in the lines that separate, or in how pervasively the rules that govern our play assume a particular variety of player.

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