You can’t make yourself laugh.
You either laugh or you don’t.
Funny is involuntary. My mother used to try to be mad at my brother and me. But we knew how to make her laugh. And we would do it when we knew we were in trouble. And she couldn’t contain herself. This was a woman trying to discipline two teenage boys. That’s serious business. But we knew the things to say that would tweak her funny bone. And she would break almost every time.
Because you can’t make yourself laugh.
You either laugh or you don’t.
I love standup comedy. I love it more than I love music. Given the choice to go see a concert or a comedian, I will choose the comedian ten times out of ten. I incorporate a lot of comedy in my own shows. I’ve got plenty of music in my life. But I crave laughter. We all do.
Dave Chappelle is a brilliant comedian I’ve been a fan of for almost two decades. He’s just funny. When it comes to comedy, they say you either say funny things or you say things funny. Dave does both. The jokes land as written. But his delivery takes a snicker and turns it into a belly laugh.
His new Netflix special is called Sticks and Stones and as with all Dave Chappelle specials, I had to check it out …
Apparently, this new 60 minutes of comedy is stirring up controversy all over the internet. His directly walking into the grievance culture for material has stirred up the backlash he talked about from the stage …in his special …about grievances.
In other words, people are doing EXACTLY what he said they would do, upon hearing his comedic rants. Now, granted, he tackled issues like abortion and gun violence and the LBGTQ community as well as child molestation and the absurdity of the Jussie Smollette case. That’s a full plate of “can I please get publicly flogged?” And apparently, he is.
Here’s the thing …
As much as I have always laughed at Dave, he made his career bones by enumerating the differences between black people and white people. That’s an old Def Comedy Jam hack move I’ve never really cared too much for. We get it: black people and white people are different. Yes, they talk differently and walk differently and act different when they get fired and blah, blah, blah. But somehow, Dave has always managed to couch it in a way that simply makes me laugh. I can’t tell you why. But you either laugh or you don’t. And I laugh.
But I have to set aside all my feeling about being a “white guy” in order to participate. I have to recognize that he’s not talking about me (personally) when he makes the deeper points about white people building the “road of segregation.” And he’s not talking about himself when talking about “hood niggas” (his word – DEFINITELY not mine). These are stereotypes. And they are only “based” on patterns we all try to make sense of. Laughing at them is a good way to diffuse them and drain their power.
If I wanted to be combative about Dave Chappelle’s comedy, I could take issue with his constant portrayal of the “clueless white guy who is latently racist” as offensive. But I don’t. He’s doing a bit. And I get it.
But where is the line? Is telling women that they could just “shut the f$%k up” when it comes to equality in sports, funny? Is telling boys who may have been sexually assaulted by Michael Jackson that they should be proud that THAT was their first sexual experience, funny? Is comparing himself to actually being Asian inside of a black man’s body, to transgender people – THEN talking like the biggest Asian stereotype on earth, a knee-slapping good time?
Not when I type it out like this. There’s no context and no nuance. There’s no laugh afterward that says, “I’m kidding – it’s a joke.”
If someone did a bit on people with special needs, that made THEM the butt of the joke, I would not find it funny. But there IS comedy and absurdity in the world of special needs. My wife joked once with the high school counselor, that we weren’t going to be “those parents” who insisted that our daughter be on the Cheerleading team. We all laughed a knowing laugh because in the special needs community, we all know those “stage” moms and dads who insist on shoving their child into every “ableist” endeavor simply to prove a point. There’s a joke there. There’s a funny absurdity there, that is more about the parents than the kids. But it’s a fine line.
We live in this new world where we simply refuse to attach context to anything. We’re like a bunch of trial lawyers, continually cross-examining the other side, for ANY slip up that will allow us to chalk up a win. And in this constant word game, people are starving for someone to say, “would everybody please lighten up?!?!”
But we don’t.
Some of the same people who are defending Cave Chappelle were “horrified” when Donald Trump joked about being “the chosen one” sent to deal with China. I got the joke. I saw the context. It wasn’t anything that made me laugh, but it WAS a joke. And at some point we all have to exhale and snicker.
The truth is, life doesn’t have to be unfunny. We will do a lot better if we laugh at ourselves. Or one day a generation of humans is going to wake up and study video of stand up comedians, and not have a clue what they’re watching. And they’ll think it’s all literal and they’ll be horrified.
At that point, we will have all turned into robots who have nothing left to laugh at and no way to soften the cruelty of the world by poking fun at it.
Hopefully, I’ll be long gone by then.
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