Dave Chappelle and Social Commentary


Peaking in success in the mid 2000s in both comedy venues and the appraised “Chappelle’s Show,” Dave Chappelle became know as a “racy” comedian addressing racism on multiple fronts. At the same time of Chappelle’s celebrity, the atmosphere in America was forever changed as 9/11 reintroduced racial tensions into the American public. Chappelle’s insights on America’s racial hot seat play hand-in-hand with the nuance of anxiety sweeping the nation like a wave in the crowd of a sporting stadium. Following Chappelle’s approach to deconstructing these constructed (or institutionalized) ideas of what it means to carry a racial identity, comedy acts as an outlet that may start conversations to extinguish such psychological wage and double-consciousness coined by W.E.B. Du Bois (Wetterberg 15). Although the prevalence of racism is not as dramatic or obvious as seen in America’s past, a person may benefit unknowingly just by the merit of the color of their skin. Chappelle conceptually challenges and blurs the lines of racial stereotypes, and stresses social taboos like the n-word, while providing insights in human experiences. Through the affect theory of his stage, his audience demographic, and frequency of taboo topics Chappelle’s comedy often reduces the harshness of the n-word and racism by deconstructing institutionalized stereotypes.


Without the comedic stage and affect theory, tools used to talk about things like racism, Chappelle’s conversations would otherwise not “standup” in any other context. When you take the work of any successful comedian who critiques racism, specifically Chappelle and his use of the n-word, humor is able to challenge stereotypes because of the affect theory; due to his platform, Chappelle’s writing is cathartic without being obviously cathartic or preachy (“Dave Chappelle & Maya Angelou”). People can feel the intentions behind words. Researchers discuss the affect theory through comedic relief when bordering on social ethics, for this humor revolves around social critique “immersed in the affects of our social identities and is better approached in terms of a social system’s hypocrisy, arrogance, ignorance, and other vices of unchecked power” (Willett and Willett 98). With this in mind, the setting of the comedic stage is crucial, because the created atmosphere is able to open such topics without being exceedingly offensive. Chappelle notes that if taken out of context, the n-word can still hurt someone, thus referring to the stressed importance of affect theory playing on an emotional state in a comedy venue as apposed to talking about racism and the n-word on a political stand, which may not go over well (“Inside The Actors Studio: Dave Chappelle”). Another way to look at the uniqueness of Chappelle and other black comedians who embrace the use of the n-word is to note these professionals as authorities understanding how to move between race, ethnicities and other social identities. While Chappelle holds the unique perspective of a black comedian, he can be thought of as a savant, since he talks about stereotypes and racism of most races and cultures. By cyphering through the diversity of his potential audience, Chappelle notes the common rule that a joke is funniest when it is not about you. In times of the 21st century where things like race and class are becoming mainstream issues, Chappelle increases his status as a pop culture icon and his ability to be relatable, as he continues to loosen stereotypes for those who will listen.


Creating commentary that breaks down social institutions of racism, Chappelle simultaneously reaches out to broad audiences transcending more than a singular group of people based on age, class, or race. Accordingly, Chappelle is reaching out to more than just the black community, those arguably affected most by his jokes surrounding the n-word and racism. Audience analysis is a proficient tool seen by artist like Chappelle, who talk about things that are socially uncomfortable. The audience that is attracted to Chappelle’s style, for the most part, assesses itself knowing the provided content in addition to the comedy stage, making appropriateness more expectable. Getting audiences to think about race not exclusively in terms of completion, on Inside The Actors Studio, Chappelle breakdown a joke from “Killin’ Them Softly”: as a black man Chappelle is sitting in a limousine, in the ghetto, at night, and feeling more than uneasy he locks the doors of the limousine, as the driver ditches Chappelle (“Inside The Actors Studio: Dave Chappelle”). Underlying, Chappelle’s identity turns on and reveals his middle class upbringing, not his race. Directing people to class created tension, Chappelle uses the contrast of the “luxurious” limo placed in an “underprivileged” ghetto. Why is Chappelle acting like an outsider, or even white, when he himself is a minority raised in Washington, D.C.? With this in mind, Chappelle does away with stereotypical ways of thinking and connects thoughts of class as being directly linked with identities. Common to many other black artists, Chappelle remarks he is not surprised by the attendance of whites at his shows, because he is talking about a human experience shared on the implications of authority: being embarrassed or marginalized furthering, “no one likes authority figures” (“Dave Chappelle & Maya Angelou”). Hence, messages to rethink race in American society will translate systemically, due to integrated audiences, which decides to tune in and listen to performances by Chappelle.

Chappelle’s vertical and horizontal thinking in his comedy maybe easily overlooked, consequently audience members may laugh for the wrong reasons. If the audience members do not connect the dots of Chappelle’s sophisticated delivery then they are only empowering the very racism complexities and slurs they are laughing at. Dr. Maya Angelou proposes the idea that racism, racial terms like the n-word, are irreversibly poisonous (“Dave Chappelle & Maya Angelou). Never forgetting the comic stage, we cannot overlook Chappelle’s “attempt[s] to appropriate as a way of subverting entrenched socio-cultural norms” (Bianchi 37). Audience members and fans of Chappelle’s performances would logically go in knowing Chappelle’s content, since he is not a stranger to celebrity. Those not sharing the political ideas of a comedian will certainty further their outrage and will miss the political satire behind the joke (Willett and Willett 93). In response to Angelou’s thoughts, the n-word can never be fully discontented from its historical context to downgrade black people, but Chappelle’s comedy may be a vase that can hold such racial slurs to the light, and start discussions in order to rid the institutions people have gone so far to ignore. Beyond the creation of the n-word, black culture and more specifically younger black generations have adopted, and although the whole audience may never fully understand the breakdown of Chappelle’s jokes, they may sense the hot button topics he is talking about. Just as the affect theory in comedy works, so too will frequent cathartic laughter spread from communities of different races, ethnicities and classes.