Laughter wasn’t the point of Dave Chappelle’s ‘Saturday Night Live’ performance
The comic took on Donald Trump, the coronavirus and racism in a powerful monologue
Call it coincidence, irony, fate or destiny. But Dave Chappelle hosting Saturday Night Live just hours after Joe Biden and Kamala Harris claimed victory in a historic election was fitting. Chappelle kick-started the Donald Trump era four years ago from the same stage where he helped read its last rites Saturday night. And while the show wasn’t a runaway success — though the Allstate Guy skit was phenomenal — Chappelle hit big shots when he needed them most during his 16-minute monologue.
That’s what people wanted to see anyway. The excitement in advance of Saturday night’s episode centered on what the Washington native would have to say about the country, the president and race relations during a pandemic. The end result is what we’ve come to expect from the comedian: Chappelle definitely being Chappelle, even if he ruffled a few feathers along the way. If he was never as angry as some had hoped, it’s only because his expectations of America were never that high to begin with.
Yet, despite a lack of outward aggression, the Mark Twain Prize winner shared his truth: The most important lessons this country has taught have always been a mandatory curriculum for Black folks and electives for white people.
There’s a funny bit from Chappelle’s 2000 stand-up special Killin’ Them Softly. In it, he breaks down the differences in why white people loathe discussing who they’re voting for, while Black people “… will openly talk about beating up politicians and s—.” Four years ago, Chappelle said he was willing to give Trump “a chance.” In less than a year, he’d update those comments, saying that it wasn’t like he wanted to give Trump a chance that night — he just had no other choice. As thousands poured into the streets in Washington in front of the White House celebrating Trump’s loss, Chappelle saved his darts for the worst day of the 45th president’s political career.
He spoke about Trump’s handling of the coronavirus and laughed at how the president called it the “kung flu,” saying the phrase is something a comic is supposed to say, but it’s racist coming from the leader of the free world. He said he was angry that Trump opined about bogus cures from sunlight to bleach. Yet Chappelle’s most biting criticism revolved around how the president handled his own coronavirus diagnosis, and the lack of care he exhibited for supporters who contracted the disease.
“When he got coronavirus, they said everything about it on the news,” Chappelle quipped of the now-lame-duck commander in chief. “You know what they didn’t say? That it was hilarious.”
He compared Trump’s state-of-the-art medical treatment to the comic walking into a homeless shelter and eating hamburgers while saying, “Don’t let hunger dictate your life!”
“Meanwhile, Chris Christie’s fat a– is in the ICU fighting for his life … Herman Cain’s Black a– has been dead for two weeks … That’s your leader. What kind of man does that? What kind of man makes sure he’s OK while his friends fight for their lives and die? A white man. I don’t mean to put this on whites, but I’ve been Black a long time. I’ve noticed a pattern.”
Such was the perspective Chappelle employed throughout the soliloquy. Much like how he did in this summer’s 8:46, he resurfaced the story of his great-grandfather’s rise from slavery to college president to all-around fighter for Black liberation. The symbolism wasn’t lost on him as he flew a private jet to New York on the same weekend Chappelle’s Show hit both Netflix and HBO Max, though he didn’t see a dime from either rollout. Referring to his great-grandfather, Chappelle said, “Yeah, if he could see me now he’d probably be like, ‘This n—a got bought and sold more than I have.’ ”
His take on poor white people’s aversion to wearing masks made for the monologue’s most cutting line — “Wear masks at the Klan rally, wear it at Walmart, too.”
From both demographic and ideological standpoints, America is shifting. Chappelle understands that, and while it may be appealing to some, he also can’t ignore the fact that more than 70 million people didn’t vote for the change that happened yesterday. And that the divisions in this country are as deep as they’ve ever been. Chappelle spoke to a country that can’t tell whether it’s coming or going most days. It’s still on white people to figure out what comes next, he observed. It’s not on Black people to figure that out after Black voter turnout helped swing the election in Biden and Harris’ favor. White inconvenience, he argued, could never equate to the history of Black injustice.
“Whites come, hurry, quick, come get your n—– lessons,” he said. “You need us. You need our eyes to save you from yourselves.”
At the root of comedy lives the obligation to tell the truth. Especially when it hurts. And especially to a country that inflicted the pain that became the source for the art. Chappelle has always done that. Sometimes to a fault, as when he says what some might consider the wrong thing to the wrong crowd at the wrong time. But these conversations, like the one he had last night, reinforce the truth that is self-evident: Much of the best comedy over the last half-century revolves around being Black in America and America’s complex history in addressing that topic. With Saturday night’s monologue and 8:46, Chappelle’s societal dissertations stand in a class of their own. And he needed less than a combined 45 minutes of running time to do it.
This is why Chappelle on SNL mattered. Biden and Harris addressed the nation two hours before him. Their message was what it was supposed to be: about healing a divided nation, pledging to lead the country through uncertainty and celebrating an election that brought the first Black woman to the vice presidency. Chappelle’s message, like the ones from the president-elect and vice president-elect, was what it was supposed to be, too.
Get your act together, America.