No one walks a rhetorical tightrope as deftly as Dave Chappelle.
That thought nagged at me while watching Chappelle's widely-anticipated appearance last night on Saturday Night Live, where his guest-hosting stints after major electoral events have become something of a tradition.
But Chappelle didn't devote much of his monologue to the midterm elections, even though news had broken earlier in the day that Democrats had defied expectations to likely retain control of the Senate. He spent more time talking about Kanye West and antisemitism.
"Early in my career, I learned there are two words you should never say together," Chappelle noted during his opening monologue. "Those words are...'the' and 'Jews.' Never heard someone do good after they said that."
Chappelle was already a controversial guest; critics — including me — slammed his 2021 Netflix special The Closer for its homophobic and transphobic jokes. He didn't apologize. As I said in my review, Chappelle seems to think he's above criticism; for him, race seems to trump all.
That modus operandi was in full display Saturday night. As his monologue unfolded, Chappelle negotiated a fine line – admitting West, now known as Ye, said things so terrible that even Adidas, a company founded by brothers who were members of the Nazi party in the 1930s, was offended ("I guess the student surpassed the teacher.") But at the same time, the comic seemed to suggest that Ye's barbs about Jewish people controlling the media and show business – echoing classic antisemitic tropes – were not entirely untrue. ("I've been to Hollywood – it's a lot of Jews," he cracked. "Like, a lot.")
He also joked about Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving, who was suspended after posting a link to an antisemitic film, called Hebrew to Negroes: Wake Up Black America, that asserts the Holocaust never happened. Chappelle noted Irving's "Black a-- was nowhere near the Holocaust."
One line in particular seemed to stun the audience, before they offered scattered applause: "I know the Jewish people have been through some terrible things all over the world. But you can't blame that on Black Americans."
What that has to do with a professional athlete posting a link to antisemitic film with no explanation – and then taking several long days to disavow the film's antisemitic content – I do not know.
What I do know, is that one of comedy's boldest and most incisive voices had a chance to lend insight to the long struggle Black America has had with antisemitism. But instead, his monologue seemed filled with justification and minimization – failing to mention, for instance, allegations that Ye has expressed admiration for Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
Yes, comedy isn't a news report. But if we're going to elevate particularly skilled performers like Chappelle – because there's a sense their work also contains powerful truths about society and life – then we also have to note when they offer material that does the opposite and obscures an issue which should be cut and dried.
The rest of Chappelle's Saturday Night Live appearance unfolded as a better-than-average episode. A pre-taped parody of HBO's House of the Dragon featuring additional Black characters, some inspired by figures from the comic's legendary Comedy Central program Chappelle's Show (and Ice T as Light Skinned Larry Targaryen) was particularly on point.
Another bit featuring white anchors joking with a Black blues artist about the title of his album Potato Hole – until he tells them it was a crevice enslaved people dug to hide their most valued possessions from plantation owners – also scored.
But Chappelle's monologue had already thrown me off balance; another moment when an artist who fans admire for illuminating issues in surprising ways chose a different path, letting us all down in the process.