This story is about the curious and well documented incident of comedian Dave Chappelle leaving his successful comedy series in the making of its third season in the mid 2000s. I shall refer to Chappelle hence as ‘The Comedian’.
The Comedian grafted his way in an industry that sought to fit African American comedians through simplified stereotypes and personas. It took a while for Chappelle to make a presence in the entertainment industry and the right forum for his brand of comedy to have support from a television network or film studio, but eventually in the early-mid 2000s, it happened.
The Chappelle show was a very accessible insight into The Comedian’s vision of the world on issues of sexuality, race and politics. Chappelle’s sketches were not patronising and were recognised as breaching beyond ‘black comedy’ into comedy simpliciter. There is a monologue in Vin Diesel’s independent film ‘Multi-Facial’, that his ideal was to be a working actor that was an artist, not working to live. Diesel’s character makes a point that being committed to acting as an art form meant that some of the ‘greats’ of acting wouldn’t do advertisments. ‘You’re never gonna see (sic) Pacino do like potato chips or Denzel doing doughnuts’!, Diesel’s character says. Ironically Al Pacino appeared in a UK ad campaign for Sky Broadband this year.
Chappelle’s comedy sketches were both edgy and commercially viable. Chappelle support from other comedians such as Charlie Murphy and Paul Mooney (whose racial observations cut very deep). They say that DVD sales of the show had an unprecedented record high for a television show which led to much anticipation about his third season.
There came a point where the commercial success of the show was its undoing. The subtlety of The Comedian’s racial humour and the edginess of his socio-political observations were undermined by the commercially catchy one liners such as ‘I’m rich, Bitch!’ or ‘I’m Rick James, Bitch’, in my life, the line ‘cocaine’s a’helluva drug’ formed a backbone of in-jokes and references among my friends in 2006. The Comedian began to feel that the success of his show undermined his comedy, and was being interpreted in simplistic ways. Instead of challenging racism, the popularity of his humour (and its constant repetition) undermined this message and subversion became subverted. As a result to this, The Comedian left the show and was ‘missing’ for a short while leading people to speculate about his whereabouts. Some comedians speak of an informal ‘blacklisting’ of The Comedian since bailing on a $50mill contract. The Comedian still performs today, but not to audiences and the media outlets that he used to.
I think of this story as a way to understand the ways in which Adorno approaches culture. The Comedian’s story is one of a relationship with commercial success, having a social critique and the potential of social critique having a cultural impact. Does The Comedian’s account show, via negativa, that Adorno was right? That counterculture will eventually be subverted to the culture machine, unless it is all embracing of the negative. Through these everyday parables I would like to try and show the scope of what is at stake with the selected philosophical issues I’ve addressed over the past few years.