Amusements & Useful Devices from K. A. Wisniewski
On March 1, patrons at New York’s Comedy Cellar were pleasantly surprised when Dave Chappelle took to the stage unannounced. Of course, this was not the first pop-in performance from Chappelle. With friends including Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, and Marlon Wayons in the audience, what really caught everyone’s attention was when Chappelle noted, “This could be the show . . . Fireside chats with Chris Rock.”
Because I edited an anthology of essays on Chappelle a few years ago, anytime he’s in the news, I get a call. Despite whatever shortcomings the book may contain–and I both take responsibility and accept the accolades for them all–it has truly been successful in creating conversations, which is what writing, publishing books, should be about. The work is the beginning, not the end.
Among the conversations these past weeks, one is mentioned in a recent L. A. Times article by Wesley Lowery entitled, “Comedian Dave Chappelle Resurfaces and Speculation Begins Anew.”
While I’m always taking notes and making lists, I don’t “write” very often; that is, I’m not spending a lot of time drafting and revising a single piece unless I’m truly bothered by something, unless I feel a need to work through some question or idea.
Otherwise, I can’t be bothered.
So it’s interesting how the work of Chappelle keeps evolving for me, how I began The Comedy of Dave Chappelle (originally not an anthology but a series of my own creative essays on his sketches–actually writing as they were being aired) in my early twenties and how I kept going back to the material. And now how it keeps coming back to me.
My initial questions really focused on the content of Chappelle’s Show. How should its sketches be read? How could it expose (or reinvigorate) some of the cultural contradictions we accept, perform, and maintain in the everyday? How can we use the show to promote a new, focused dialogue about civil rights and race relations? How does it so successfully critique history and riff off of popular culture while simultaneously imprinting itself into the canon?
As my manuscript evolved into a collection of essays, the questions, for me, kept changing. The media spectacle surrounding Chappelle’s departure from his show, his visit to Africa, and his now famous interview with James Lipton on Inside the Actor’s Studio made me rethink the role of celebrity in our culture, about how the artist negotiates or maneuvers within this space. (The new manuscript was headed to the press when Chappelle hosted the 200th episode of the Lipton’s show.)
The artist, the comic, needs to perform, needs the physical space and interaction the play and work and rework material–and I can’t help wonder how this is possible under the shadow of celebrity and with the new restraints created by the digital age where everyone in the audience has some mobile device by their side–perhaps only half-listening the comic onstage, perhaps more concerned by captured this performance with their phones, transmitting images and texts two various YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc., etc. accounts…How frustrating it must be to be a comic who is taken literally and seriously (and not-so-seriously)!
I was a fan of some of the shows that immediately followed Chappelle’s on Comedy Central–especially Sarah Silverman and Demetri Martin. Still, as far as I’m concerned, Chappelle left a torch burning on the mantle . . . a torch that has yet to picked up by someone new. (Maybe Chappelle himself will carry it further?)
While I don’t think the nature of comedy has really changed since Chappelle’s departure from Comedy Central (and the public’s spotlight), I do think the digital revolution has transformed culture itself, so it’s changed the ways comedy is communicated. It’s changed the way it’s delivered (or perhaps should be for its evolution), and it’s certainly changed relationships between the comic and the audience. While technologies have created new restraints, they also present new opportunities, new venues, new dimensions to work within and around.
So I love the idea (even if was merely a joke) of “Fireside Chats with Chris Rock.”
At the beginning of his talks, FDR would begin with the salutation: “Good evening, friends.” And, thus, the presidency changed: the figure had to be charismatic, personal, and a somewhat good impromptu speaker. There was a need for intimacy, trust in the man who spoke of Relief, Recovery, and Reform.
If anyone can achieve this level of intimacy with his or her audiences and if anyone can reach the people, it is Chappelle. If anyone can effectively find a new multi-modal model for comedy’s future, it will be Chappelle. This might serve as the next chapter in his career but also for entertainment in general.
In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich suggests that the future of culture lies in the remix: “The essence of the DJ’s art is the ability to mix selected elements in rich and sophisticated ways” (p. 135). And it is appropriate that Bambi Haggins refers to Chappelle as a “comic MC.” As MC—as dj—Chappelle recognizes art’s (music, comedy, whatever) diverse influences, he understands their complexities, of how they work together to create something new. By the time we’re ten years old, we think we’ve heard all the “shit jokes” there is to tell. Not only does Chappelle know them well, but he can retell them or create a new one that still makes us laugh all these years later. He enjoys a good “shit joke” . . . and we see that and laugh even more. We live in a remix culture, and Chappelle’s really a master of the remix, of re-mastering American mythologies.
Hopefully, we can give Chappelle the space to work and play–if this is what he wants. Maybe we can look forward to these Fireside Chats: Comic Relief, Comic Recovery, Comic Reform. Regardless, Chappelle’s legacy (at least the first act) is secure. He has reminded us that what is interesting, what is important, is not stardom, but friendship. He’s reminded us that it’s ok to laugh, even if it’s shit.