BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 13 SEP 17
Featured in
Issue 190

To Be Honest

Dave Chappelle's comedy of discomfort 

BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 13 SEP 17

I’m in the first row at Radio City Music Hall. Dave Chappelle is onstage, starting his act. He says he can’t live in NYC anymore with cigarettes at $15 a pack, and hilariously impersonates a New Yorker bragging about how great the city is.

When he switches gears, Dave lowers his head, then lifts it. He moves on to Rachel Dolezal, messing with her last name, explaining she’s ‘the black/white woman’. Dolezal ‘passed’ as black, becoming head of the Seattle NAACP, until she didn’t. Dave says, she’ll know what it is to be black when she has a lien against her house. He wants to meet her, to call her the N-word to her face. He says the word.

Dave walks toward the back of the stage for his smokes, often. He’s chunkier than he was in Chappelle’s Show (2003–06). Dave changed comedy. He’s a genre- and race-bending intellectual comic. He makes people – white, black – laugh and feel uncomfortable. Like his audience, he’s figuring life out; unlike them, he’s thinking about it out loud, in public. Dave’s a process artist.

Comedy opens that anxious door called Repression, onto embarrassment, humiliation, offence, defensiveness, psychologically oxymoronic stuff, not lethal. Sigmund Freud wrote: ‘We only laugh when a joke comes to help us.’ Different strokes, true, but some people can’t be helped. Dave calls Dolezal ‘a trans’, and slides into his curious, controversial relationship to the trans community. Why, he asked, did Bruce Jenner gain acceptance so fast for changing his gender, but Cassius Clay got hell for years for just changing his name to Muhammed Ali? He says white men can get away with anything. On Donald Trump: black people, Dave says, don’t want those Chinese jobs Trump is promising. Who wants to do that stuff? He’s complicated about Trump: Trump might, ‘by accident’, do something good. Dave might be an optimist.

The first time he ever voted, he confessed, was for Barack Obama. The lines of black people were so long, he thought he was at a cheque-cashing joint. The crowd is eating out of his hand. Dave laughs at some of his own stuff. He bends all the way over, and holds his stomach.

He voted for Hillary Clinton – not totally happy about it, he says, but supported her, of course, implying: don’t skip out; don’t stay home again. He knew she’d lose: the lines to vote were full of poor whites. He described their bloated faces, which brought him to the neo-nazis and white supremacists carrying Tiki torches, marching in Charlottesville, Virginia.

He bows his head, raises it, to tell a story about a 14-year-old Chicago boy who travelled to the South: Emmett Till. A white woman told some white men Till flirted with her. They beat him to death. Dave says Till’s mother is a ‘gangsta’ – audience clapping madly – because she insisted that every newspaper show a picture of her son’s brutalized body, in his open coffin. She wanted everyone to see what they – white people – did to him. Dave calls that white Southern woman a ‘nasty bitch’. Then explains, solemnly, that she died not long ago, first recanting her lying testimony: Till never did anything to her. That’s good, Dave says, her telling the truth, it must have been hard for her. After a long pause, he says: ‘To be honest.’ She’s still a bitch. A young boy died because of her. Dave works the ‘to be honest’ trope, using it five, six times. He delivers the expected, rational response; next, the long pause, and then he says, slowly: ‘To be honest.’ We, the people, know it’s coming – honesty, Dave-style. Objectionable, offensive or not, it’s real, and it’s a relief.

A free society, whatever that means to you, or me, needs blurts, admissions, self-recognitions; people have to acknowledge their discomfort with the new and examine why it’s there. Humans fear what they don’t understand. Like, why they laugh. A laugh, like a dream, comes involuntarily. Both reveal the lurking unspeakable within. Let it speak, Freud says, have a laugh.

I believe: if you can laugh at yourself, you have a chance.

Dave is winding up his act. He says he’s with the good people, not the Tiki-torch-carriers. Everyone stands up, shouting. I’m on my feet, silent. I shyly wave at him, like a besotted teenager at a rock concert. Dave sees me, he looks right at me, smiles – no, he’s amused – and waves back in the same dopey way.

Main image: Dave Chapelle, August 2017. Courtesy: Comcast Corporation, Philadelphia; photograph: Mathieu Bitton

Lynne Tillman is a writer. Her most recent title is Mothercare (Soft Skull Press, 2022). In 2025, Soft Skull Press is publishing a book of her selected stories titled Thrilled to Death.