Comedy is rarely viewed as an intellectual form of expression. We see the likes of Gilbert Gottfried telling crass jokes for cheap laughs, and we believe the entire genre is devoid of any material that furthers public discourse. But we should be hesitant to judge any person’s contribution to society based on their profession. Stephen Mack, in his essay on the “decline” of the public intellectual, offers a warning. “Any argument for the public intellectual that, like Donatich’s, rests on the assumption that common citizens are forever childlike and must be led by a class of experts is politically corrosive and historically dangerous.” Mack postulates that the traditional view of the “public intellectual” as a high-browed, elitist academic that presents ideas to the unintelligent public is antiquated. He argues:
“So, is there any way of conceptualizing something called the public intellectual that is consistent with democratic values? Of course there is, but it needs to begin with a shift from “categories and class” to “function.” That is, our notions of the public intellectual need to focus less on who or what a public intellectual is—and by extension, the qualifications for getting and keeping the title. Instead, we need to be more concerned with the work public intellectuals must do, irrespective of who happens to be doing it.”
Evidence of Mack’s theory can be found in the case of Dave Chappelle, who exemplifies the shifting definition of the public intellectual. Chappelle’s background certainly does not fit the old template. The comedian and actor—hailing from Washington, D.C.—bypassed college and began his standup career after graduating from high school. He has never received formal training in a specific discipline, served on the faculty at a prestigious university, or written academic essays for mass consumption. While other public intellectuals were spending time in academia and doing research, Chappelle was performing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem trying to break into the comedy business.
However, Chappelle’s work—like that produced by unquestioned public intellectuals—underscores matters of societal importance and forces people to rethink their behaviors. The comedian used his standup routine as a platform to challenge racial stereotypes and flawed politics, but his most profound undertaking came via his television show. In 2003, Chappelle’s Show debuted on Comedy Central, and the 30-minute sketch comedy show satirized an array of topics including politics, race, class, pop culture, and morality. Millions of captivated viewers quickly became dedicated fans of the show, and the 14-to-30 demographic flocked to their televisions sets each week for the latest installment. The show was pure comedic genius as nearly every single sketch ever aired contained a series of quotes people felt compelled to repeat. Despite the warm reception from many viewers, the show also had its fair share of critics. Chappelle’s parodies toed the line between outrageous and wildly clever, and some found his use of racial epithets to underscore ethnic stereotypes uncalled for. The controversy gave the show even more publicity, and Chappelle used his platform to accomplish a few goals. Yes, he wanted to entertain people, but he also wanted to alert the public to societal problems he had observed over the years. David Rice captured the essence of the show best when he wrote, “Its greatest fans always knew it was always about more than just some jokes. The show and Dave Chappelle’s framing of it was really all about truth telling, the highest art.”
On his quest to reveal the truth to the masses, Chappelle focused heavily on politics. The comedian invites the audience to evaluate governmental matters critically with a heavy degree of open-minded skepticism, and he developed numerous acts that broached the subject. Notably, the sketch “Black Bush” stands as one of the most important civic lessons of the last decade. In the segment, Chappelle explores former president George W. Bush’s handling of the war on terrorism. Through a comical yet sometimes over-exaggerated manner, Chappelle highlights how Bush capitalized on the sentiment of the era and launched a war without sizable opposition. He then explores how the scenario would have played out if Bush faced difficult questions.
Every single person is biased in one way or another, and these predispositions can sometimes alter our judgment. The President of the United States is no exception, and Chappelle uncovers possible motivations that pushed George W. Bush to launch a war. At a press conference in the sketch, Black Bush angrily shouts into the microphone that Saddam Hussein tried to kill his father during the Gulf War of the early 1990s. The obscene yelling into the microphone and gestures cause the audience to focus their attention on personal emotions clouding George W. Bush’s judgment in launching a war. As a result, they begin to see how Bush’s father played an essential role. It becomes clear that Bush relished the opportunity to protect his family name and settle a lingering grudge.
Secondly, the September 11 terrorist attacks made America appear vulnerable. Bush, concerned for his legacy, needed to reestablish the country’s dominance and demonstrate he was capable of handling the reins of America. However, the United Nations refused to support the United States’ efforts in the Middle East because of the deficiency of hard evidence. In reality, the public could easily overlook such subtle politicking. However, Chappelle prevents this from going undiscovered by dramatizing Bush’s insistence to press on without the backing of the U.N. He illustrates this arrogance brilliantly by showing Bush’s disdain for the United Nations as Black Bush degrades the organization by proclaiming, “UN, you have a problem with that? You know what you should do? You should sanction me. Sanction me with your army. Oh!! Wait a minute! You don’t have an army!” This bold statement compels the public to comprehend how Bush forcefully stepped on the toes of the international community and represented the country poorly in an attempt to show his dominance. Finally, George W. Bush understood that the United States could gain access to valuable oil reserves in the Middle East. Refusing to allow President Bush to avoid the issue, Chappelle mocks the president’s tactics. Black Bush dismissed questions regarding oil and used childish tactics such as spilling water and running out of the room to distract attention from the issue. The portrayal of Bush’s tactics guides the viewer to wade through the distractions and contemplate why the president is avoiding the issue. By presenting preposterous portrayals, Chappelle charges the public to become more analytical thinkers and search for biases lying in Bush’s brain.
The second point Chappelle harped on in his political commentaries was the proliferation of misleading information. He hoped to demonstrate to his audience that “facts” should not be accepted without research. Once the president decided to fight the war on terrorism, he presented selected data in a convincing manner to gain support. Information, when used properly, is a powerful source. In such a chaotic time when citizens were searching for a sense of stability and willing to blindly trust the president, Chappelle recognized the vagueness of Bush’s facts and attempts to raise awareness. During the sketch, Black Bush reveals, “[Saddam Hussein] quite possibly has weapons of mass destruction.” While this quotation may seem ordinary, Chappelle spices it up by delivering it in a high-pitched voice. The tone alerts the audience that the content of the quotation is suspicious. Upon review, Bush’s statement is riddled with doubt and uncertainty. Furthermore, he failed to point to a specific cache of weapons because no such stockpile had been discovered. Yet, presenting the idea that America potentially faced further threats helped build support. People were willing to take any course of action that assuaged their concerns of another massive attack. Chappelle’s clever version of the events calms the public. The humor lightens the mood considerably and places the audience in a world free of anxiety. As a result, they are easily able to rationally assess Bush’s speeches and see how his use of language could be misleading. Additionally, Chappelle breeds distrust by attacking Bush’s claim that the democracies of the world were ready to back up the U.S. in a conflict. Standing at the podium in front of a slew of reporters, Black Bush proclaimed that a coalition of the able and willing were ready to roll out on his command. Black Bush gets grilled on the subject and stumbles while offering a nonsensical answer about how Japan would contribute Sony Playstations. While a small handful of countries agreed to commit troops, few actually supported the war effort. Throughout the war campaign, media members refused to ask President Bush tough questions. He skated through press conferences and was not held accountable for the things he said. In essence, the segment dares the public to utilize the power of the question and the need to raise concerns. Otherwise, the president is free to proceed without checks and balances.
As with politics, Chappelle thrived in the arena of racial commentary. He portrayed traditional stereotypes through caricatures and magnified the underlying fallacies in them by spinning them on their head. Sketches included a black white supremacist and a Caucasian family with a racial slur for African-Americans as its last name.
The most overarching racial commentary Chappelle produced, Diversity in First Class, emphasized the role of fear in perpetuating stereotypes. Different ethnic groups occupy a row on a plane, and each is afraid of the group in front of them because of their stereotypical perceptions. The sketch opens with two Middle Eastern men in the front row wearing traditional Arab headdresses. The passengers are discussing their disdain for Americans after they botched a critical decision. At the time, the media depicted the Middle East as staunchly anti-American, and Chappelle furthers the notion. The African-American men in the row behind the Middle Eastern men also fuel the fire. “Man of all the flights to be on, I have to ride with them terrorist sons of bitches. I got my eye on you, Al-Qaeda,” one thinks to himself. But these preconceived notions appear ludicrous when the men reveal their lack of faith in Americans stems from their choice for the winner of American Idol: Season 1. The viewer realizes that these men are much different from the first bigoted picture stereotypes project. Other racist caricatures rear their heads throughout the 56-second clip. The Caucasian male in the row behind the African Americans wears a frightened look on his face, and he ponders, “What are those negroes doing in first class? Must be rappers. I’d better keep an eye on [my daughter].” The Native American announces, “Me no trust them white man. We better not go to bathroom. White man will steal my seat and call it manifest destiny.”
All of these quotes represent prevailing ideas about other races that arise from a lack of familiarity with other cultures. At the very end, Chappelle and a Caucasian male are sitting asleep in the back row, and Chappelle has a newspaper with the headline “America United.” The comedian uses the prop to illustrate that America, though it purports to be an accepting nation, still struggles from racist ideology. With pervasive globalization, America has become increasingly diverse. We are exposed to a plethora of cultural and ethnic groups on a daily basis. Judging people from these groups on oversimplified clichés is irresponsible. As such, Chappelle tried to promote harmony through understanding and appreciation of various groups.
Not only did Chappelle provide insightful criticism of politics and race in America, but he also did it in a socially conscious manner. Mack, citing Jean Bethke Elshtain, contends that public intellectuals must remain objective and avoid selling out their values. Chappelle signed a lucrative deal worth $50 million to produce seasons three and four of his immensely popular comedy show for Comedy Central. However, network executives—as is often the case when a large investment is made—wanted to exert a powerful influence over the show. They believed that their pedigree qualified them to dictate the creative direction of a show, and they tried to attract a larger audience. As taping for season three progressed, Chappelle realized that he was veering away from intellectual comedy and heading towards a cesspool of simpleminded jokes that failed to communicate important messages. Fed up, he abandoned production mid-season and headed to Africa.” I felt like some kind of prostitute or something. If I feel so bad, why keep on showing up to this place? I’m going to Africa. The hardest thing to do is to be true to yourself, especially when everybody is watching,” Chappelle told Oprah in an interview. The comedian passed up tremendous wealth in exchange for his integrity. Chappelle believed his audience deserved authentic criticisms, and he did not feel comfortable airing watered down sketches designed to generate more advertising revenue.
To qualify as a “public intellectual,” a person does not have to have advanced degrees or disseminate their ideas solely through academic essays. They must, however, contribute to public discourse, spark debate, and stimulate interest among the masses. Mack postulates, “If public intellectuals have any role to play in a democracy—and they do—it’s simply to keep the pot boiling.” Through his innovative sketches on Chappelle’s Show, Chappelle not only kept the pot boiling, but he stirred it as well. The last episode of Chappelle’s Show debuted in July of 2006, but the content remains relevant. Re-runs air in syndication as well as on Comedy Central, and we continually see references to his work seven years later. It is impossible to discount the impact Chappelle still has today on political thought and race relations. He taught a whole generation of impressionable youth how to be responsible citizens in a functioning democracy by challenging them to approach government with skepticism and to retire outrageous stereotypes. Though his methods were unconventional, Chappelle stands as one of the most thought-provoking public intellectuals of our time.