It was Chappelle’s Show last night on Saturday Night Live. For all the glib and tedious talk of cancel culture, it’s hard to remember a host ever being granted that much power over an episode. One has to believe host Dave Chappelle got to hand-select Brooklyn’s hero duo Black Star, composed of Chappelle’s Midnight Miracle podcast’s co-hosts Talib Kweli and Mos Def, as his musical guests. Throughout the episode, Chappelle repeatedly took the stage to introduce sketches, echoing the format of his former Comedy Central show and reminding the audience of just who’s in charge. He was also a man apart in the sketches themselves, like in the Potato Hole bit in which his blues musician sits separately from the obtuse white morning news team schooling them on the historical resilience of Black people in the face of white oppression.
Has there ever been a full 15 minutes given over to a monologue? Chappelle came through the doors to Lenny Pickett’s saxophone playing the aching opening notes of “Try a Little Tenderness.” He wasn’t holding his usual cigarette, which somehow left him appearing vulnerable, like perhaps he understood that he was a guest in someone else’s house and should follow their rules.
He started his monologue by reading a prepared statement with a sentiment that many of us reposted on our Instagrams in the last couple of weeks following the most recent explosion of Kanye West’s mouth. “I denounce anti-Semitism in all its form. And I stand with my friends in the Jewish community.” One can believe he means every word, even as Chappelle’s face slid into a smirk. “And that, Kanye, is how you buy yourself some time.” He went in on how his friend broke the most unspoken and serious of Hollywood rules: “Two words in the English language you should never say together in sequence and those words are ‘the’ and ‘Jews.’” Oy.
For the next 48 hours, Chappelle’s monologue will certainly be blasted and defended by Twitter’s most strident of voices. (One moment we can all agree on was his terrific wincing over Herschel Walker: “I don’t want to speak badly on him because he’s Black,” he said. “But I have to admit, he’s observably stupid.”) I like to think (I choose to think?) that Chappelle truly was wrestling with what he called “the rules of perception” when it comes to identity and power. “I’ve been to Hollywood,” he said. “It’s a lot of Jews. Like, a lot. But that doesn’t mean anything, you know what I mean? There’s a lot of Black people in Ferguson, Missouri. Doesn’t mean we run the place.” For me, that joke is less concerned who runs Hollywood and more calling out when numbers don’t add up to power.
“It shouldn’t be scary to talk,” Chappelle said towards the end of his monologue. “About anything.” Maybe he was alluding to the specter of cancel culture and Black superstars’ lost sneaker deals. “Now you see Kanye walking around LA barefoot with his chain out,” he said. “This guy lost a billion and a half dollars in one day.” Kanye West is a sick narcissist who once made brilliant music. He didn’t tell jokes that got him in trouble. He’s devolved into the joke. That’s on him, and his team of medical professionals. I imagine that the fear Chappelle referenced was more about the fact that he was attacked on stage last May, not long after his friend Chris Rock was slapped at the Oscars over a mediocre joke. I hope it’s not just that he finds people’s noisy wrestling with his comedy to be tedious and frustrating. Being a fan of his can in fact be a beautiful struggle.
At the end of the episode, the stage looked less crowded than usual during Chappelle’s goodbyes and good nights. He stood flanked by his friends Kweli, Mos Def, and Rawlings, like a Black Man’s wall in front of a cultural penalty kick. Ice-T, who wasn’t there for the goodbye but appeared in the House of the Dragon sketch, tweeted “Somebody said they’re going to CANCEL me after doing SNL with Dave Chappelle. LOL! These MFs have been trying to Cancel me for over 30yrs!”
There had been reports in the last week that some SNL writers were boycotting Chappelle’s show because of his history of jokes about transgender people and the digging in of his heels when called to task. Bowen Yang, Sarah Sherman, and Molly Kearney, SNL’s first non-binary cast member, didn’t stand up on the stage with Chappelle, nor did they appear in any sketches with him throughout the episode. That’s not cancel culture. That’s a choice not to stand behind someone they believe to be unsafe. Yang, who appeared in the cold open and then bounced for the rest of the show, posted a picture of himself on his Instagram stories last night. In it, he’s wearing a t-shirt for the punk band Against Me!, beneath the cover art for the song “Black Me Out” off of their Transgender Dysphoria Blues album. Some lyrics from that song:
I don’t ever want to talk that way again
I don’t want to know people like that anymore
As if there was an obligation
As if I owed you something
There is something brave and tender about people asserting their right to speak and joke and respond and react and reject in ways their experience sees fit. It’s all so messy, making choices and then living with them. We want who we believe to be the good guys to be all together on the same team. They can’t always be.
Keke Palmer to the rescue after a brief break, hosting SNL’s next episode on December 3.