Dave Chappelle was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humour this week. It was a controversial nomination. Back when he created the sketch series Chappelle’s Show in 2003, critics loved his wit, which took aim at targets like White Supremacists. In 2006, for reasons never fully explained, he rejected a massive paycheck from Comedy Central and went into professional hibernation.

Chappelle returned to stand-up comedy a decade later, to a world dominated by the outrage machine of Twitter and Facebook, and a country whose young had taken to the social justice creed with such passion that comedians shunned colleges, and bookers weeded out anything discomfiting from campus gigs. A peculiar fate for an edgy genre meant to make audiences feel a little uncomfortable even as it entertained them.

Chapelle’s hour-long Netflix specials, which can be viewed in India, faced the wrath of the Left for their take on issues like LGBT culture, the MeToo movement, and rape. His 2019 routine Sticks and Stones received a miserable 35% rating in the critics’ consensus category, while viewers gave it an extraordinary 99% audience score on the site.

In contrast, critics rated Hannah Gadsby’s Nannette, the breakout stand-up comedy sensation of the last year on Netflix, a perfect 100%, but an audience score of 22% suggests it left most viewers cold. Those ratings expose a chasm between a small group of critics that judges artworks and artists by their perceived politics and a large audience looking primarily for entertainment.

I liked Nanette a lot, though I felt Gadsby’s account of Pablo Picasso’s art and relationships was not entirely fair. But then, stand-up comedy is not about being fair. It is about being funny, perceptive, and thought-provoking. Nanette had all three qualities in sufficient measure. Sticks and Stones has them in ample measure.

Politically incorrect jokes

A few lines from Chapelle’s new routines will establish why he has fallen from his pedestal in the eyes of critics. Having questioned whether Michael Jackson’s accusers were telling the truth, based on the fact that Jackson didn’t abuse Macaulay Culkin, a seemingly obvious target, the comedian argues that even if a child had, indeed, been sexually assaulted in Neverland Ranch, he should count himself among the elite of the abused: “This kid got his dick sucked by the King of Pop. All we get is awkward Thanksgivings for the rest of our lives.”

Chappelle makes a lot of jokes about trans people, and puts that down to the intrinsic hilariousness of their situation: “They’re born feeling they’re something different than they’re born as, and…[shrugs and smiles] that’s kind of funny.” Having woke critics review this material is like asking the ulema to assess The Satanic Verses.

The critics loved Hannah Gadsby’s Nannette but audiences were less enthusiastic about it. Credit: Netflix

Chappelle’s recent work deserves a more robust justification from his admirers than the standard liberal support for freedom of expression. Consider his response to the accusations against Bill Cosby, a former winner of the Mark Twain Prize: “At first, I didn’t believe it. I was like, ‘These people are obviously trying to destroy Dr. Cosby’s rich legacy.’ Even 34 allegations into it, I was like, ‘Man, he probably only raped ten or 11 of those people.’”

The Bill Cosby section, placed at the end of his 2017 special The Age of Spin, culminates in a punch line that reveals how cleverly the entire monologue has been structured. But I will avoid spoilers and concentrate on the sentence, “He probably only raped ten or 11 of those people”. As an attempt to mitigate Cosby’s crimes, it is funny because of its manifest ridiculousness. After all, committing rape ten times is an unforgivably heinous act. Ineffectual as a defence of Cosby, the line highlights, instead, the deep urge within us to overlook the infractions of our heroes. At the same time, it invokes the spectre of malicious allegations, as his discussion of the Jackson controversy also does.

Entertaining taboo notions

Entertaining such notions has become a taboo in our time. We are told simply to believe complaints of assault, sometimes without an inkling of the antecedents of the complainers. At some point, the injunction to believe accusers transitioned from a sensible default position (few women lie about assault) to a fetishistic credo, which applies equally to accusations made by women, men and children, and disregards the fallibility of memory. That is a signal flashing amber for those committed to a liberal idea of rights. Comedy like Chappelle’s undercuts absolutes, and in doing so acts as a counterweight to extremism of all kinds.

To illustrate the point further, I turn to TS Eliot and James Joyce. Two celebrated, white, male, high modernists like Picasso, who like him though in greatly differing degrees, mistreated their partners. Perhaps they will be Hannah Gadsby’s next targets.

In Joyce’s Ulysses, his alter-ego Stephen Dedalus produces an ingenious interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays, speculating that the playwright’s wife Anne was unfaithful to him, and tying that betrayal to the plots of his dramas . At the end of Stephen’s impressive performance, Joyce offers us the closer, “He laughed to free his mind from his mind’s bondage.” However invested Stephen is in his theory, his self-deprecating laughter acknowledges it might be entirely false. That’s what good comedy like Dave Chappelle’s does: it frees our mind from our mind’s bondage.

TS Eliot was an agnostic drawn to Buddhism, before converting to Anglicanism when nearly 40. Soon after his conversion, he composed a poem titled Ash Wednesday which describes a move towards religious faith. Seeking divine blessing in the first section, the poem’s narrator pleads,

“Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still.
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.”

The last two lines are familiar enough, but the one about caring and not caring is difficult to reconcile with Christian theology, and might be a hangover of Eliot’s engagement with Indian thought. It echoes Joyce’s Ulysses in seeking profound commitment to an idea or experience while simultaneously maintaining a distance from it.

When I decided to write this column, I wondered if connecting Dave Chappelle to notions of the mind’s bondage drawn from canonical English literature was a stretch. I was delighted, therefore, to read Jon Stewart’s tribute to Chappelle at the Mark Twain Prize ceremony, which concluded with the words, “That’s the beauty of Dave. I don’t know anybody who cares more deeply and anyone who gives less of a fuck.”