Few shows have a debut that is memorable and worth re-visiting. So many memorable shows tend to have a first season that is mediocre or even un-watchable. With that in mind it’s crazy to reflect on the debut episode of Chappelle’s Show and how Dave Chappelle already had a sketch that was racial satire perfected.
For most, this sketch needs no explanation but if you’re one of the few unaware the main plot revolves around a reporter who discovers that a white supremacist is actually a blind black man who has been told all of his life that he’s white in order to avoid conflict in an incredibly racist part of the country.
There are multiple layers of genius within the Clayton Bigsby sketch. It’s cutthroat satire about race handled in the best way imaginable. The sketch never gets too brutal to the point where it’s impossible to laugh and unlike most comedians handling such a subject, Chappelle never gets preachy.
At the beginning of the sketch we see on the screen “This contains use of the n word….and by n word I mean nigger….there I said it.” This warning sets the tone of the sketch where the world is used multiple times. I should go without saying that in order to have quality racial satire this is a word that needs to be used. It’s an incredibly polarizing word that can cause a record scratching halt on life. The most notable racial satire in history, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is as controversial now as it is today because of its excessive use of the word. Just last year a public school banned the book because of its use of the word nigger. There has also been a book published titled The Hipster Huckleberry Finn that replaces the word nigger with hipster and has an introduction stating how Huckleberry Finn is now neither offensive nor uncool.
If you describe a piece of centuries old literature as uncool, I can’t imagine your critical opinion having any matter or currency in this world or any alternative universe.
The word nigger is around every corner within the Clayton Bigsby sketch. At one point Clayton is cornered by a group of white men at a gas station who are asking him if he’s lost and he needs to get out. Clayton, obviously unaware they’re speaking to him begins to shout “Tell that nigger!” Later on he’s screaming at white kids blaring rap music “You jungle bunnies need to turn that music down! Woogie boogie nigger!” The white kids, all smiles that they were called niggers is a quick hilarious look at suburban white kids who have a bizarre desire to be black, completely unaware of the hardship an entire race has gone through and only view black culture as the tropes seen in rap music videos.
Only a few times in recent decades has racial satire not only been this brutal and funny. Most notable when this took place before Chappelle was Saturday Night Live’s Word Association sketch.
One reason Chappelle is such an incredible comedian, a natural talent is the fact that he’s one of the very few comedians with a high IQ who doesn’t really care if you view him as intelligent or dumb. Within Chappelle’s comedy his main concern always seems to be to make you laugh. You may be offended, but as long as people are laughing Chappelle doesn’t care. So many comedians look up to George Carlin and Richard Pryor and want to be seen as intellectual as they are. Most comedians tend to fail because they only care about how they look and if the audience isn’t laugh, well that’s because they’re stupid.
There are some who would view the Clayton Bigsby sketch as failed racial satire since plenty of white guys can only see a black man in a Klan uniform screaming “White Power!” and thinking this is the funniest thing, unable to see a deeper side of the sketch. Personally I feel that those who think racial satire is a failure because it doesn’t play to closed minded individuals is closed minded as well. I truly believe in the Mark Twain quote “In the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.”
Malcolm Gladwell recently did an episode on Revisionist History regarding satire and how in his opinion it’s useless. One example was Tina Fey’s portrayal of Sarah Palin and how it made her more likeable to voters. Of course, another example was Archie Bunker who appealed to liberals who recognized how wrong he was and conservatives who cheered on his racist ways. What Gladwell obviously failed to realize is even if Archie Bunker was cheered on, any conservative who wrote to Lear about the show was quick to point out he was a stupid liberal Jew.
Dave Chappelle’s Clayton Bigsby sketch is a supreme achievement in the world of comedy few experience. It’s everything racial satire should be, something as cutthroat satirically as cutthroat that racism tends to be.