Said The Joker to The Batman: Why So Serious? [Dave Chappelle on the Tightrope]
Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs (1928), as a disfigured young outcast servant whose face is cut into a permanent grin, provided the (visual) inspiration for the iconic Batman villain the Joker Wikipedia
Indeed, why? When negotiating a meeting with a group of LGBTQIA+ employees at Netflix over accusations that his Netflix special, The Closer, egregiously “punches down” at trans women and lesbians, Dave Chappelle made three stipulations: One, that all attending the meeting view The Closer from start to finish. Two, that the meeting happen at a time and place of his choosing. And three, that all attending admit that Hannah Gadsby, the lesbian Australian comedian (who also appears on Netflix), is not funny.
Which is hilarious. MSNBC reported this third condition with a straight face and not as the prank that it was. It’s a profound joke, a classic trickster move of refusing to play the game and choosing to play with the game instead. Hannah Gadsby is very funny, and Dave knows that. But tricksters tell lies (Hannah Gadsby is not funny) in order to reveal a greater truth (We’re taking this whole thing way too seriously).
One of the least transgressive and clean-talking comedians on the scene today is Mike Birbiglia, and even he made the point that you cannot tell a joke without offending someone. Well intended but rigid and doctrinaire social justice movements falter when their challenges to power lack mischievous courage. Mockery, satire, and trickery add potency to the act of speaking truth to power. Humor broadens the base and invigorates the struggle.
The Vietnam war caused some of the worst destruction of human and natural life of the past century. Heartbreaking and unnecessary killing, slaughter, strife, and chemical devastation of terrain were daringly challenged by mass protests. Yet despite the seriousness of it all, the antiwar movement blasted satire, humor, and art that as much as anything turned the tide. In the midst of painful American conflict within and abroad, Trickster reminds us that big-ass God spends as much time laughing as crying over our stupid inhumanities.
Whether it was Teatro Campesino, Muhammad Ali, Yippies, huge marching puppets, the levitation of the Pentagon, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Smothers Brothers, Ed Sanders, Dick Gregory, or any number of performance artists, the anti-Vietnam War movement did not lack for humor and jest. The soon to follow gay rights movement of the seventies hosted huge marches that featured the most colorful and playful of drag queens and assorted mockers of straight sexuality. For the trickster, a fluid gender identity is as much a plaything as it is a civil right. And playfulness introduced into arenas of conflict—over war, over gender identity—disrupts power, disrupts entrenched order, and rattles doctrine.
Trickster humor mocks the power structure that creates suffering, not those who suffer. So how can the social justice warriors of today “get” Dave Chappelle’s humor, stay true to their cause, but realize that a warrior-dominated approach will never prevail if not enhanced and enlarged by trickster, by a sense of humor, by not taking themselves too seriously, despite whatever real pain and offense is being protested?
Even Chappelle has to dodge warriors, and he performs the boxer’s feint. He’s declined the offer to have the theater at his alma mater high school, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, named after him, because he doesn’t want his name to distract students. He knows that humorless warriors would fight to have his name removed, so he has opted to not give them that satisfaction. He pulls time travel out of his trickster toolbox, and tells them that when the time is right, he’d be honored to have his name put above what until then shall be called “The Theater for Artistic Freedom and Expression.”
He’s choosing not to fight that battle yet hoping to instead create laughter elsewhere. Until such time. Chappelle’s stock in trade is laughter and meaning. He does not fear but he does not seek conflict.
In 1915, Marcel Duchamp found himself in a similar situation when his dada colleagues fell into conflict during their pacifist anti-World War I movement. Duchamp instead championed the essential magic of play, humor and laughter. “They were…fighting the public.” he said, “And when you’re fighting you rarely manage to laugh at the same time.” So he left Europe for the United States, letting European dada put Duchamp’s name on the masthead when the time was right.
Netflix has put up Chappelle’s 40-minute speech at Ellington High School. As he’s finishing, he directly addresses a Q&A session he’d had with the students:
“All the kids were screaming and yelling. I remember, I said to the kids, I go, ‘Well, OK, well what do you guys think I did wrong?’ And a line formed. These kids said everything about gender, and this and that and the other, but they didn’t say anything about art,” Chappelle said. “And this is my biggest gripe with this whole controversy with ‘The Closer’: That you cannot report on an artist’s work and remove artistic nuance from his words. It would be like if you were reading a newspaper and they say, ‘Man Shot in the Face by a Six-Foot Rabbit Expected to Survive,’ you’d be like, ‘Oh my god,’ and they never tell you it’s a Bugs Bunny cartoon.”
More than Batman’s adversary we should heed Bob Dylan’s frustrated joker.We suddenly understand the lyric: “There must be some way out of here, said the Joker to the Thief. There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.”