Lenny Bruce and Dave Chappelle: Save Comedy!

Chapelle is every bit as much the legend as Lenny Bruce. You wouldn’t think it to hang out with my miserable self, but I love comedy. It is the irreverence, the pushing of boundaries, the truth that can only emerge from nonsense, the immense creativity and the bravery that draws me to society’s eternal Fools. There is no Truth without comedy. No free speech without the boundary pushers who defend our right to debate and speak and mock those in high places…and sometimes those in the low, in order to shine a light onto what happens in society’s darker corners.

People can hear time and time again that this person has too much, or that person did some bad things, or this happens and it isn’t right, or we need to address this thing or that problem, and they tune it all. It is all so much fuzz on the airwaves. It is just white noise on the dial of life. It is lacking in meaning and substance because we are simply overwhelmed with information about bad and wrong, cruel and ridiculous. The powerful sit in the corridors of power, blocking up the true wishes of democracy, and there is only a certain amount of serious commentary that can ever have any power or effect. For that you need a comedian. The comedian makes looking at reality entertaining enough not to lose concentration, they bring the music out of the static and do not let us turn our heads away from things which are too hot to touch. The comedians touch the flame for us…and we laugh at them in return, or on a good day, we laugh with them, laugh at ourselves and our leaders and our ridiculous predicament.

There have always been comedians, like Lenny Bruce and the magnificent Andy Kaufman, who pushed things a little too far, whatever that means. They took their art in the comic form, and felt around for those sharp edges of what is allowable, acceptable, just the right side of beyond the pale borderline that society sets in place. Sometimes it was too far for me. Sometimes those broad strokes of their brush made me wince and retreat and feel the fury rising. When that happened, and they defused the tension with a laugh, I might not have liked them very much, but that was entirely their goal. No comedian expects to be liked. If they honestly want such mundane and boring goals as ‘to be liked’ then they are in the wrong industry. Everyone has groaned at a joke or an impersonation, or deliberately inflated and exaggerated opinion and thought, “that funny guy is an asshole.” I certainly have. What I never did, and would never do, is consider physical violence. I am not interested in talking about That Slap beyond it started a disturbing precedent of it being socially acceptable to hit someone when we don’t agree with them.

To be frank The Slap debacle was the most interesting thing about that Hollywood wank-circle mess. Once again, the comedians have our attention. So what are they going to do with it now they have it?

I woke up this morning to the horrible news that someone had attacked the wonderfully funny genius that is Dave Chappelle. Now, I have had my moments watching Dave’s act on Netflix. The McCauley Calkin joke was a bit too far, even if he did make his point, even if he did go a little too far for me to not hate myself for laughing. Chappelle pushes the boundaries in ever increasingly inventive ways. His jokes about his transwoman friend both shone at light into the recesses of what is increasingly becoming a cultural sticking point, and was also both brutally honest about his feelings – and a the feelings of a lot of people, and also his immense affection for his trans friend who was driven to suicide, allegedly as a result of bullying. I am not aware of the confirmed motivation for the heinous attack on Chappelle and free speech, but Chappelle joked after dealing with the threat, that it was ‘a transman’. Who knows…but I know this: Chapelle is funny even when he has just had to dodge an attempt on his life.

I said at the time I was concerned for Dave, but was relieved the reaction to his new material seemed to be only groans and attempts to cancel the thankfully uncancellable Chapelle. However, last night his performance at the Hollywood Bowl nearly ended in tragedy when a man with a knife and what we now know was a fake gun, charged Chappelle on stage, and forced Chapelle to grapple with him, appearing to try and stab Chappelle. It was almost Andy Warhol all over again.

Lenny Bruce is gone, but his spirit’s living on and on, sang Dylan, and Dylan generally knows a thing or two. Without our modern living comedy greats, Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Rock, Pete Davidson, Kevin Hart, and yes Dave Chapelle, we would never have the opportunity to stop and pause and laugh at the horror while we realize that these living embodiments of free speech are not going to let accountability, the ridiculousness and uselessness of power, injustice and the failures of society, wither in the darkness, even if standing in the spotlight is not the safest place to be.

I hope Chappelle is going to be ok today, and that he gets better security, then keeps on telling us things that make us very uncomfortable, but that we need to hear. Like Dylan said of Lenny Bruce, “Never robbed any judges, cut off any babies heads, he just took the folks in high places and shined a light in their beds.” Save the comedians! Save humanity. Save culture. Save democracy and free speech and all the good things which are quivering under the pressure of a rising authoritarian tide.

Thank you for making me laugh, Dave. Thank you for making me stop taking myself too seriously. Thank you for being brave and refusing to be cancelled. That McCauley joke though, buddy….. I’ll be over here crying with desperate laughter.

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