Comedy Always Wins

Dave Chappelle in close up, holding a mic while performing

Comedy is much more difficult than tragedy. It’s much easier to make people cry than to make them laugh. 

Vivien Leigh

I’ve often said that if I had it to do all over again, I’d attempt to become a stand-up comedian. But the truth is, back then I didn’t have thick enough skin to survive bombing in front of a live audience, which is a big part of the experience when you’re starting out. So, comedy writing was a more likely alternate path Maybe on a sitcom or something.

It’s no secret that stand-up comedians are important to me. I’ve written about everyone from Kevin Meaney to Garry Shandling, Tig Nortaro to Louis ck (BEFORE all the creepy behavior info came out), and many others. I consider comedians the philosophers of our time. The great ones like Patton Oswalt and Bill Burr make us think while they’re making us laugh. I’d rather see stand-up live than anything else. I’ve had front row seats for Jim Gaffigan, saw the great Louis Black, smirked through a set by Dennis Miller and had a brief chat with Louis Anderson after his set at the Comedy Store in LA. Mike Birbiglia and Oswalt are on my live-show bucket list.

This has already been a crummy year for the deaths of stand-up comedy legends. Gilbert Gottfried. Anderson. Bob Saget, who I never watched on Full House but laughed my butt off at his stand-up. I’m still not over the early exits of comedy greats Mitch Hedberg, Greg Giraldo, Robin Williams, Chris Farley, and even John Candy.

Last week, when a man rushed the stage at the Netflix is a Joke comedy festival at the Hollywood Bowl , many said Will Smith’s slap of Chris Rock at the Oscars opened the door. That people now feel it’s okay to get onstage and try to harm a live performer. I don’t know if that’s true. But the guy was quickly taken down by some of the nicest people in comedy. Jon Stewart, Jamie Foxx, and rapper Busta Rhymes all had a hand in subduing the attacker and breaking his arm.

Chappelle has come under fire for jokes about transgender people. I’ve watched every one of his specials. One line taken out of context could certainly give the impression that he’s anti-trans. But the whole performances, including a touching story about his close friendship with a transgender person, prove otherwise. It’s easier to click “like” on something negative, than look into it for oneself, right? Good luck with fixing that, Elon! Anyway, the homeless man who attacked Chappelle apparently had a different beef that had nothing to do with Dave.

Chappelle convinced LA police to let him speak privately with the man who attacked him. He sat down with 23-year-old Isiah Lee, and asked why. It wasn’t because Lee is a Trump supporter and Chappelle is definitely not, although that’s true. Lee, an aspiring rapper, has written a song about Chappelle, but its lyrics contain no threats or anger towards the comedian. No, the reason was much more personal.

Gentrification forced Lee’s grandmother out of her home. Investors have swooped in, improved residential housing, and then raised the rents. Lee’s grandma had to move. Lee wanted to bring attention to what happened to his grandma because it’s happening all over North America. Chappelle had sold out the Hollywood Bowl. Seventy-thousand in the audience, huge names on the bill, a place – Lee thought – to make his grandma’s plight well known.

Although Will Smith’s behavior at the Oscars, including receiving a standing ovation soon after he slapped Chris Rock, might be related to the Chappelle incident, I think there’s a simpler explanation. President Orange’s repeated mantras about violence and taking back what’s yours. (Like his falsehood about “Making America Great Again”.) When he had a heckler: ‘Just knock the hell out of them. I promise you I’ll pay for the legal fees,’ He made the disenfranchised feel special. Frankly, that’s what conspiracy theorists do. They tell someone who’s not special at all that they’re exceptional and bright for seeing things others don’t see. Why shouldn’t you insert yourself into an event to make a point? In the world of Orange, you should.

Howie Mandel called the attack the “beginning of the end of comedy”. I don’t know about that. Smith got away with it. The guy at the Hollywood Bowl definitely did not. But felony charges were dropped after Chappelle’s visit with him. Compassion entered his story.

Isiah Lee had the most human reason for what he did. Carrying a replica handgun with a knife inside, he didn’t hurt Chappelle when he clearly could have. The show went on even though Chappelle was rattled. It was definitely not okay. But Kevin Hart said he was glad it happened because the response – broken arm, criminal charges – sends a powerful message to anyone contemplating something similar.

Dave Chappelle is a sharp-tongued critic but he’s also a sweet, caring man. Who else can you think of that wanted to visit with their attacker? The Pope. Pope John Paul II met privately with the man who tried to assassinate him in 1981, and they stayed in contact until the Pontiff died more than twenty years later. Understanding is a powerful tool. So is forgiveness. But it’s not easy to find when your life has been threatened.

Comics wouldn’t be comics if they didn’t find the funny in all this. Here’s the exchange Chappelle and Chris Rock had on stage a few nights after the attack:

Chappelle: “At least you got smacked by someone by repute! I got smacked by a homeless guy with leaves in his hair.”

Rock, “I got smacked by the softest n—a that ever rapped.”

7 thoughts on “Comedy Always Wins”

  1. Thank you for a personal take on a much bigger picture. I hadn’t heard about Chapelle’s talk with his attacker; wasn’t aware of the man’s motives. There’s always so much more beyond the headlines as we scroll, scroll, scroll. This was worth stopping to read. Thank you again.

  2. Powerful post! I did not see the Pope comparison coming, and you pulled it off!

    By the way, you are one of the funniest (and smartest) people I know.

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