Entertainment, at its best, is therapeutic—a curative outlet through which creator(s) and audience escape. On April 5, 1968, Boston, like the rest of the nation, was in dire need of healing: One day prior, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. As riots erupted across the United States, James Brown’s locally televised performance at Boston Garden eased the city’s unrest. It was the genesis of Brown’s legend, as his music—and his presence—became the guiding light Boston and the rest of America needed amidst the disarray. Laughter has the same power.
Saturday Night Live made a wise, calculated decision by tapping Dave Chappelle to host its Nov. 12 episode. This orchestrated a historic intersection of two career milestones: Chappelle’s overdue debut as host and A Tribe Called Quest’s farewell performance following the release of their final album, We Got It From Here...Thank You For Your Service. But Lorne Michaels also knew, regardless of the outcome, that Chappelle’s appearance would be the perfect postscript to a calamitous presidential election. Still, the gravitas was amplified when Murphy’s Law struck and Donald Trump was elected our 45th president. It’s the worst that could happen; a turn of events that remains terrifyingly surreal if you aren’t some combination of white, male, wealthy, afraid, and completely self-interested. Low morale, high anxiety, and unbridled fury sparked nationwide protests of Trump’s election. A battery has been placed in the back of every white supremacist, overt and covert, pining for America to feel like theirs again. At best, we the people are uncomfortably numb.
America is once again waving its true color in our faces—and it’s white, not red or blue. Only Dave Chappelle could make proper sense of this mess. An unqualified white man riding his filthy magic carpet of privilege into the White House as a final ego boost? Sounds like a brilliant Chappelle’s Show skit, had the legend elected to briefly trade humor for psychological horror. But Chappelle, like all great comedians, sees the thin line separating humor and tragedy. Chappelle’s Show was iconic because of its ambitious, precise, and brazen approach to social commentary. On Saturday night, Dave Chappelle commandeered the spotlight once again. And through his genius, we laughed through our pain.
“We’ve actually elected an internet troll as our president,” Chappelle said in his monologue, slapping the elephant in the room. A turncoat extraordinaire mobilized white supremacy and used it as a weapon against progress. It’s a reasonable person’s nightmare; it’s Chappelle’s as well. Trump’s rise via toxic wings of celebrity, profile, and propaganda are part of what drove Chappelle into seclusion in 2005. He walked away from that mountain of Comedy Central money because people were laughing too loudly at certain things. He walked away because they were too supportive of the wrong things. He walked away because he could feel what he created snowballing into something he couldn’t control. Trump embraced this and became a demagogue. Rejecting it left Chappelle with considerably less disposable income (as he’s joked), but ultimately saved his soul. Post-hiatus Chappelle hasn’t lost a step when it comes to comedy. If anything, he has a clearer vision of the world.
Chappelle’s style is trenchant. His knack for jack-knifing through bullshit to strike gold is ingenious, hilarious, and, at times, painfully accurate. The police brutality segment of his 2000 HBO special, Dave Chappelle: Killing Them Softly, is poignant because nothing has changed in 16 years. Time has sharpened his wit, which is now more savvy than pure world-weariness. The game changes you, and Chappelle’s seen it all. He said as much in his SNL monologue, a necessary change of pace after Kate McKinnon’s frigid opener. “I know the whites,” he said of Hillary Clinton’s defeat. “You guys aren’t as full of surprises as you used to be.” In the following Election Night skit, he and Chris Rock eviscerated white liberals and exposed a weakness in Clinton’s strategy by holding the mirror up to their obliviousness to the world outside of their bubble. Apparently, no one told them the bigger the lie, the more they believe.
Blind faith in the loudest voice played an undeniable role in the 2016 presidential election. Chappelle is privy to the fact that facts don’t matter. His send-up of The Walking Dead resurrected many beloved Chappelle’s Show characters including Tyrone Biggums, Silky Johnson, Chuck Taylor, and Lil Jon. However, the return of Clayton Bigsby was the most timely. The blind, black white supremacist donned a "Make America Great Again" hat, reverberating as a spot-on metaphor for the tragic blindness of minorities who support Trump. Conversely, Chappelle’s pristine comedic vision was later seen through the eyes of children.
In “Kids Talk Politics,” children offer their innocent, unfiltered honesty about the president-elect. A little girl, who turns out to be Chappelle’s daughter, Sonal, provides a sobering dose of reality by contextualizing Trump’s rhetoric. It’s a spoof of the children-focused Clinton campaign ads, and perhaps the one they needed. It’s also one of many moments that gave Saturday Night Live a Chappelle's Show feel for 90 minutes, potential FCC fines be damned.
Perceptive analysis-as-sketch comedy aside, Chappelle’s Show was also defined by its musical guests. (Think Common and Kanye West performing the version of “The Food” that appears on Common’s Be.) SNL was no different, as Chappelle came to Studio 6A with A Tribe Called Quest in tow. Their Saturday Night Live performance not only served as a send-off for the late Phife Dawg and group as a whole, it echoed the ethos of Chappelle’s commentary. Both of their musical selections, “We the People…” and “The Space Program,” reflect the frustrations of every marginalized person living in fear of further disenfranchisement in Trump’s pressure cooker vision of America. Tribe’s appearance alongside Chappelle was kismet. As Q-Tip says on “We the People…”: “Guilty pleasures take the edge off reality.” But there shouldn’t be any shame in laughter, especially when it’s necessary.
We laugh as a method of distraction. Sometimes, we laugh as a means of escape. We laugh when we’re afraid; we laugh to keep from crying. Even if it’s temporary, laughter is a remedy for grief. Dave Chappelle on Saturday Night Live was the perfect storm: a career milestone, the extended Chappelle’s Show finale fans were deprived of, and a soothing annotation to the most disastrous presidential election in American history. James Brown at Boston Garden in ‘68 was a career-defining moment for the Godfather of Soul. Saturday Night Live was yet another for Chappelle.
With an uncertain future ahead, it’s a moment that we, the people, needed—even if it was just 90 minutes of sanctity.