Monday, May 23, 2011

Lay Down Your Weary Tune

I've been thinking of endings lately, mostly because a major and occasionally quite torrid chapter of my own life just ended. On Thursday, I graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary's joint program at Columbia University, a surreal accomplishment given how unlikely and even impossible it seemed for a few terrible and stressful weeks in the middle of sophomore year. And even afterwards--even until I walked across the stage and shook hands with JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen--it felt like something that wasn't meant to happen, like it was a sort of miscarriage of reality, something that countless failed Hebrew tests and hazy philosophy seminars and long, disaffected months and years spent avoiding my JTS classmates and professors seemed to rebel against. I can still remember the Friday afternoon of my first Hebrew exam freshmen year, when I was simply too shellshocked and depressed to do anything other than pass a few rude and detached hours with a friend from high school, before shaking her off and collapsing into a favorite downtown jazz club for a solitary night cap. This whole thing, this whole going-to-JTS thing, is the height of self-deception, I decided. It's not something I should be doing. I'm being crushed under the weight of a contradiction that I'll never be able to free myself from.

But I did free myself from it. Maybe I would have been a happier person if I'd transferred to Maryland or Sarah Lawrence. But would I have been wiser? In my heart, would I have been more satisfied? Or would the sense of dissatisfaction lingered? The weight of self-doubt never crushed me completely, and perhaps, paradoxically, I have JTS to thank for it. Or more specifically, I have Franz Rosenzweig, a particular Talmud professor, the Zohar, Hebrew University, the Conservative Yeshiva--a sense of communal belonging, which seemed to exert a greater hold on me the more I tried to deny its reality--to thank for it. I've made my peace.

Which brings me to a conversation I had with a high school friend about a month ago while we were driving around DC. This friend observed that if Dave Chappelle hadn't flamed out spectacularly back in 2005, his show would be on its seventh season--and he'd be in the last year of the infamous $50 million contract that was at least partly to blame for his unraveling, at least according to conventional wisdom. Why couldn't he have just sweated it out?, my friend wondered. We have a black president, for fuck sake. Just imagine what he could have done with that, never mind everything else that's happened over the past six years.

The answer to this question--the question of why Dave Chappelle is, for all intents and purposes, no longer with us--isn't immediately obvious even to obsessive fans of his show. But it's still there, even right there in the show itself, I'd argue. And I don't mean it's there if you really look for it. I'm convinced this isn't something I've projected onto the show's 27 episodes, even though I watched them all pretty recently, with Chappelle's meltdown very much in the forefront of my mind the whole time. I mean it's clearly very much there, and it's even there in a way that squares with the famous, hour-long interview with Oprah Winfrey that aired a few weeks after Chappelle's astonishing career suicide. It's painfully, obviously there.

What's there? Let's go back to Oprah for a moment. I can't find a transcript of the interview online, but it has to rank as one of the most uncomfortable things I've ever seen on television. And also one of the most consequential: my senior seminar teacher in high school made my class watch the entire thing, presumably as a lesson in...well, as a lesson in something. Because there are lessons in, say, the following exchange that are more valuable than anything we would have learned in most of our classes anyway:

During his third season, Dave began questioning his work on the show. From the very first episode, Dave's sketches sparked controversy. But, over time, he says some of his sketches started to make him feel "socially irresponsible."

One particular sketch still disturbs Dave today. The skit was about a pixie (played by Dave) who appeared in black face, which Dave describes as the "visual personification of the n-word."

"There was a good-spirited intention behind it," Dave says. "So then when I'm on the set, and we're finally taping the sketch, somebody on the set [who] was white laughed in such a way—I know the difference of people laughing with me and people laughing at me—and it was the first time I had ever gotten a laugh that I was uncomfortable with. Not just uncomfortable, but like, should I fire this person?"

After this incident, Dave began thinking about the message he was sending to millions of viewers. Dave says some people understood exactly what he was trying to say with his racially charged comedy...while others got the wrong idea.

"That concerned me," he says. "I don't want black people to be disappointed in me for putting that [message] out there. ... It's a complete moral dilemma."
Now it's incomprehensible for high school students--and actually for most people, I think--that there are people in the world who will gladly give up $50 million and universal admiration and fame for the sake of a moral dilemma. No moral dilemma, in most people's minds, can possibly be worth $50 million--or at least there's no moral dilemma that's both worth $50 million and totally immune from some form of compromise. It's natural that people thought that Chappelle was on drugs or had experienced a psychiatric episode. To value your integrity that greatly, one must either be insane or a devout Ayn Rand devotee.

So here's "what's there," what's not exactly coded into Chappelle's show, but what's really fucking plainly obviously there, at least to me--what's there is inescapable evidence that the driving creative force behind "Chappelle's Show" was, ironically, the exact same moral dilemma that eventually made him quit. "Chappelle's Show" put its star's social, political and even psychic anxieties on wrenching display. By the time season 3 rolled around, this compromise between selfhood and fame was one that Dave Chappelle the human being--as opposed to Dave Chappelle the beloved comic performer, Dave Chappelle the arguably greatest comedian of his generation--could no longer honor.

I don't think I'm imagining that this tension pops up with alarming frequency throughout "Chappelle's Show." The signal example, of course, is in the Clayton Bigsby sketch in the series' very first episode. The sketch is funny because the idea of a black man unwittingly becoming the leader of a white supremacist movement is funny. But it's funny for a fairly disturbing reason: intentional ethnic self-hatred is a psycho-social hornet's nest, the sort of thing that very serious Showtime original movies get made about. But unwitting ethnic self-hatred is hilarious! Clayton Bigsby is blind, so he's been deprived of a sense of identity that's indelibly or necessarily connected to any race or group of people. He's the darkly ironic flip-side of cosmopolitan self-making, in a way: a black man who chooses a white supremacist identity because he simply doesn't know any better. And racism born of that kind of deep ignorance is something that we can safely laugh at.

On the other hand, racism born of funny deep ignorance is only superficially different, I think, from racism born of unfunny deep ignorance, i.e. the racism of lynchings and gas chambers and white-hooded klansmen. From the very beginning, Chappelle was able to domesticate the issue of race while slyly reminding his audience that the issue nevertheless persists. The opening ten seconds of the sketch--when a white-sounding voiceover warns his audience that "the 'n-word' will be used before saying the hell with it and uttering that very n-word in full--captures this perfectly. It's a politically incorrect or rather politically inflammatory or in any event pretty uncomfortable reality deftly packaged as an apology, as a compromise:

For the next 2 1/3rd seasons, Chappelle would try to telegraph to his audience that he was trying to be serious. The question is, did he know he was being serious before the "pixie-sketch" incident he describes in the Oprah interview, or was his self-awareness a late-breaking development? In other words, when did Chappelle become convinced that satire of the Clayton Bigsby variety made him complicit in the trivialization of his own deeply-held grievances?

His now-classic "Jury Duty" sketch proves to me, at least, that he wanted his comedy to be as honest as it possible could be. His answer to his "dilemma" was to create comedy that could appeal to both the conscience and the sense of humor. Fast forward to the 11:50 point on this video for instance. The gist of the sketch is that Chappelle has been called in for jury duty for R Kelly's child pornography trial. R Kelly was accused of taping himself having consensual sex with a woman who turned out to be a minor. Chappelle rants about the evidence needed to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that 1) R Kelly is the person in the video and 2) the woman in the video is under 18. Pissing is involved, making this even more absurd than the details of the case would suggest.

The lawyer asks Chappelle if his standard of proof (the woman holding her ID up to the camera, R Kelly's grandma identifying him on video, etc) isn't a bit "excessive." And then, at around 12:00, Chappelle begins a tirade that strikes me as 100% sincere:

Why are you prosecuting R Kelly when Biggie and Tupac's killers are still on the loose? Why convict him when cops have been acquitted of brutally beating up black people--on video? Then, the coup de grace. Chappelle pisses on the prosecuting attorneys' faces. "That was from the heart," he says in a tone that's best described as bitterly triumphant.

What if we took him at his word? "Chappelle's" becomes a much different program if you begin to assume that all of his anger and frustration is real, and real in a straightforwardly unironic sense. Of course, these frustrations are expressed ironically, like in the Clayton Bigsby sketch, or the largely misfired black-people-as-monsters sketch in the show's final episode or even "The Mad Real World," which has a clear sociological tilt to it. But the frustrations aren't funny even if they're being played for laughs (now there's the kind of nuance you can expect an American television audience to understand!), and they pop up in subtle, perhaps even subconscious ways as well. Hell, they even show up in the less brilliant, funny or incisive sketches. Check out this Moment in the Life of Lil John. The distance between a prepossessing white woman in her mid-40s and the screaming, pimp-cup sipping Lil John is downright Kafkaesque. Even in a sketch like this, Chappelle is getting at the same question that Philip Roth and Richard Wright and countless others have grappled with: how do we live, never mind thrive, in a world that wasn't entirely made for us?

How, indeed. "Chappelle's Show" didn't duck the issues that clearly bothered its creator. If seven years later, it has jarringly prophetic moments, it's because Chappele never even attempted to duck these issues. This is another sketch that isn't widely beloved, but the "Asteroid Heading Towards Earth, Black President Blamed" bit sure rings true today:

Honesty and prophecy came at a steep personal cost. Again, I'm not sure when Chappelle went from cynical exploiter of America's racial divide (this is his own characterization of his work, by the way--not mine) to self-aware prophetic truth-teller. According to the Oprah interview, Chappelle wanted to make his show socially aware and then realized almost instantaneously that is viewership didn't realize this and that he was actually making a mockery of his deepest, truest self. While introducing the Clayton Bigsby sketch, Chappelle joked that he'd shown the clip to some of his black friends, who said he was "setting us back." By season 3, such an observation wasn't funny anymore. He was expected to spend the next five years profiting off of a kind of socially-destructive self-abnegation, playing to an audience that only wanted to laugh at him but that never wanted to understand or listen to him. I'm not saying that this is a fair characterization of things. I just think this is how Chappelle actually felt. Chappelle is accused of being a psychopath and a crack addict because he refused to live a lie, and because he committed our era's most remarkable, most public, most self-destructive act of artistic integrity.

I was reminded of Chappelle again while reading Kelefa Sanneh's New Yorker article on the disappearance of Odd Future's Earl Sweatshirt. Earl, who released a deliriously awesome self-titled debut at the age of 16, vanished from Off Future's studio work and live act about a year ago. Sanneh tracked the rap prodigy to a reform school in Samoa. It turns out that Earl, who is actually the son of a one-time poet laureate of South Africa, was living in a kind of self-inflicted exile in the most remote place on earth. I get the sense that he still wants to be the kind of generational talent that everyone says he could be--but not on anyone's terms but his own. An excerpt:

The only thing I need as of right now is space… Space means no more “Free Earl.” If you sincerely care then I appreciate the gesture, but since you know the hard facts from the source you no longer need to worry. I miss home. I don’t have any definite date though. Even if I did I don’t know if I’d tell you. You’ll hear from me without a doubt when I’m ready.”

Chappelle and Earl's careers ended messily but honestly. While at JTS, I wasn't sure what honesty meant most of the time--whether it meant climbing out of the hole I found myself in, or digging ever deeper, in the hope of learning why I dug, or where I was digging to; in the hope of acquiring a sense of peace and equanimity that only the diggers can access. I'm not ready to embrace the kind of principled quietism which Chappelle and Earl Sweatshirt now epitomize for me. God willing, my biggest challenges and accomplishments lie ahead of me. But these artists teach that self-destruction can be the better part of self-making--that it can be a salutary fate to be remade by the same tensions that formed us.

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