4/5/21: Dave Chappelle, The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor — Almost Doing What You Want #poetry
I had forgotten the second reason for why I stopped doing stand – up comedy. The first reason was that I didn’t want to be restricted by the genre’s requirement to be funny. The second reason was that I didn’t want to be restricted to speaking about topics that were necessarily of interest to the audience. I wanted to speak to and about what interested me. An artist’s career runs a different course than the career of a stand – up comedian. I do and say what I want, and I find places where I can do and say exactly that. What I want to do and say changes, and then I need new places. For a time in my development, stand – up comedy was precisely the right place. I learned a lot about being a writer by working as a stand – up comedian.
I never have identified with a specific form. I am driven by what I want to say and do. I like calling myself a writer because the word is so generic. A writer can be someone who writes an epic poem or the warning on the side of a container of cleanser. All the iterations of my art were not created equal. I passionately loved doing stand – up comedy for a time before I started to hate it. (No, hate is not too strong a word.) Stand – up breaks my heart because it is so close to being the real thing but sells out at the last minute. Society is a prison and stand – up comedy is a prison riot. I want answers. I write to get answers. I view other people’s art to get answers. Stand – up comedy is like trial law. Society is incapable of justice, so it puts on shows that approximate justice. Everyone gets their say — laughs are verdicts, but the murder problem never stops. Art and sainthood further mankind — expand our facility for living our lives to our highest fulfillment. Stand – up comedy and trial law, two vineyards that I made vinegar in, exploit the conflict and confusion.
I always watch comedy with a tinge of sadness. It isn’t necessarily healthy to spend too much time remembering what one once loved. It isn’t pleasant to remember the the pain of splitting from the body comedic — my rebellion and the anger and derision that it met from my former admirers. But the reconsideration of my time is a stand – up is necessary from time to time, because I learned so much doing this work.
I have some things in common with Dave Chappelle. He is known as an intellectual comedian, and so was I. Chappelle dropped out for a long time, and so did I. The dropping art piece is often ignored in the matriculation of an artist. There has to be a time when you get hurt and fed up and drop out of society. Our returns have been quite different. I write an obscure blog and Dave Chappelle gets the Mark Twain Prize.
Chappelle says that it takes a great deal of courage to do what you want, especially when everyone else is telling you what you ought to do. It’s tough to argue with success, but it’s what I do. Is Dave Chappelle really doing what he wants to do? I am. Chappelle is celebrated as the comedian who embodies intelligence, courage and integrity, and the audience and the producing establishment celebrate themselves as individuals and institutions that recognize, nurture and reward such virtue.
Why did the Kennedy Center give a lifetime achievement award to a 47 year old comedian who is only mid – career? Chappelle is the best thing in comedy, now and for quite awhile, but he doesn’t do what Mark Twain did. I do. I am not saying that I am as talented as Dave Chappelle (he’s very talented and its apples and oranges) or as great a writer as Mark Twain (the comparison is ridiculous on so many levels, but writing is a great folly … I aspire to write as well as Twain, and I’m crazy enough to think that I may achieve it … why do it otherwise … I’ll never have Twain’s fame or immortality, I know that, of course … but I might write as well, maybe I already have … if you don’t feel that way about your writing, why bother? Twain may have performed for audiences, but he wasn’t a stand – up comedian. He succeeded at gaining recognition for saying and doing precisely what he wanted. I’m lousy at getting recognition, but we live in a time where it really isn’t needed. Social media gives a microphone and/or printing press to anyone who wants them. I write, people read me … I do what I do. I’m not waiting for any break. Sure, I’d like a bigger audience, and a portion of fame and fortune as a reward for being who I am — but I don’t want those things as much as I want to do and say what I want. I would do things to get fame and fortune if I got the opportunity, but never at the expense of doing and saying what I want. )
I am not being competitive with, or critical of, Dave Chappelle. I’m not thinking about him. I am thinking about what he does — it’s the limitations of the form … Chappelle says he wants to “give himself and other people good memories”. I don’t. I want to do and say what I want.
On the matter of doing and saying what I want … my desires are not invented or dreamed up by me. My desires are inspired … doing what I want is actually doing what I am told — not told by parents or bosses or social groups or just society in general, but what I am told by what I call God. We are born with a soul the size of an acorn. We all have a potential character and a destiny. We live our lives and our true natures — those acorns — take root. A tree grows. Things happen that nurture those roots, and things happen that injure them. We tend our trees or we chop them down. If we let the trees grow, we inevitably make mistakes and the trees are battered by the elements, and nourished by rain and sun. Everything that happens changes the DNA of the acorn. We are the products of the interactions of our essential natures and our experience. We have a destiny. Stand – up comedy is not the final resting place of the destinies of people like me or perhaps like Dave Chappelle.
Dave Chappelle says that every opinion is represented in a comedy club. No matter who you are, you have a comedian who is your champion. I’m not interested in opinions. I am interested in the truth of doing and saying what I want. Chappelle is still involved with society, and as long as he lives there you can’t get at the truth.
I want to hear Dave Chappelle without all the bullshit. Spare me Sarah Silverman and Jon Stewart and all the other cunning posers. They are all right, I guess. They just don’t interest me. They remind me of my high school social studies class which was fun and introduced me to critical thinking. Sarah Silverman said, “Dave Chappelle turned his critical thinking into his art.” Chappelle and the crowd oohed and aahed. Really? That comment gets an A in Mr. Ingugiatto’s social studies section, hits me as banal now. Stand – up is a writer’s starter kit. It’s great to run your thoughts before a crowd to feel how they land on other people. It’s great to merge into the writing lane from the regular person lane. But then you have to exit.
Jon Stewart tells a story of how Chappelle turned down an opportunity to deliver DVDs of his Comedy Central show to wounded warriors at Walter Reade hospital as an admirable example of how no one “cares so much, and doesn’t a fuck” … Stewart then struggles to find an anecdote about the caring part … and I’m not saying Chappelle doesn’t … I just don’t know … Stewart never tells me … and does Chappelle not give a fuck because of personal integrity or because he is a big star and the attitude reflects his power? Stewart doesn’t say that either … Stewart doesn’t seem very curious … more salesman than writer, he’s just out to make an impression. The truest thing that Stewart said was about $50 million.
Is Chappelle really doing and saying what he wants in the midst of all of this bullshit?
Some would say that Chappelle is bringing his truth to people in terms and proportions that they can understand, and showing compassionate interest in people in the world. I’ll buy that. I’ve done that as a performer and as a teacher. But that is not the final resting place of an artist’s destiny either.
I guess my big complaint is that Chappelle is held up as an example of integrity and freedom … and that there is more to both of those qualities. I think he might be on the road to those things. Or his destiny might fall short of those things. Mark Twain wrote things that were disturbing. An artist confronts society. An artist doesn’t merely participate in a debating society.
Dave Chappelle is great, as far as he goes. I have gone and want to go farther. I don’t know if Chappelle does. That’s really none of my business.
Copyright 2021 Richard Thomas