The Whole Elephant

Dave Chappelle photo by Lester Cohen 2017

“…Sometimes there’s something I really want to convey, and I get a little obsessive about it. So there’s that. It’s not that they’re not listening, but it’s like I’m trying to say this thing to them and they can’t hear me. Like, there were times when I was famous for things that became cumbersome. Half Baked was like that, where I had grown personally, and when I would go onstage, people would scream out shit from that movie. Or like, “I’m Rick James, bitch!” And I’d just be like, “Listen to what I’m saying, listen to what I’m saying.” It was frustrating—like I was being victimized by my work. I think it’s a Miles Davis quote where he says you spend the early part of your career trying to chase your influences, and the second half trying to get away from ’em…

“… I have said some very witty, razor-sharp shit in conversations or even, like, offhandedly onstage. Some of ’em I don’t even want to repeat. They were funny, but I just know that sometimes the things that scare you the most or make you want to cry the most or are the most tragic are the things you just gravitate to or address in a comedic context, partially because you shouldn’t. That shit’s dangerous. You know, you fuck up a lot doing that. But it’s exciting when it works, and it’s exciting to kind of just watch someone try. The short answer is, yeah, I’ve laughed at shit that I feel guilty about or made jokes about things that I felt guilty or ethically uneasy about after the fact.” Dave Chappelle in conversation with Mark Anthony Green, November 12, 2014.

There’s no one else quite like Dave Chappelle. In the matter of an hour he can upend every expectation and every comfortable and unacknowledged thought you’ve ever carried in your head about who you are, what you experience and how those things create reality. Dave’s “return” to the public eye in 2017 was groundbreaking, exciting and thought provoking. For some his work is controversial, for others just pure comedy. I think Dave is an American philosopher, a devastating thinker and a marvelous teacher. That he manages to do these things, create a different reality for all of us on such a high level during a Netflix standup special makes his work all the more mesmerizing.

“… the reason that I bring that up tonight [Emmett Till’s murder] and why it’s relevant now, is because less than a year ago, the woman that he allegedly whistled at… admitted on her deathbed… that she lied in her court testimony. And you can imagine, when we read that shit, we was like, “Ooh! You lying-ass, bitch.” [I] was furious — that was my initial reaction. And initial reactions, we all learned as we get older, are often wrong or more often incomplete. They call this phenomenon “standing too close to an elephant.” The analogy being that if you stand too close to an elephant, you can’t see the elephant. All you see is its penis-like skin. You gotta step back and give it a better look. And on stepping back and thinking about it for a few moments, I realized that it must have been very difficult for this woman to tell a truth that heinous about herself at any point in her life. Even the very end. And I was grateful that she had the courage to tell it before she left this world. Because it’s an important truth and we needed to know. And I said to myself, “Well, thank you for telling the truth… you lying-ass bitch.” And then time goes on, and then after time, you can kind of see the whole elephant. And it’s humbling. ‘Cause you realize that this woman lied and that lie caused a murder. But that murder set in motion a sequence of events that made my wonderful life possible. That made this very night possible. How could this be? That this lie could make the world a better place? It’s maddening.” Dave Chapelle Equanimity 2017.

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