As a proudly Jewish sixty-something who probably spends too much time reading the news, I am acutely aware of the apparent rise in antisemitism in this country at this time. I watched Saturday Night Live this week, the episode hosted by Dave Chappelle. I caught his entire, 15-minute opening monologue. He cracked me up. Multiple times.
Some of his jokes left me bewildered, but I was not offended. Then, in the days that followed, I was inundated with articles from friends criticizing Dave Chappelle’s “pernicious antisemitism.” I was confused. There is a difference between being an antisemite and mocking antisemites like Kanye West. I do not believe that Dave Chappelle was advancing an antisemitic agenda. On the whole, in his own edgy way, he was calling out antisemites. The fact that many of us can’t see that concerns me.
In 2015, Larry David hosted Saturday Night Live and made some Holocaust-related jokes. They were not well received and will not be repeated here. The problem was not that the subject of his jokes was the Holocaust. The problem was they just were not that funny.
In 1967, less than a generation after Nazi concentration camps were liberated, Mel Brooks released The Producers, which actually garnered him an Oscar for Best Screenplay. We all remember the story. We all remember “Springtime for Hitler.” Later, it became a Broadway musical and was remade again as a movie. How did Mel Brooks get away with this so soon after World War II? The answer: It was funny. Yes — even Holocaust related jokes are fair game if they are funny enough.
Ricky Gervais has observed that, when it comes to comedy, offense can never be given, only taken. Dave Chappelle had the audacity to point out “I’ve been to Hollywood and — no one get mad at me — I’m just telling you what I saw, it’s a lot of Jews. Like a lot.” He is right of course. Jews make up less than 2.5% of the US population. I think it would be fair to say that Jews make up more than 2.5% of the Hollywood establishment. The fact that Chappelle pointed this fact out does not make him an antisemite. We have to choose to be offended by the stereotype.
Without truth, there is no humor. Jokes will not work unless we get them. They work because they draw on our common knowledge or experience or belief. We may not like them but there is truth in stereotypes. After all, they would not have become stereotypes in the first place if they were not based in fact. Ever since Adolph Zukor (Paramount), Harry and Jack Warner (Warner Brothers), Carl Laemmle (Universal) Sam Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer (MGM), and Harry Cohn (Columbia) formed their studios, Jews have had an outsized influence in Hollywood. This is all part of our shared history. We can either get the joke and roll with the punches or we blame the comedian for perpetuating the stereotype. But blaming the comedian doesn’t change the truth of things. There are a lot of Jews in Hollywood. Like a lot.
Still, there is a larger point to be made here. We should be fighting for a comedian’s right to push boundaries, to put their lives (or at least their livelihoods) on the line in pursuit of humor. We should be protecting their right to speak freely, not waiting to pounce and “cancel” anyone who offends us. When did we, as Jews, lose our collective sense of humor?
For the most part, Dave Chappelle’s monologue worked for me because I found it funny. Others clearly didn’t feel that way. But we should all defend his right to put himself out there and test that edge. When activists start limiting a comedian’s free speech rights simply because they do not like the thought of a joke, then something has fundamentally changed in this country.
Hate speech has a very specific definition and the burden of proof is on the speaker to prove hate was not the intent. Still, speech we hate is not necessarily hate speech.
Kanye West is a vocal antisemite who got what he deserved. In the course of doing his job, Dave Chappelle made a lot of people uncomfortable. He does not deserve to be cancelled. Rather, he should be celebrated, not because he poked fun at Jews but because he put himself and his career on the line in pursuit of humor, not some antisemitic agenda.
Wokeness and Cancel Culture are what politicians talk about when they have no policy prescriptions to discuss. I want policy makers to explore and create policy. I want comedians to explore and create comedy. We can cancel them if they aren’t funny — happens to their shows all the time. But if we cancel every comedian who has the audacity to look for nuance and humor on a controversial topic, eventually comedy will be reduced to nothing more than spit takes and slapstick. Now that is not funny.