Bishop Barron begins his Catholicism book and video series reminding us that our salvation is bound up in comedy. He tells us, “It all begins with a jest,” the wildest congruence of opposites—divinity and humanity—in the birth of our eternal King in the lowliest surroundings. Bishop Barron concludes, “God chose to save us by making us laugh.”
Aristotle described comedy this way in his Poetics: “Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower type, not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the Ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain.”
Comedy necessarily involves getting into the muck of everyday reality, often by shining light on the flaws or quirks of individuals or particular groups for the sake of a universal message. Even if our humor is not entirely clean, it is a testimony to God’s sovereignty that we are the creatures who do not take ourselves too seriously. In a sense, the more seriously we take ourselves, the more we usurp God’s role as our creator, savior, and sustainer.
I have heard it said more than once recently that comedy just isn’t what it used to be. In fact, I’ve said it myself. When I watch the great comedies I grew up with like Caddyshack or The Jerk, not to mention the raucous films of my young adult years like Zoolander or White Chicks or sitcoms like 30 Rock, I think to myself, “These could never be made now.”
But then I remember there is a time and season for everything under heaven. And in more enlightened moments, I may even acknowledge that nostalgia has a way of elevating one or two things in my mind that perhaps should never have seemed funny in the first place. Nonetheless, it is distressing to feel on edge sometimes about what one can or cannot say. It does seem as if the great jester character has been silenced for fear of causing offense, when causing at least some offense has always been at the heart of the comedic endeavor.
There is satisfaction in the half-smile reaction to an unkind but true observation of a neighbor or the just-too-off-color wisecrack from a friend. But the mature Christian is haunted by St. Paul’s injunction to the Philippians to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). “What would Jesus do?” is now passé, bumper-sticker Evangelicalism; but maybe we should ask ourselves, “What would Jesus find funny?” I tend to think the list would be longer than our most prim-and-proper brethren would think. (Does our Lord demand only corny “dad” jokes?) But a lot of things that amuse us also get in the way of our growth in holiness and our ability to make disciples of others. To put it Aristotle’s way, when does the ugliness become painful or destructive?
I have been going over all this in my mind as I think and rethink about Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix special, The Closer. Chappelle is among the most celebrated comics alive today, but he has recently come under fire from some LGBTQ people for perceived insensitivity—even ridicule. The Closer is Chappelle’s sixth stand-up special for Netflix, and in it, Chappelle proposes to speak for the last time about the controversial topic of transgenderism. Despite stating in his routine, “I want every member of that community to know that I come here tonight in peace,” followed by a big laugh from the audience, his critics were not happy. Chappelle rejects the notion that he is “punching down,” and he even closes the special with an emotional anecdote about a friendship with a white, transgender comedian who committed suicide. Nonetheless, some Netflix employees staged a walkout in opposition to The Closer’s remaining on the platform.
Chappelle’s brand of comedy is full of vulgarity, and any profound and funny words of truth he may be able to speak to the powers-that-be will be lost on many people, and especially those striving for holiness. But I have to admit, my initial reaction to The Closer was favorable. I laughed a lot, as I usually do with Chappelle’s work, justifying the coarseness by thinking that maybe someone needs to say what no one else can. And his observations in The Closer about the success of the LGBTQ movement compared to the African American civil rights movement are poignant. But still, something didn’t sit quite right with me.
What about the shadow side of Chappelle’s comedy, as embodied by the D.C. Comics supervillain Joker, for whom the jokes are an expression of despair? What are all these laughs in Chappelle’s The Closer meant to achieve? Do they take the edge off the “woke” vs. “based” debate and help lift us above entrenched tribalism, or do we all dig in our heels deeper? Do Chappelle’s irreverent observations reveal a lightness of being, despite the overwhelming profanity, or do they simply add to the demonic chaos swirling around us that threatens to suck us all into a pit of despair?
I found my answer in two places.
First, Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos issued a bizarre defense of Chappelle and the company’s decision to keep The Closer on its platform. He wrote to his entire Netflix staff, “We have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.”
No one believes any such thing. We all know that what we watch most certainly can directly translate to real-world harm (and good), even if we disagree in society today about what harm and good may be. If not, why would we bother watching anything at all? Sarandos later said he ‘screwed up’ his response, but it was disturbing all the same.
Second, Chappelle’s reaction to his critics troubled me. He stated, in total sincerity, “Everyone I know from that community has been nothing but loving and supporting,” but then he declared, “To the transgender community, I am more than willing to give you an audience, but you will not summon me. I am not bending to anybody’s demands. And if you want to meet with me, I’d be more than willing to, but I have some conditions: First of all, you cannot come if you have not watched my special from beginning to end. You must come to a place of my choosing and a time of my choosing. And thirdly, you must admit that Hannah Gadsby is not funny.”
It’s that “thirdly” that worried me most. If Chappelle really wanted to engage in sincere dialogue, even while defending himself, why would he poke the bear again by calling out Gadsby, an Australian LGBTQ comedian? The comedic payoff for Chappelle seems minimal at best. Again, what are Chappelle’s jokes about transgenderism and other LGBTQ issues for?
Now, there is certainly something admirable about an entertainer resisting cancel culture. And many of us wholeheartedly agree with some of the basic principles that Chappelle is trying to convey, including once obvious but now controversial statements like “Gender is a fact.” For those of us committed to living in the reality of Christ and his Church, much of what Chappelle critiques in The Closer pertains to our feeling that the world is getting stranger and more dangerous by the day.
But on those matters, our primary response is heartfelt tears, not derisive laughter. The evangelist, even in comedic endeavors, is seeking to win souls rather than culture war battles. As St. Paul says about defending oneself in the public square, “Why not rather be wronged?” (1 Cor. 6:7). Our Lord certainly was wronged, but in the empty tomb, he also got the last laugh.
Laughter can be a balm for our souls, and God knows we all need to lighten up a bit. But as Bishop Barron has said, “Even as we legitimately fight the great social evils of our time, we must remember Paul’s simple but trenchant principle: never do evil that good might come of it.”
That goes for our comedy too.