I enjoy watching good comedians perform because they often address an underlying, serious issue and introduce me to different perspectives.
Dave Chappelle said he always enjoys scatological humor, but he also said, “I pride myself on saying real shit that people don’t even realize I’m saying.” Chappelle’s parents were professors, and he joked once during Inside the Actor’s Studio that he was “the first person in [his] family not to go to college who had not been a slave.” He moved at the age of 10 from the outskirts of Washington DC to live with his father in Yellow Springs, Ohio. While he was gone the American crack epidemic struck the city and transformed it into “murder capital.” Chappelle said it was as if a “crack bomb” had exploded causing almost everyone he knew to get involved in the drug trade.
For one job during his high school years, he wore a cookie costume with a big chocolate chip on his head and handed out flyers to earn $3.50 an hour while other black youth were making far more money dealing crack. Years later Chappelle filmed the HBO special “Killin’ Them Softly” in which he joked about being chauffered in a limousine by a driver who wanted to make a detour in the ghetto.
(starts at 1:36)
As Chappelle paints a picture of the limo’s gradual descent into the ghetto, he doesn’t preach but makes a subtle point about class. He’s a black man in a limo who sees a baby in need but feels too ambivalent to step out of the safety of his car.
Good comedy also gives me insight into others’ lives that I otherwise wouldn’t know. I feel I can better understand my colleagues who have children after listening to Louis CK’s jokes about the challenges of raising his two daughters. Chappelle talked about terrorists not taking black hostages because they know they’re bad bargaining chips. The host of Inside the Actor’s Studio James Lipton pointed out that this thought probably doesn’t occur to Caucasians.
Good comics challenge the status quo. Bill Burr ranted about “gold digging whores” and wasn’t afraid to play devil’s advocate against the prevailing sentiment that the rich, powerful men who committed adultery were pigs, end of story. He tells us to dig deeper and question what motivated men like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, etc to do what they did.
Although they produce laughter that’s often truthful and therapeutic, many comedians’ lives are less than happy and healthy. Louis CK talks about how he’s getting fat and old. Burr’s greatest fear is growing old alone with no family, but he has huge reservations about marriage. Looking back on his rise to stardom, Chappelle said “the higher up I go, for some reason, the less happy I am.” Perhaps this is due to the pressures that arise from the synthesis of art and corporate interests. Perhaps there’s something about people who make a living out of seeing the absurd parts of life. Great artists have a powerful source of inspiration, and I can’t help but feel conflicted when I enjoy material that probably took a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to produce and perhaps is a packaged product funded by a corporation counting on a return on investment.
At the end of his Actor’s Studio interview, Chappelle told the acting students in the audience a piece of advice his father told him when he decided his passion was comedy. And that was to name a price for doing the job, “and if it ever gets more expensive than the price you named, get out of there.”