Chapelle’s Show Has Been Under Attack. Its Co-Writer Defends It.
Chapelle’s Show is responsible for some of the most cutting-edge comedy on television of all-time. In the early 2000s, Dave Chappelle’s sketch series was groundbreaking, provocative, and in some ways prophetic to social issues that followed.
Comedian Neal Brennan wrote and directed many of the show’s most memorable episodes. In his latest appearance on The Breakfast Club, he explained the state of comedy, especially in an era of cancel-culture. Thirty seconds into the interview, Charlamagne Tha God mentions that he, like many personalities in the public eye, has faced backlash for old content, especially on social media. In the wake of this month’s Surviving R. Kelly, Charlamagne asks Neal, who co-wrote the “Pee On You” satire of R. Kelly’s real-life accusations, about how such comedy intersects with real-life. Charlamagne adds that one of R. Kelly’s real-life accusers, Lisa Van Allen, recently told The Breakfast Club that humor like that made her trauma seem less serious.
At 1:00, Brennan responds, “Alright, I got a lot of thoughts about this: first of all, I don’t think people understand what comedy is supposed to do. We will observe things; we’ll make fun of things. [This] advocacy is a new thing. Like the idea of ‘go on this website and do blank.’ Did people want [Chappelle’s Show] to round up a posse and go arrest R. Kelly? Like, what were we supposed to do? Like, Charlie Chaplin made a movie called The Great Dictator, which was about [Adolf] Hitler. It made fun of Hitler; we made fun of R. Kelly. The idea that we normalized it…R. Kelly wanted to fight Dave [Chappelle]. He literally stepped—his goons stepped to Dave in Chicago, and Dave’s goons intervened, and the goons negotiated.” The comment brings laughter among the hosts and Neal, who says the incident took place in 2003, and he was not present.
“We also did a white supremacist sketch; I don’t think we normalized white supremacy,” continues Neal. “Our job is to poke fun at things, and even if it’s bleak, we still poke fun at it. We were trying to humiliate a guy who was known for peeing [on underage women]. It’s insane…we’re not law enforcement. Our job is to mock; we’re equal opportunity offenders.”
Angela Yee asks if that sketch would work to debut after something like Surviving R. Kelly. “I don’t think so, and I don’t know.” He explains that the idea of applying past jokes or points to today’s standards does not apply. “The morals are different. Bernie Mac did a joke about beating his nephew to the white meat. Was he espousing child abuse? I guess, if you want to take the worst possible interpretation of any of these things, I guess Bernie was espousing child abuse. If you want; I don’t believe he was. But you could make an argument, and you’d get support, and maybe get a hashtag to cancel Bernie ’cause he said ‘beat somebody to the white meat.'”
Neal adds that in another sketch, making light of Black celebrities—including R. Kelly—on trial, a humorous defense argument from the sketch would be mirrored in the real-life late 2000s deliberations. “We did a sketch-comedy defense, and then R. Kelly’s lawyers kinda plead the same thing, and won. [People I told recently were] like, ‘Are you bragging?’ I’m like, ‘What kind of a maniac would brag about getting a pedophile off [trial]?’ No, I’m not bragging! I’m pointing out the absurdity that we pitch something as absurd comedy that then became reality.” Brennan blames the attack on comedy as what he calls “bad faith interpretations.”
Moments later, the Half Baked co-writer continues, “It’s like the advocacy part of comedy, I think that’s a new thing…people will just take [an interview] and they’ll literally [interpret something I said negatively]. It’s its own genre of entertainment now, this ‘gotcha’ thing. There’s no redemption. Kevin Hart has to just keep apologizing to everyone he meets,” referring to a series of apologies from his peer. “Where do you think this is headed? We can all get caught, for everything.”
At 14:00, Charlamagne asks, “How did we go from In Living Color, the Chappelle show, to where we are now? It’s like we went backward.” Neal responds, “I think in its essence it’s not bad. I’m not opposed to [LBGTQ] rights, and women to feel safer, there’s all of these things…I just wish there was a level of humanity to it.” He and Charlamagne agree that attending a comedy show historically meant that you might get made fun of, but so would other groups.
While at The Breakfast Club, Brennan also discusses his new Netflix’s special, Comedians Of The World.