As much as anything, Jews are the people of the joke. In his 1981 book, Funny People, Steve Allen estimated that 80 percent of American comics were Jewish. That shouldn’t shock anyone. As scholar Jennifer Caplan wrote about that era, “Everyone knew, or thought they knew, that American comedy was Jewish comedy and vice versa.”
This bonding between Jews and America around laughter can create awkward situations. If we’re the heroes of comedy, what do we do when a comedian tells jokes that are antisemitic? Do we tolerate it in the name of comedy or do we fight it in the name of the community?
We’re living through this now. Dave Chappelle’s infamous monologue on “Saturday Night Live” that played up antisemitic tropes put us in a kind of “Chappelle trap”: If we complain and condemn, we look like scolds who can’t take a joke; but if we accept it, we look like enablers who are tolerating the world’s oldest hatred.
Comedy versus community. Scolds versus enablers. Welcome to 2022.
We’re no longer living in the heyday of comedy, when comics had a wide latitude as long as they were funny. Today, when there are Instagram and Twitter accounts that could spread any “wrong” word to 100 million people overnight, and when “not being offended” has become a human right, we’ve become a nation that walks on eggshells.
If a comic with a huge following like Dave Chappelle goes over the line, he will immediately be put under a societal microscope that will analyze and respond from every possible angle, as I’m doing now.
If you run an organization that fights antisemitism, or simply cares for the welfare of the Jewish community, it’s almost certain that you will feel obligated to respond. Many of those responses follow the usual dance of “expose, condemn and ask for an apology.”
Chappelle himself poked fun at that dance at the start of his monologue: “Before I start tonight, I just wanted to read a brief statement that I prepared. I denounce antisemitism in all its forms and I stand with my friends in the Jewish community. And that, Kanye, is how you buy yourself some time.”
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Chappelle exposed the uneasy truth of celebrities getting caught saying something offensive and then releasing a statement that everyone knows was written by a PR handler. By revealing the goal of “buying yourself some time,” he captured the phoniness of the whole exercise.
That was cutting and funny. It’s when he played up antisemitic tropes around the “all powerful” Jew that he entered dicey territory.
“I’ve been to Hollywood,” he said. “And I don’t want y’all to get mad at me, I’m just telling you this is just what I saw. It’s a lot of Jews. Like a lot.”
Perhaps realizing he was on sensitive ground, he called the idea that Jews run show business a “delusion,” but then added: “It’s not a crazy thing to think. But it’s a crazy thing to say out loud in a climate like this.”
In other words, it’s not crazy to think that Jews run the show; just don’t say it out loud.
Whether he intended it or not, that “hush hush” vibe suggests mystery and conspiracy, precisely the ancient trope that fuels Jew-hatred and makes so many Jews nervous.
Which brings us back to the “Chappelle trap.” It’s one thing to fight antisemitism when it comes from places like a neo-Nazi march or a BDS group or even celebrity musicians or athletes. None of those people make a living by making us laugh.
Because Chappelle plays in the very Jewish playground of comedy, it makes it that much harder to calibrate our response. How do we fight a comic without losing our sense of humor, without losing what made America love us in the first place? At what point do we say, “We can’t take this joke because it goes too far?”
If the ritual of “expose, condemn and ask for an apology” is phony anyhow, is it worth losing our sense of humor? And does complaining so loudly, as much as it makes us feel good, make things better or worse?
In the classic Jewish tradition, I have more questions than answers.