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Dave Chappelle points a stirring Saturday Night Live toward the future

(Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC)
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It’s tempting to say, “If you invite Dave Chappelle to host Saturday Night Live, you know what you’re going to get.” Except that not knowing what you get is built into who Dave Chappelle is as a comedian. Especially after essentially being out of the spotlight—at least this bright and inescapable a spotlight—for a decade, inviting Dave Chappelle to host the first SNL after Election Day means turning over a large part of that show’s sensibility to a man whose own comic sensibilities are as uncompromising as they are unpredictable. And brilliant.

People were taken aback when Chappelle, in a standup show last week, defended certain aspects of Donald Trump’s infamous “grab her by the pussy” tape, as Chappelle proposed an alternate explanation to Trump’s followup, “When you’re famous, they let you do it.” Chappelle’s takes on consent, on celebrity, and on rape culture in that observation were predictably hyped up and dumbed down in the resulting media stories and Twitter accounts, because that’s what happens in a normal election season, not to mention one as loathsome and deliberately crude as this past one. Chappelle took heat for taking time in his set to criticize Hillary Clinton—before admitting that he voted for her (in a swing state, no less). He took heat for trying to find a more complicated explanation for Trump’s sexist bullshit—while calling it sexist bullshit. People were shocked, disappointed, confused. But Dave Chappelle doesn’t do boxes.

Even when Chappelle’s Show was a cultural phenomenon—before Chappelle himself shockingly walked away from it because, as he explained, he felt he was losing control of his message—trying to put Dave Chappelle’s restless comic genius in a safe little box never worked. Mixing high comedy and low, brashness with subtle insight, caricature with provocation, the show was a restless heat-seeker where race and sex and celebrity and politics were deconstructed without regard to audience expectations. At its best, and with Chappelle at its center, it was going for the best laugh. And he didn’t care about your applause.

In talking about Saturday Night Live’s political satire, Lorne Michaels and others have held up the idea of “going for the laughs wherever they exist” as the show’s guiding principle. While that philosophy suggests a courageous impartiality, too often, it’s looked like SNL goes for the easiest laugh wherever it can be found, which is something different. In tackling political figures, especially, SNL welcomes a box. Find an impression, a few mannerisms, then watch the news. And, when SNL turned the show over to Donald Trump a year ago, the malleability of that comic philosophy was one of the first instances of normalizing what was, even at that early date, Trump’s divisive, racist rhetoric.

When Chappelle was booked on the show, everyone thought he’d be presiding over the first show under President-Elect Hillary Clinton. Walking out on the stage to open the show, Chappelle, whatever that material may have been, delivered some of the best standup the show’s ever seen. In his weary yet impish delivery, Chappelle’s always given the impression of working from a higher vantage point. Here, after confessing or affecting a little rustiness (“It’s been a long time, so please be patient”), Chappelle addressed a theme that would recur throughout the episode—he’s not surprised. After echoing a now well-known sentiment that “we’ve elected an internet troll as our president,” Chappelle, typically, didn’t look to soothe, or to rile. Instead, he spoke to us (meaning a white SNL audience and an America still reeling) like adults. Without minimizing the potential disasters of a Trump presidency, he said plainly, “This is not even the most important thing going on, before launching bits about mass shootings that bring the focus of that audience wider. The victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting and the police shootings that brought about Black Lives Matter movement knew already. All this shit was lurking out there. “And yet, I know the whites,” he delivers to a big laugh, “You guys aren’t as full of surprises as you used to be.” As the first proper sketch of the night goes on to suggest, white liberals perhaps needed to learn a lesson that came with a personal cost, too.


Which isn’t to say that Chappelle—whose comic fingerprints are all over this episode—isn’t sympathetic. When his Clinton victory party attendee (and guest Chris Rock) make wry comments at the expense of his white friends’ first overconfidence then depression (“I’m going to go get a Xanax.” “Yeah, can you grab me six?”), there’s no real malice. It’s just that, well, those guys already live in a world where electing a white, racist, xenophobic sexual predator to the presidency doesn’t have the same sting of novelty. When one of the partygoers says, stunned, “Oh my God, I think America is racist,” Chappelle’s character responds, “Oh my God, I remember my great-great grandfather told me something like that once, but he was a slave or something.” When another, genuinely crushed, blurts, “This is the most shameful thing America has done,” Chappelle and Rock’s laughter bursts out in spite of their friends’ pain. This is, indeed, fucking shameful, but black people, gay people, trans people, Muslims, Jews, Native people, Latinos, immigrants, and lots of other targets of oppression and discrimination throughout America’s history already know something these well-meaning people have just seemingly learned. In an episode where another great songwriter got what is perhaps the greatest musical sendoff in SNL history, it brings to mind Billy Bragg’s lyric: “Fidel Castro’s brother spies / a rich lady who’s crying / over luxury’s disappointment / so he walks over and he’s trying / to sympathize with her / but he thinks that he should warn her / that the Third World is just around the corner.”


In his remarkably assured monologue (rust, my ass), Chappelle makes another statement that I’m certain some will jump on, saying of Trump, “I’m gonna give him a chance.” Coming as that does after a striking, personal anecdote about meeting Barack Obama at a White House BET party with an all-black guest list (“and Bradley Cooper, for some reason”), where Chappelle looked at the portraits of all the white presidents before then, and remembered how Frederick Douglass once had to be escorted into the White House by Lincoln, there’s a stubborn purity there. “It made feel hopeful, and it made me feel proud to be an American,” emerges from this Dave Chappelle not like acquiescence, or even compromise, but something moving for how improbable it is. Faith in our ability as a country to rise above this—coupled with a warning to Trump, and a call to the rest of white America not to settle back into complacently taking him and his friends for granted. “I’m gonna give him a chance,” says Dave Chappelle of Donald Trump, and then he adds, “we, the historically disenfranchised, demand that he give us one, too.”


And, if that was one of the most potent monologues in SNL’s history, the cold open was one of the most potent moments, period. A lot of talk went into how the show would continue dealing with Trump for the next… four years. (Gonna let that one sit for a moment.) Someone on Twitter suggested it was a silver lining that we’d get four years of Alec Baldwin, and I did not block that person, but did consider it. In the end, Trump (Baldwin or otherwise) did not appear. Let that be a sideshow for another week. Instead, we got Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton, perhaps for the last time, as she sang an achingly beautiful version of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, who died Monday, because 2016 is a black hole, come to steal all good things from this earth. I don’t know when the lightbulb went on this week, but, as soon as it became apparent what song was being played and what character and actress was playing it, I can’t imagine a lot of viewers being able to hold back a lot of the emotions from this past week. I sure couldn’t.


Look, SNL can’t fix its reputation with a song or a sketch—I’ve maintained since the episode aired that having Trump host the show is a self-inflicted wound Saturday Night Live may never fully recover from. But eschewing any sort of cutesy replacing-Trump premise (I can’t imagine Alec Baldwin’s interested in a four-year TV gig at this point) and, instead, having McKinnon open the show this way is, in itself, as graceful a goodbye to this misbegotten election season (from which SNL has made plenty of hay) as could be offered. For all its ubiquity, “Hallelujah” is never a love song. It’s a song about a long, heartbreaking but still worthwhile journey chasing a beloved you will never truly attain. For the Clinton character to sing, in the voice of the gay actress who plays her, “And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch / and love is not a victory march / it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah” is, simply devastating as an expression of such profound disappointment, and apology. In McKinnon’s shortened version, it makes sense to skip what might be a better epitaph for the Clinton campaign in lyric (“But all I ever learned from love / Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you”) but, instead, to replace it with Clinton’s earnest plea, “I did my best / it wasn’t much/I didn’t feel so I tried to touch / I told the truth / I didn’t come to try to fool ya.” When McKinnon/Clinton stared into the camera and pronounced, “I’m not giving up and neither should you. Live from New York, it’s Saturday night,” it set up Chappelle’s monologue perfectly. Should it serve as a mission statement for the show, it wouldn’t be a bad way to move forward.


The show that followed this 1-2 punch of an opening was uniformly solid, too. Chappelle joked all week about people being worried he wouldn’t show up, but he most certainly did, to the extent that much of the regular cast was sidelined for the night. It’s hard to imagine many Chappelle (or SNL fans) complaining too much, as Chappelle—defiantly smoking onstage as he used to on Chappelle’s Show—returned to home base to explain that he wasn’t sure at first he would do any of his old characters. It’s another link to the format of his own, bracingly original sketch show and, if there was a hint of apology for trotting out some old favorites as hosts are prone to do, there was no need. The resulting The Walking Dead sketch started out as a funny parody of that Negan episode (Chappelle’s just as pissed about Glenn as you are), before revealing that the likes of black white supremacist Clayton Bigsby, chatty and fearless crackhead Tyrone Biggums, “player-hater” Silky Johnston (alongside fellow player-hater Beautiful), Lil Jon, and a cowardly white guy (all, except Donnell Rawlings’ Beautiful, played by Chappelle) are the ones waiting for the baseball bat to drop. As far as nostalgia sketches go, this one was a winner. Chappelle’s clear delight in playing these characters again, and the final, improbably uplifting plea for tolerance and togetherness from Tyrone’s bat-severed head all working on several levels.

Update was going to be a tough fit in this episode, but Jost and Che acquitted themselves fine, delivering the expected Trump jokes with enough mustard to suggest that they’re not on a pitch count now that the election is over. Again, SNL bided its time in taking on Trump for real, and that’s going to remain a problem (especially for Update) until they find a way to address that. But the jokes here were solid, striking a balance, as much of this episode did, between bitterness and hopefulness. “Progress isn’t a straight line upwards,” says Jost, comparing it to a roller coaster where, sometimes, “you’re barfing in your own face.” He also called out the one person objecting to his “Mike Pence is a homophobe” joke, saying of the Republican VP-elect and transition team leader, “normally when people transition, Pence sends them to conversion therapy.” Plus, praising Trump’s courage for meeting face to face with the man who founded ISIS over a pic of Trump’s meeting with Barack Obama is a burn on Trump’s campaign trail nonsense without having to use extraneous words. Che, too, delivered (although he blew a solid joke about his own racism in the delivery), first incredulously repeating the “united” in United States of America, then breaking down Trump’s support with some off-center insights. (Playing devil’s advocate for the “all Trump supporters are racist” idea, he speculates that Trump is white guys’ Beyoncé, giving them cute accessories and making them feel energized and pretty.) McKinnon, the only cast member besides Leslie Jones who had much airtime tonight, came out as her Ruth Bader Ginsburg, this time more determined as ever to stay alive so that Trump can’t fill her seat. (She also urges President Obama to just go ahead and appoint GOP-blocked nominee Merrick Garland—which he can apparently do—if only so she can finally retire to that hermit shell crab in Aruba she’s had her eye on.) Downing an ungodly amount of that immune-boosting powder, McKinnon’s Ginsburg, as ever, is cranky and indomitable, doling out her patented “Ginsburns” to Trump associates Rudolph Giuliani and Mike Pence (“Sorry you watched Magnum P.I. and got a quarter chub and you’ve been mad about it ever since”), and doing her little victory dance.


A filmed sketch showed one of those “grownups ask little kids about the candidates” ads, sees a little black girl knowing exactly what’s up—and putting some comic spin on Trump’s sexism, racism, and xenophobia—because her Dad (Chappelle) has told her exactly what’s up. The sketch opens with CNN contributor Van Jones’ widely-seen anguish at having to explain Trump’s victory to his children, but Chappelle suggests that raising your kids to be funny and telling them the truth is the way through. “Our children are watching,” is the tagline, so let’s all make fun of the asshole who thought ”grab ’em by the pussy” was so hilarious. (Pussy is the name of their cat.)


There was no bad sketch here tonight. What looked like a disaster in the making instead turned into a Chappelle Show-style deconstruction of one, when a lame “Jheri’s Place” bit about a restaurant’s jheri-curled employees getting their hair in the food (complete with a Leslie Jones cue card mishap) turned into an “Inside SNL” post-sketch sports show, where the cast all gave surly athlete answers to reporters’ questions. It suckered me perfectly—I love Leslie on SNL, but she has a history with blowing lines, and her defiant copping of Allen Iverson’s “practice?” rant exorcized the issue hilariously. Same goes for Aidy Bryant staring down the camera, Mikey Day wondering if anyone has any questions about his busboy character (they don’t), Chappelle’s confession that he thought the wigs were going to make him the next David S. Pumpkins, and Kyle Mooney’s desperate, immediately abandoned attempts to justify his over-the-top Italian accent.

McKinnon brought back Shelia Sauvage, this time making a closing-time play for Chappelle’s equally decrepit but hopeful Corey Dipships. There’s a formula to a recurring bit, but McKinnon always grounds her barfly in a recognizably human loneliness and resilience that makes her easy to root for, even when she’s drinking a Gin & Sonic (gin with little pieces of hamburger in it). And Chappelle rises to the challenge of doing weird mouth stuff with Sheila, here involving some comically extended licking while dousing their entwined tongues with spritzes of Axe body spray. Kenan Thompson, as ever, cannot force himself to look away, resorting to various escalating means of shutting that mess down. (Handing out a yellow card is a nice new touch.) And the ten-to-one sketch is SNL going for big, gross-out laughs, as Chappelle’s 40-something son reveals to his football-watching buddies that mom Leslie Jones still breast-feeds him and sister Sasheer Zamata. The sketch is one of those broad, knockabout ideas that can go down as an all-time classic (think Aykroyd’s Julia Child) or an embarrassment. This was neither, but everyone committed, and Chappelle’s character’s unashamed pride in the family oddity defiantly keeps things interesting. (The fact that Jones lets us see the milk rig under her poncho is all part of the live TV fun of it all). The other filmed piece of the night is another showcase for Jones, and another triumph for her (and for plain good TV).


Jones has taken inordinate shit from a lot of people since she joined SNL, including being publicly demonized, basically for being a strong, grown-ass sexual being. The conceit here that she and the virginal (straight-up virgin, to be precise) Kyle Mooney are dating starts out so earnestly from Jones’ point of view that it looks like a personal essay, or a goodbye. When she talks about having a ”big personality” and wanting to be loved “just like every other girl,” anyone who harps on Jones’ acting should be, finally, silenced. The turn, with her romance with Kyle and his “nerdy, goofy, cartoonish-type face” always looks like it’s going to turn into something silly, or cruel. Kyle’s jealous of Leslie’s on-air flirtation with Jost, and Lorne deadpans, “I don’t normally get involved in cast relationships, but I think it’s important for Kyle to lose his virginity.” But Jones and Mooney make the sweetest and most improbably believable of couples, Jones’ shy wave during rehearsal and the two playing footsie during a table-read—along with the lovely, understated music—making you root for these two crazy kids to make it work. When they do, it’s in Chappelle’s dressing room, to his outrage, but Kyle and Leslie just giggle and run off. Such an unexpectedly sweet mood piece in an episode full of satisfyingly varied rewards.


Stray observations

  • In another fine sendoff to a beloved musical icon, A Tribe Called Quest paid tribute to the recently deceased Phife Dawg, letting a Basquiat-style painting of him unfurl onstage while remaining members Jarobi White and Q-Tip holding up the mic for his lyrics. Both numbers were pointed, energetic, and acidly catchy, as I imagined they would be.
  • This went long. Lots to say, I guess. Fill in the lines I left out in the comments, if you like.

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