Today’s comedy: Hasan Minhaj and Dave Chappelle tell the truth
By Marc Glassman
Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj
Created and produced by Minhaj and Prashanth Venkataramanujam
Starring Minhaj. 38 episodes since 2018
Dave Chappelle, performer and writer
A special responding to the death of George Floyd
Netflix and YouTube
In this time of turbulence, with cries of “defund the police” echoing throughout North America while the COVID virus is still raging, surely we need comedy. That’s one thing television has always done well, starting with I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners to the Dick van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore shows to Seinfeld and Friends. The intimacy of the small screen and our current close relationship to TV, whether on Netflix or HBO, remains one of the strengths of the medium. But comedy has changed a lot since the non-political coziness of earlier hits. Things are different now. The best comedy is no longer the equivalent of comfort food. While some comedies are still apolitical, many are not and the best mix humour with acute observations on what’s happening in our lives.
Chappelle’s performance is remarkable because of the conflicting emotions that ruled his response to the tragedy. Angered by CNN’s Don Lemon’s call to action after Floyd’s death, Chappelle clearly feels uncomfortable in his role as a Black celebrity expected to offer a clichéd statement about this overt act of racism. Always his own man—don’t forget that Chappelle walked away from $50 million when he quit his show in 2006—he has made a formidable and totally cranky show. Staged outdoors near his home in Ohio, he has created the first “comedy concert” show since the pandemic hit all of us. It’s eerie to see the audience attempt to react to him since their faces are covered with masks and the “new normal” crowd is somewhat socially distant from each other.
Chappelle strikes an odd figure on stage during this performance. With one hand on the microphone and the other holding a cigarette, he continually asks the audience if they are enjoying what he’s doing. Though he’s only 46, Chappelle takes on the elder statesman role, asserting that he’s happy to see young people in the driver’s seat for these protests. Most of the show is occupied with Chappelle recounting a litany of crimes against Blacks including John Crawford III, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin. Striking a passive aggressive tone, he lets us all know that he was there first, having offered tough questions to officially sanctioned deaths for decades. He does passionately talk about Floyd but in a weary tone. It’s a sad but intensely watchable document on how Chappelle feels: he’s seen it all.
Like Chappelle, Minhaj has something more personal to say about George Floyd and the U.S.’ history of systemic racism. As a Muslim whose parents were raised in India, Minhaj identifies as an Asian. He uses the death of Floyd to demand that his fellow Asians show solidarity with Black Americans. Instead of understanding that Blacks are still the subject of rage for many parts of the American establishment, Minhaj claims that Asians are often casually racist and don’t care about a fellow minority. To them, Blacks should simply conform to the rules and not rock the boat.
Minhaj’s remarkable Floyd episode is a plea for tolerance and an attack on Asian-American communities, which are still reluctant to take on the federal government about its systemic racism. Though controversial, the show has been seen as a wake-up call to America’s diverse communities, asking them to rally together against injustice.
In the “new normal,” Hasan Minhaj and Dave Chappelle deliver huge audiences to Netflix while telling harsh truths about the world. We’ve come a long way from Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason. Comedians may make us laugh less but they are respected far more.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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