Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Humor in the age of outrage

<f my favorite comedy skits of all time is one whose content would surely offend the sensitivities of some readers, and my admittance of enjoyment may bring more notoriety to me than I need or desire. The skit was created for Chappelle’s Show, a program hosted by comedian Dave Chappelle that previously aired on Comedy Central, and it was a routine for which Chappelle would always be remembered for years to come.

The segment, which first went on air in 2003, is filmed in the format of a Frontline documentary, where we as viewers are informed that the host will travel to the South in order to interview a white supremacist named Clayton Bigsby, who has been propelled to fame through numerous books and speaking engagements. The humor, and controversy, begins when the investigative journalist shockingly finds out that the infamous bigot is in fact a blind black man, played by Dave Chappelle himself, who has lived his entire life unaware of his race. No one has been privy to this truth because Bigsby is only ever seen wearing his signature white robes and hood. In the skit, Bigsby frequently goes on tirades against minorities, tirades that are coated with enough racial slurs to adequately ornament a speech by George Wallace. The entire bit lasts for less than 10 minutes, but it was enough to define Dave Chappelle as a man who is unafraid to push the comedic envelope.

I will not hide the fact that I found myself laughing through most of the program. The entire premise of the skit was brilliant, and every usage of racial slurs and offensive pejoratives served to highlight the absurdity of the entire situation being shown on screen. Dave Chappelle received some beratements for this work, but for the most part people moved on and continued to enjoy his future projects. However, I can’t help but wonder what the magnitude of negative reactions would be if Mr. Chappelle were to release such a skit today.

This isn’t to say that taking offense to certain comedy is a new phenomenon; people have been getting offended at things since time immemorial. What is new, however, is the ease via which such outrage can propagate throughout society. Nowadays, if we see, hear, or read anything that we deem to be offensive, we can grab our smartphones and send out a tweet or Facebook post condemning the act. Before long, there will be a multitude of others who will follow suit, and the comedian behind the act will be forced to give a half-hearted apology asking for society’s forgiveness.

The irony is that much of what we think to be crude and offensive humor is in fact meant to counter and rebuke racist and outdated beliefs, but many in our society seem to have forgotten that. Dave Chappelle’s black white supremacist skit was meant to highlight just how ignorant and illegitimate groups like the Ku Klux Klan are, but I worry that many of us now would focus primarily on the skit’s usage of the n-word and other racial epithets and disregard the clever social commentary driving such work.

Many comedians are now reluctant to perform in front of certain groups or touch upon certain subjects, out of fear that the retribution would be so severe as to harm their careers. For example, Chris Rock has gone on record acknowledging that he refuses to perform in front of college students, as he views them as overly sensitive and under-appreciative of comedy that they find distasteful. Very few comedians now have the audacity to push the lines of humor into controversial areas.

Such a reality is why individuals such as Sacha Baron Cohen, the creator of characters like the infamous Borat and Bruno, and Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the masterminds of the hit show South Park, are more needed than ever. Such comics are unafraid to stir controversy and contempt, for they know that the importance of their work far supersedes whatever backlash they inevitably receive. When Cohen’s characters go on anti-Semitic rants or make off-color statements in mock interviews, they do so not to justify such hatred, but rather to comment on its absurdity and to highlight the fact that such views still exist and have sympathetic audiences in our world. This is similar to how South Park uses provocative elements to give a clear and cohesive critique of contemporary culture.

Different forms of comedy will inevitably offend various types of people, and that is just the reality of the situation. I’m not claiming that one doesn’t have the right to express outrage or to challenge comedians, but what I am saying is that, oftentimes, such comedy is deeper than we initially perceive and is, in fact, worth delving into. Of course, there will be times when there is little social value that can be obtained from those whose only comedic motivation is to shock us, but are those individuals really worth the effort to condemn? Why expend such energy chastising individuals who clearly don’t care for what we have to say? Let’s not give them control over our well-being and carry on, all while enjoying the laughter that we all need to make our lives more enriched and fulfilled.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *