When I was a kid we would drive to Destin and my dad and I would listen to old Richard Pryor concerts – along with Willie Nelson’s Redheaded Stranger and either the jazz or the classical Wynton Marsalis. As a young lawyer, I would frequently drive around the State to depositions and hearings, etc., and one day as I was leaving a truck stop or something noticed Richard Pryor’s Greatest Hits cassette tape in the rack. And over the years would buy all of his new and old CDs to pass the time while driving.
I am not sure that Richard Pryor was the “funniest” comedian. (Eddie Murphy’s Delirious, maybe?) But what I found most compelling was the way that he would inhabit a character, or several characters, not in an impressionistic sense, doing an impersonation, but more like a method actor, exploring and testing the imagined environment from the inside outward. The other thing that struck me about Pryor was how human he was. Sometimes with bravado, or false bravado; but frequently vulnerable, and naked, and brave. The pleasure you got from watching, or listening, was often not that guttural reflexive laugh-out-loud laugh. But more a pleasure of enlightenment. Or astonishment. And empathy. Like revelation.
When I now drive to Destin with my son the comedian we listen to is Dave Chappelle. Sometimes Louis CK. Or Seinfeld. And I think once Steven Wright. But mostly Dave Chappelle.
When I first saw Equanimity, it was not only the funniest thing I had seen about Trump and his Presidency, but the best commentary I had seen on Trump, and his Presidency, and the people who support him, period. Unlike Pryor, Chappelle is not a method actor. But like Pryor, he is brutally honest. And perceptive. And willing to be vulnerable, and naked, and brave. He not only engenders empathy, but is himself unusually and exceptionally empathetic. Which is, of course, a process of revelation.
I was watching an interview recently of Dave Chappelle with David Letterman, and it always strikes me the way that comics always talk about Seinfeld as the master craftsman. Which always seems like a bit of a back-handed compliment. Like he has to work harder because he isn’t naturally as funny. Or that, despite the perfect technique, there just seems to be something that’s missing. But what I realized, (or at least think I realized), as I listened to Dave Chappelle talk about the pain, and the community, and the quest for meaning, or to share a perceived meaning, is that he and Jerry are not just doing the same thing in different ways. What he and Seinfeld are doing is a fundamentally different thing.
Jerry is trying to be funny. That’s his goal. That’s his aim. He’s not trying to teach or to enlighten anyone. He is telling jokes. Coming up with them. Crafting, and re-crafting, them. And then delivering them. In the best and funniest way.
But Chappelle, like probably Pryor, is ultimately not that concerned with telling jokes. Or even being funny. What they are really trying to do is to communicate. The way that any speaker would. Or a playwright, or a teacher, or a novelist, or anyone whose job it is to communicate. To explore constantly, to discover, and to share, what it is to be human. What it is to be a black man. A husband. A father. A son. An American. Someone who makes mistakes. Humor is simply an element. Just one element. A means to an end. Just one of the tools.
Dave Chappelle may not be the best comedian around. Indeed, that’s probably Seinfeld. (or maybe Chris Rock, or Eddie Murphy, or Louis CK – before the #MeToo issues) But Chappelle is, for my money, just about our best communicator.