"I'm Rick James, bitch!"
Behold, the punch line that, for years, must have weighed on Dave Chappelle, one of our keenest social critics and comedic commentators, like an albatross of celebrity. He even comments on the ubiquity of the one-liner in his brilliant 2004 standup special For What It’s Worth.
“I can’t be no celebrity. This shit is just the worst … I went to Disney World with my kids … Everybody at the park! Fucking everybody, ‘Hey! Hey! … I’m Rick James, bitch! Hey, I’m Rick James, bitch.’ It’s like, ‘Hey, man, hey! You mind not calling me a bitch in front of my kids? Time out, motherfucker. We take a day off’ … Even Mickey Mouse did it. I said, ‘This is the most unprofessional shit I have ever seen in my life’ … I was fed up. I caught that motherfucker with an uppercut. Bop! Knocked his head clean-off. Everybody was screaming, ‘Oh, my God! Oh, my God … Mickey Mouse is Mexican!’”
And just like that, in what was originally a joke detailing the effects of celebrity culture on Chappelle and his family, the comedian turns the joke into a commentary on race in America, the assumed whiteness of our heroes and icons, in this case Mickey Mouse, and, again, comes back full circle, explaining why celebrities often act in seemingly ludicrous, unhinged ways.
In this regard, Chappelle is one of the great sociologists of our time. With the vast dissemination of his comedic critiques via the groundbreaking Comedy Central series Chappelle’s Show, the argument could even be made that Chappelle has a broader reach and outlet for his perspective than Nietzsche, Kant, Descartes, Hume or any other number of thinkers that have made great envoys into the nature of human behavior. Sure, Aristotle never dropped one-liners like “Is this the five o’ clock Free Crack Giveaway?” But Chappelle’s comedic impetus, his reasons for cracking wise and the content on which he chooses to speak, are certainly drawn from the same well of inquiry and curiosity as these great minds.
Consider Chappelle’s novel statement in his conversation with James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio, effectively, an hour-long case study into celebrity:
“You can't get un-famous. You can get infamous, but you can't get un-famous.” This is one of his favorite topics, particularly as a celebrity and one that has been on the receiving end of our often wayward, brutal media. He, perhaps more than any exalted academic, is best suited to discuss such topics.
And, sure, Chappelle may not be trudging up the deepest inquiries into our existence. However, he is always acknowledging and drawing attention to our current predicaments as a species: our insistence upon segregating others based on physical or cultural characteristics, our fascination with fame, our often arbitrary legal system and the treatment of its subjects based upon their social standing, etc.
Chappelle has even broached topics that are too risqué for some of our greatest philosophers. In his piece on R. Kelly’s sex tape, involving a 15-year-old and Kelly’s supposed urination upon said 15-year-old, to the shock of the audience Chappelle asks “How old is 15, really?” In this context, of course 15 seems too young to be engaged in a sexual, scatological relationship with a man of legal age. However, Chappelle expounds:
“Remember in Utah last year, this 15-year-old girl Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped … She was missing for six months, eight miles away from her house. That’s two exits, man, that’s nothing … During this half-a-year that this girl is missing, there’s a seven-year-old black girl gets kidnapped in Philadelphia. Nobody knows her name, they might have talked about it two or three times on the news, but she should’ve been the top story. Because she chewed through the ropes and had both of these motherfuckers in jail in 45 minutes flat …
“Meanwhile, in Utah, 15-year-old Elizabeth Smart’s captives left her alone, too. And they didn’t even tie her up … and I know what people are thinking when I’m saying this ‘Dave, she is only 15.’ Alright, but that’s the discrepancy … On the flipside, here comes 15 again. Now we talking about a 15-year-old black kid in Florida. This black kid accidentally killed his neighbor when he was practicing wrestling moves that he saw on TV … and they gave a 15-year-old boy life in jail. If you think that it’s OK to give him life in jail, then it should be legal to pee on him.”
This level of consideration, although cast in a comedic light, is what makes Chappelle’s observations so potent and innovative. Like any artist, Chappelle is only as brilliant as his audience. Bullish frat boys with every line of Half-Baked memorized may not be able to grasp the idiosyncrasies of Chappelle’s observations, however, he’s drawn attention to topics that are philosophized on, toiled over and debated at the highest levels of academia. He’s one of our greatest sociological and comedic assets, not just because he’s funny as fuck, but because he’s capable of showing us, not only the worst parts of our nature in a unique, insightful and nuanced way, but in the diplomatic form of the court jester. His audience laughing as we learn, thankful for the privilege. Just don’t bring your cellphones. Seriously.
$63, 7 and 10pm Tuesday and Wednesday, June 14-15, 7pm Thursday, June 16, Aztec Theatre, 104 N. St. Mary’s St., (210) 812-4355.