Friday, November 14, 2008

Waiting for Chappelle

D. L. Hughley has gotten a lot of heat for his new CNN comedy show, D. L. Hughley Breaks the News. The show is a combination of zany, over-the-top comedy sketches and humor-filled one-on-one interviews with pundits. The interviews are fine, even funny and provocative at times. But the sketches have really pushed some people’s buttons.

The YouTube excerpt above is from one of the show’s sketches, the one that has received some of the most vehement criticism. Hughley has Donnell Rawlings, a former Chappelle’s Show regular, playing a colorful pimp, Freddie Mac, trying to respond to public scorn about the government’s bailout of his operation. Rawlings can be a funny comedic actor, and I loved him on Dave Chappelle’s now-defunct Comedy Central show. But that’s part of the problem. Scenes like the one above come off as less-funny derivatives of Chappelle’s classic antics. That might not be totally fair, but that’s how the above gets read. Chappelle would have asked Rawlings to don a cap and a cane for a skit just like this one, detractors argue, but it would have been much funnier.

The other problem people have with the show stems from the fact that it is on CNN. (And that might also be part of the reason why the skits can sometimes feel a bit watered down or straightjacketed.) The interviews work well for a venue like CNN, but the skits seemed to “jump the shark” from the show’s premiere broadcast.

I was listening to an irate caller on a local radio talk show as she vented about the CNN program this morning. She flagged the venue -- “a serious news channel” -- quite explicitly as inappropriate, even offensive. If the show was on Comedy Central, where it belongs, there would be little controversy. Comedian David Alan Grier (of In Living Color fame) has a new sketch comedy show on Comedy Central right now, Chocolate News, and it started at about the same time that Hughley’s program began. Grier’s new offering can sometimes feel like a simple rebroadcasting of that earlier cult hit from the 1990s, but some of his show's skits are definitely funny -- and its racy comedy hasn’t caused nearly the backlash that Hughley has stirred.

Social critic Salamishah Tillet has a wonderful new essay on comedy and the 2008 election season (at She longs for the comedic voice of Dave Chappelle to help us find productive ways to laugh about our contemporary political moment. “I can't help but wonder what kind of cathartic laughter Dave Chappelle would have been able to provide for us this year,” she writes. “Imagine what he would have done with Jeremiah Wright or Barack's unannounced visits to the home of white undecided voters in Ohio. It's not that Barack and Michelle aren't funny; it's just that those who have been able to thrive in a predominantly white comedic universe will now have to hire more writers and actors (and hopefully producers and directors) who know how to work with the material that Barack and Michelle will serve up.”

Of course, Hughley is trying to step into that televisual void opened up by Chappelle’s hasty departure from his hit cable show in 2005. Chappelle walked away from the show (and tons of money) because he started to fear that some of his provocative racial humor was possibly reinforcing American racism, not challenging it through parodic excess. Hughley’s new CNN show is operating on that same racial terrain, and he hasn’t quite found the right balance between biting satirical commentary and the threat of a more vapid reinforcement of our worst racial stereotypes.


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