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Dave Chappelle’s SNL monologue was shrewd and political — but more chill than expected

Chappelle’s SNL monologue included a KKK joke, an AIDS quip, and a lit cigarette.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Faced with the daunting task of delivering Saturday Night Live’s post-election opening monologue, Dave Chappelle opted for a tone atypical of his brand of comedy: muted rather than scathing.

Chappelle appeared following a lackluster but earnest cold open, which parodied the victory speech that President-elect Joe Biden gave earlier Saturday evening. The majority of mainstream media outlets finally declared Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election on Saturday afternoon after five days of seemingly endless vote-counting.

While many at-home viewers seemed to be anticipating a night of searing political comedy aimed at this exhausting election week, Chappelle’s monologue veered away from the biting tone you might expect from the incisive, no-holds-barred comic.

Wearing a great suit and apparently smoking a cigarette onstage — in his defense, this was the kind of week where a performer of Chappelle’s stature could probably get away with smoking on an NBC soundstage in front of a studio audience — Chappelle’s set kept with his ongoing themes of calling out racist double standards in the US.

Chappelle started out the monologue by talking about his great-grandfather, an enslaved person, who he has spoken about before, most notably in his sober commentary on the killing of George Floyd earlier in 2020. But rather than using his great-grandfather’s story to begin a commentary on the many racial and social issues facing America today, Chappelle veered into the unexpected, pivoting to a self-deprecating joke about his current Netflix and HBO specials that set the tone for the rest of the set — and arguably for the rest of the show, which seemed determined to skew toward the calm, even apolitical, end of the spectrum.

He was quick to remind viewers, however, that ousting Trump doesn’t mean the country is magically safer, despite liberals’ undoubted feelings of relief. “You ask what life was like before Covid,” Chappelle noted. “A mass shooting every week. Anyone remember that? Thank god for Covid.”

Chappelle also got in a few digs at the white, working-class Trump voter — “I don’t know why poor white people don’t like wearing masks. What is the problem? Wear masks at the Klan rally, wear it at the Walmart too.” — as well as Trump himself, pointing out the president took a helicopter ride to Walter Reed Medical Center when he contracted Covid-19, even though it was just a few blocks away.

He also argued that Trump’s selfishness was indicative of larger problems with how white Americans view times of crisis.

“Don’t even want to wear your mask because it’s oppressive? Try wearing the mask I been wearing all these years,” Chappelle said. “You’re not ready for this. You don’t know how to survive yourselves. Black people, we’re the only ones that know how to survive this. Whites, come, hurry, quick, come get your [n-word] lessons. You need us. You need our eyes to save you from yourselves.”

But if Chappelle dug his heels in on his typically trenchant humor, he delivered it with a style that felt atypically disengaged, which might explain why many of his jokes met with an ambivalent studio audience. “Trump getting coronavirus was like when Freddie Mercury got AIDS,” he joked at one point. “Nobody was like, how did he get it?” True. But nobody laughed, either.

Chappelle also chastised the audience for being too woke, a theme he’s harped on repeatedly, and ended his monologue by suggesting that another “lesson” SNL’s presumably left-leaning audience needs to learn is one of forgiveness and reconciliation — certainly not an idea to which many people are receptive in the wake of a polarizing election.

Despite the inherent tension in that message, Chappelle made it sound almost like neighborly advice, well-worn, rather than an admonishment. “I know how that feels. I promise you, I know how that feels,” he said. He continued:

Everyone knows how that feels. But here’s the difference between me and you: You guys hate each other for that, and I don’t hate anybody. I just hate that feeling. That’s what I fight through. That’s what I suggest you fight through. You’ve got a find a way to live your life. You’ve got to find a way to forgive each other. You’ve got to find a way to find joy in your existence in spite of that feeling.

Perhaps not the message everyone wanted to hear at the end of this election week, and not necessarily the burn many SNL viewers wanted. But perhaps it was the one we needed.

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