When SNL isn’t Funny

When SNL isn’t Funny

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon

Following on Kanye West’s recent antisemitic rants, comedian Dave Chapelle appeared on SNL this past Saturday night. In his opening monologue, which dragged on longer than usual, he tried to accomplish what no one in history has ever done: he tried to assuage the nerves of offended Jews while creating a safe space from which to offend them again. Being Black doesn’t mean that Chapelle speaks from the same place of pain as “the Jews,” two words that he cautioned anyone from uttering together. We all have our own pain. 

Chapelle wouldn’t admit to being an antisemite, but he has a funny way of saying it, which is always his goal. If he had come on stage and opined on the scourge of antisemitism and racism, then the SNL opening would have been a complete failure. He seemed to aim for justice, but his real aim was for humor and applause. I didn’t expect him to solve the problem for “the Jews,” but I’m disappointed that we weren’t more entertained by him, which was his first job.

Do you remember when Roseanne Barr was invited to sing the national anthem on July 25, 1990? She embarrassed herself and offended the crowd with her disrespectful and unprepared version of the anthem. But what should we have expected from a comedian who made her career about being completely obnoxious? She had no business accepting an invitation to sing the national anthem. Likewise, Chapelle, who opined on culture and race, turned out to be nothing more than a comedian who was on the wrong stage. He made some people laugh; he made other people cringe; and he left all of us stunned that he tried to shine a proper light on antisemitism and “the Jews.” There is no proper light to shine except the one that exposes racists, bigots, and blatant antisemites.

By the end of the dialogue, Chapelle seemed to lean in and teach Kanye that though he thought Kanye was right, he was wrong to have spoken his truth out loud. It wasn’t lost on anyone, except another antisemite, that Chapelle lives by a self-made rule not to create trouble with “the Jews” whom he claims run Hollywood; but, as he surmised for us, “only because there are a lot of Jews in Hollywood.”  

If Chapelle tried to thread the proverbial needle on SNL, he missed. It’s not acceptable to address someone else’s pain by contextualizing it for them and then feeding it to them like some pablum that makes it okay. It’s not okay. Racism, anti-black violence, White Nationalism, anti-AAPI hate, anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-Trans violence, and other brands of hate are never okay. Giving credence to antisemitism is always a losing proposition. Giving permission for borderline antisemites to see what he sees but doesn’t speak about is just another brand of bigotry that eases no one’s pain, not even his own.

These are serious times. These are times that need serious people to face serious truths with less cynicism and more advocacy. Somewhere in the results of the midterm elections are voices that are calling for faith without fanaticism, and nationhood without nationalism. There is a light shining on the possibility that we can still emerge from our respective sides and expose overlapping interests that unite us. Ecclesiastes (3:7) wrote, “There is a time for silence and a time for speaking.” In the silence between us that waits to be addressed, speaking is a privilege that should honor the persons who receive our words of respect.


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