The worst joke I ever loved
Some years ago, I was listening to an episode of the Opie and Anthony radio show on Sirius XM. I can’t find a timestamp for the episode, but because the episode featured Patrice O’Neal, a comedian whom I loved, and who died in 2011, I know it was at least as far back as that. Louis CK, another comedian whom I’ve always loved, was also on the show.
Patrice tells an apocryphal story about the origin of the slur “kike,” saying it originated at Ellis Island when Jewish immigrants would sign their mark as a circle – or, in Yiddish, a kikel. Over time, immigration officials called anyone who signed their paperwork with kikeleh as kikes, and there you have it.
It’s unknown whether the story is true, and it’s a mildly interesting bit of apocrypha, but literally within the next breath, Louis, already chuckling to himself, asks Patrice, “Do you know, do you know where nigger came from originally?”
Patrice explodes with laughter before Louis can even begin the punchline. So do I.
“There was some black guy being a nigger,” Louis continues, trying to maintain a conversational tone while fighting the urge to bust out. Patrice is cackling. Louis can barely get out the rest of the improvised punchline. “And so they called him a nigger.”
They all fall out in laughter. Anthony manages to say, “Jesus,” but the show is temporarily broken by waves of laughs. Through the noise, Louis tags the joke a bit, “He was being a real nigger, and somebody said, ‘what a nigger,’ and that’s where it started.”
Patrice, summarizing the joke, gets the final tag: “’Nigger’ was a feeling!”
I love this joke.
From a comic who was widely heralded as one of the most thoughtful voices in stand-up – a mind capable of reasoning out some truly complicated insights year after year in special after lauded special – this is one of the dumbest jokes you might ever hear. Which is fine. It’s an ad-libbed, silly joke on a radio show that maybe 10 percent of Louis CK’s fans have ever heard before.
But I did hear it. I heard it live, and then sought it out online so I could hear the conversation and that joke repeatedly. I’m sure I was briefly obsessed with it. First, the meat of the joke is fewer than two dozen words. Second, three of those words are nigger. So, my lizard brain should reasonably be turned off by hearing Louis deliver this joke. And finally, the joke rearranges molecules in the room for the people hearing it live. In context, Patrice’s story about kike had sucked a little of the oxygen out of the room. It was a little too serious, a little too real – more history than fun. There is a brief moment of uncertainty wherein no one knows who is going to steer this live thing, this radio show, back to its firm ground of jokes and insults and listener phone calls. But Louis is laughing before he even starts to tell the joke that will correct the course. And it’s partly the confidence in this ridiculous joke that makes it clean.
A clean joke isn’t a joke without profanity. A clean joke is like a well-made house, or a machine, or even an above-average pizza. Every element has a clear purpose, all the extra material’s been swept away, and even as components of it surprise you, you see how all the pieces work together to make a satisfying whole. A lot of clean, economical jokes are short, like the Louis one. But comics like Tig Notaro and Patton Oswalt are experts in the five-minute bit that couldn’t spare a single word. Clean is clean at any length.
Economy of language and gesture are, I think, the most magical things in comedy. In my mind, that economy will always be at the heart of whether a joke is clean. But comics are under tremendous scrutiny to satisfy that other criterion of clean comedy: clarity of intent.
Although being measured by this standard seems to be what gets comics into so much trouble, intent remains crucial. Part of what makes that Louis joke so successful to me is that the intent is clear in Louis’s laughter throughout. It’s an invitation to play, and a nudge back to the pejorative silliness that tended to define the Opie and Anthony show back then.
So, when Dave Chappelle released two new comedy specials on December 31, I was excited to see and hear how he would parse the blowback from some jokes he made earlier in 2017 at the expense of transgendered people. I’m not here to grade jokes. But since these two new specials, Equanimity and The Bird Revelation, dropped, I resolved to be more actively empathetic to the folks who were hurt and offended by Chappelle’s material. Whether it’s a luxury or a privilege not to be easily offended by comedy, I don’t know, but it’s a boon I acknowledge I have as a straight black man: comedians don’t really come for cis black men too aggressively anymore, and when they do, that call is usually coming from inside the house, so to speak.
In Equanimity, Chappelle has three sequential, related bits in which he addresses his critics, responds to them, and makes more jokes that include trans characters. For what it’s worth, I think the Caitlyn Jenner material at the top of this sequence isn’t very funny, but the material at the end of it about dancing with a trans woman at a nightclub is hilarious. Chappelle is unrivaled in his ability to control his volume and the pitch of his voice – and knowing when and how to understate a line, or slide from one of his natural tones to one of his stereotypically whiter or more feminine registers. All that skill is on full display at the end of the bit, but I can understand how someone might listen to this special and find it hard to weigh his jokes against his clarifying statements on universal human dignity.
In The Bird Revelation, Chappelle talks about how the #MeToo movement savaged Ben Affleck as he tried to demonstrate his allyship and condemn Harvey Weinstein; Chappelle called Affleck an “imperfect” ally and urged the #MeToo movement to learn to reconcile themselves with the Afflecks and Chappelles of Hollywood and elsewhere.
I think Chappelle is right. Chances are, if you are capable of being offended, one of your favorite comedians will eventually say something on stage that rubs you the wrong way. As Chappelle has already demonstrated with these two new specials, comics can and do get away without caving to outside pressure to offer unqualified apologies for past material. They can return to subjects that got them in trouble before. Now, if they’re in Chappelle’s rarified air, they can return to even the dirtiest wells and still bring up clean water. And if they aren’t that good, the art will suffer, and some comedians will fade from view. Furthermore, younger, more woke comics will continue to shoot their shots, and I think that’s even more encouraging than the doggedness of vets like Chappelle. A good comedy nerd subscribes to the fundamental principle in defense of free speech: more speech, please. More voices, more nuance, more debate, more chances at hearing the cleanest jokes, whether they’re about airports or trans rights or corporate coffee chains.
Liberal-minded people need allies, even imperfect comedians. According to a deeply unscientific survey I conducted in service of this letter, more people trust comedians for information and insight about the world than trust politicians or religious leaders.  Additionally, 42 percent of respondents say they admire at least one comic as a moral or political authority and 83 percent believe that comics are frequently viewed as moral or political leaders.
Chappelle produced some of his funniest and most insightful material in response to criticism about jokes he made a year prior. He took the onus that fans put on him and, I think, rose to the occasion. Here’s what he had to say in the middle of his sequence on trans people in Equanimity:
I do understand that life is hard, and that those types of choices do not disqualify you from a life with dignity and happiness and safety in it. But if I’m honest… my problem has never been with transgender people. My problem has always been with the dialogue about transgender people. I just feel like these things should not be discussed in front of the blacks. It’s fucking insulting, all this talk about how these people feel inside. Since when has America given a fuck how any of us feel inside? And I cannot shake this awful suspicion that the only reason everybody is talking about transgenders is because white men want to do it. That’s right. I just said that. If it was just women that felt that way or black dudes and Mexican dudes being like, “Hey, y’all, we feel like girls inside.” They’d be like, “Shut up, nigger—no one asked you how you felt. Come on, everybody, we have strawberries to pick.” It reeks of white privilege. You never asked yourself why it was easier for Bruce Jenner to change his gender than it was for Cassius Clay to change his fucking name?
But what about us? I reckon fans should feel some pressure, too: the pressure to keep an open mind, and to try to meet the material where it lives, instead of always dragging it to where we are that day. Ask yourself questions of intent when a comic’s material goes to place that’s thorny for you. Is this comedian really a monster, or just an imperfect ally?
header image: tamaki sono / flickr
 Only Ben. Casey can stay in the wilderness.
 For this data point, my survey asked, “Whom do you trust most for information and insight about the world around you?” and provided six options for respondents to rank. On average, respondents ranked print media most favorably, followed by (in preference order) friends and family, social media, comedians, politicians, and religious leaders.
 Reading a transcript of the material does a disservice to how perfectly delivered this entire bit is, especially lines like “in front of the blacks,” and “Shut up, nigger—no one asked you how you felt.” This last line called back memories of Chappelle’s brilliant George Washington bit from his 2004 special, For What It’s Worth.