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    Wednesday, November 30, 2022

    Sometimes offensive comedy is just lazy laughs

    When Dave Chappelle was announced as the host of this past weekend's "Saturday Night Live," I wondered how he was going to handle it.

    Was he going to make fun of the backlash he continues to receive since his 2021 Netflix special, "The Closer," which led to protests by some Netflix staff and a petition by students at his Washington, D.C., high school against a theater being named after him?

    Or would he sharpen his rapier wit enough to do what I think he does best: hilarious social-political truth-telling that hits its targets and avoids the punching-down cheap shots against groups that are least able to defend themselves -- such as transgender folks, the target that sparked protests?

    I knew that he knew what was on our minds when he began his monologue by readying a brief statement: "I denounce antisemitism in all its forms and I stand with my friends in the Jewish community."

    As the audience chattered a tentative laughter, he put the statement in his pocket, saying, "And that, Kanye, is how you buy yourself some time."

    Chappelle bought himself enough time for his knowledgeable audience to laugh and clap. Then he continued his 15-minute monologue, riffing on the recent headline-making antisemitic nonsense expressed by rap star Kanye West, now called simply Ye, and NBA star Kyrie Irving.

    It was mostly funny, although parts of it sounded to me like blurring the line between minimizing the offensive statements and excusing them.

    Noting how many Jewish people work in Hollywood, he observed "you might go out to Hollywood, you might start connecting some kind of lines, and you could maybe adopt the delusion that the Jews run show business."

    But then he diminishes the significance to a question of self-censorship. "It's not a crazy thing to think," he said. "But it's a crazy thing to say out loud in a climate like this."

    Actually, as I see it, the issue isn't whether the observation is "crazy" but that it is dangerous and unfair regurgitation of an old prejudice about Jewish people running major institutions, implying some sort of conspiracy -- and encouraging the sort of bigotry that led to the Holocaust, among other historical atrocities.

    OK, call me a hypersensitive liberal, if you want. It wouldn't be the first time. I can be a pain in the neck about racial, ethnic and religious bias sometimes, but I think it's better to be hypersensitive than insensitive.

    Anyway, I was ready to let this controversy go until I happened to look at the newspaper a couple days later and saw a headline that stung me with painful memories. Police on Monday found numerous headstones vandalized at a cemetery in Waukegan, Illinois -- a Jewish cemetery.

    Some were spray-painted with swastikas, according to the photos and news reports. One of the misspelled messages said, "Kanye was rite (sic.)"

    Of course, I don't know who committed this act or why. I can only presume it was someone who played hooky when they should have been in grade school English classes.

    But a quick internet search for antisemitic vandalism turned up two more incidents of similar graffiti and hangmen in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb north of Washington.

    The Anti-Defamation League reported a dramatic increase in antisemitic incidents in 2021 in this country, with a total of 2,717 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism reported to ADL, the highest number on record since the organization began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979.

    I'm not bringing this up to blame Chappelle for this apparent surge in violence. I'm only reminding everyone that we all need to do whatever we can to stop it. Whether we have hate in mind or not, misplaced humor can feed to hateful attitudes and dangerous acts.

    I know Chappelle is keenly aware of where the line of acceptable, dangerous or simply offensive discourse is before he decides to cross it.

    In one of his better lines in this monologue, he knocks down the trope of Jews running the entertainment industry with, "There's a lot of Black people in Ferguson, Missouri. It doesn't mean we run the place."

    True enough. It's not hard for a comedian as gifted as Chappelle to take a little time, polish his act and avoid taking the lazy route to cheap laughs.

    But I invite responses from the free speech crowd. Just try to keep it civil, please.

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