The weekend after the election, I was exhausted like the rest of the country, and my spirit was in need of a good sermon. Thankfully, all I had to do was tune into Saturday Night Live to hear from the great American preacher himself: Dave Chappelle.
As he stepped onto the iconic SNL stage to bring his long-awaited word, I smiled at his familiar Washington, DC, swagger. I’ve been a fan of Chappelle since he played comic Reggie Warrington in the Eddie Murphy classic The Nutty Professor. He has shaped the voice of comedy over three decades, and as he has evolved, comedy has grown with him.
Standups historically have pushed boundaries, skewered politics, and forced us to see the absurdity in our society. But Chappelle has been willing to do so with moral heft and ethical grounding rather than comedic detachment. He jokes, smokes, curses, and shouts, but like a preacher in the heat of a sermon, there’s a point to it. He is a pastor among comedians, and once again he’s got a message for us.
“Don’t even want to wear your mask because it’s oppressive? Try wearing the mask I been wearing all these years. I can’t even tell something true unless it has a punchline behind it,” Chappelle said during his 16-minute SNL monologue. “You guys aren’t ready. 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. … You need us. You need our eyes to save you from yourselves.”
The best comedians, like the best preachers, give us eyes to see. For black comedians, though they’re after laughs, their perspective stems from trauma and suffering.
“If we really took a closer look at the role of comedy or humor in the black community, it’s always been a way of expressing discontent, of expressing a critical view of the society,” said Mel Watkins, an expert in African American comedy. “In a way, it’s a survival tactic for blacks.”
When Chappelle tells a crowd that “you need our eyes,” he is speaking about the awareness black Americans have to the harsh reality of our country and the experience wading through its unfavorable waters. For centuries, black Americans have navigated the threat of genocide, enslavement, political and economic oppression, and persecution—all the while leaning on a “we shall overcome” faith.
Black comedy, like the black church, is a hub not only for expressing pain and anger but also for turning suffering into an instrument of healing. Chappelle’s career is a pinnacle example of this. His humor and insight have a purpose as they expose the harsh realities that black Americans have had to face.
Chappelle’s newest Netflix special, 8:46, was recorded just a week after George Floyd was killed. The comedian was offering his commentary just as black preachers took to their (mostly virtual) pulpits with messages of anger and grief. And the approaches weren’t as different as you might expect.
A good preacher knows that a sermon is only as good as the setup. The job of the messenger is to capture the audience’s attention and to invite them to be a part of the story. A sermon takes us on a journey that both assesses the reality of the world we live in and offers a path to a better future—the Good News we can put our hope in.
Preaching and comedy can take on a similar cadence and dynamic with the audience. “We still use things like call and response, where we talk to our audience and our audience talks back to us,” said standup Darryl Littleton, author of Black Comedians on Black Comedy. “It gives us that feeling of community.”
Though Chappelle is a Muslim convert speaking on secular stages, he has the black church tradition in his blood, and a hallmark of black preaching and black comedy is acknowledging their ancestral roots.
The comedian opened his SNL monologue by mentioning his great-grandfather, William D. Chappelle, a formerly enslaved South Carolinian who became a historic leader in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. After gaining his emancipation, William D. Chappelle went on to become president of his alma mater, the historically black Allen University, and an AME bishop. (Dave’s father, William David Chappelle III, was a professor and dean at Antioch College.)
Dave Chappelle joked that his great-grandfather would say he’d been “bought and sold” more in his comedy career than his great-grandfather had as a slave. Chappelle famously left Chappelle’s Show because he felt emotionally and spiritually unsettled by the direction of his career. The network reportedly used old clips to make a third season against his wishes.
After that, Chappelle withdrew from the spotlight. He had his own 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness (or rather, his home in small-town Ohio). After the years-long hiatus from comedy, he reemerged with a new message to preach. It sounds like an oxymoron, but he became a more serious comedian, more willing to use his work to unravel the complexities of the American consciousness.
Early on in his career, he spent a lot of time joking about comparisons between white and black people, drug dealing, being pulled over, “crack babies,” and being afraid to call the police. That approach was replaced with the kind of commentary offered by 8:46, which—if the setup were different—could be adapted from a standup set to a dissertation on the egregious racism that led to the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.
Comedians have the power to distract us and invite us to turn away from the real world. Or they can force us to look at it squarely in the eyes. Chappelle has grown into the kind of comedian we want to teach us a lesson, which is rare and admirable at a time when we’re also so desperate for escape.
After the election, more people tuned in to watch Chappelle on SNL—9.1 million viewers—than any other episode of the show in the past three years. His set acknowledged the political moment but looked more broadly to the American plight that extends beyond the current president.
“This morning after the results came in, got a text from a friend of mine in London. And she said, ‘The world feels like a safer place now that America has a new president.’ And I said, ‘That’s great, but America doesn’t,’” Chappelle told the audience. “Do you guys remember what life was like before COVID? I do. There was a mass shooting every week. Anyone remember that? Thank God for COVID. Someone had to lock these murderous whites up, keep them in the house.”
The set was punctuated by uncomfortable laughter as much as release. The complexities of our current moment don’t go away just because Chappelle is speaking on a comedy stage. This is his exegesis, his revelation. It may seem like an unlikely source—a black Muslim man on a sketch comedy show—but I hope we are willing to shift our perspective just the same.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus ordered a man to be brought to him. “When he came near, Jesus asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ ‘Lord, I want to see,’ he replied” (18:40–41). The man immediately “received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God” (v. 43). This example of healing represents something only an encounter with the living God can offer.
And while humor and commentary can bring us to see our society more clearly, even bringing black people to see their own deep faith perfected through the fires of white supremacy and racism, our greatest understanding of what is wrong with the world and our greatest opportunity for healing still comes through Christ himself.
By preaching about a brown Savior who fled to Egypt as a political refugee, who was executed as a political prisoner, and who shook the political elite with his radical message of power through weakness and strength through suffering, pastors offer more to the historically marginalized, black, poor, and politically disfranchised than even the sharpest comic ever could.
America has a long way to go toward being an equitable, politically empowering, and just country, but I think a figure like Chappelle can help along the way—especially when many are unwilling to listen to the spiritual and civic leaders who are exposing the same truth without a punchline. Our culture needs a “pastor,” someone who can deconstruct the issues that divide us while offering a path forward to redemption and understanding.
Comedy gives Chappelle a unique outlet with both black and white audiences. During this tumultuous time, maybe Americans will heed as a benediction the line from his monologue: “You got to find a way to live your life. You got to find a way to forgive each other. You got to find a way to find joy in your existence.”
His advice can seem idealistic or even impossible right now. This is a scary time for all of us, including for white Americans who haven’t historically been on the margins. In addition to the threat of COVID-19, there’s drug use rampaging through white suburban communities, shifting norms as the country becomes browner and more diverse, and the fallout of the upcoming political transition.
By God’s grace, black Americans have made it through before. We have long sorted through the chaos and the atrocities in this country and found ways to experience joy. We can “find a way” to hope in a better future. If you do not know if you have the strength or courage to embark on this journey alone, follow us as we walk in faith.
Cameron Friend is a minister, speaker, and writer in Atlanta, where he works for The King Center. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and philosophy from the University of Northern Colorado and a master’s of divinity from Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.