Let’s get it out of the way.
Dave Chappelle is an all-time brilliant comedian with some cranky, bitter old man blind spots, especially regarding trans people, upon whose perennially abused backs he’s built a whole new fanbase of terrible, bigoted people. Is Dave Chappelle himself a bigot? Well, yeah. On this subject he 100 percent is. By any definition.
Chappelle has been brought in to host several post-election Saturday Night Lives, his social and political cred as a comic a great get for a show whose own milkiness—both in satirical edge and overall complexion—sorely needed someone like him. Honestly, Chappelle’s first ever hosting gig in 2016 was pretty outstanding, the comic’s entreaties to a Trump-shocked audience emerging like the bracing wisdom of a guy who’s seen and thought enough to bring some clarity to a whole lot of frightened and heartbroken (and overwhelmingly white) Americans.
And then the anti-trans shit happened, and fans like me were forced to confront the Lucy-with-the-football phenomenon that occurs whenever we, as fans, put too much stock in one artist’s imagined infallibility. Dave doubled down, then tripled down, and so forth, his initially questionable feelers at the expense of the trans community becoming a core part of what he apparently saw as his role as a “just saying what everyone’s thinking” truth-teller. And so now Chappelle has joined the ranks of the aging comics who whine about “political correctness,” stoke fears about getting “cancelled” (post-controversy Chappelle just was nominated for a Grammy and is hosting SNL, for fuck’s sake), and get quoted by reprehensible figures whose previous feverish condemnations of Chappelle’s trenchant material on white racism are swept away in a fervor of opportunistic alternative bigotry.
Is Dave Chappelle a bigot? Or is he a victim of those—both critics and champions of his new schtick—who pull his material out in chunks and rob it of context? Playing devil’s advocate is a role for the already devil-adjacent, but I’ll just conclude this overlong opening by suggesting that if your words can be picked up and scrawled on hateful placards by assholes literally threatening to murder pediatricians, firebombing LGBTQ-friendly businesses, and passing exclusionary and ignorant laws all over this oh-so-predictable country, then you’re not the good guy you think you are. You’re just another cranky old man who attacks vulnerable communities because… well, that’s for Chappelle to decide, should he ever choose to turn his formidable talents inward.
Dave Chappelle did not address the trans issue whatsoever tonight, instead pulling a swerve by reading out a blanket condemnation of anti-Semitism preceded by a portentously produced prepared statement. As with the fake-out when Trump hosted prior to that 2016 election (when an obliging Larry David halfheartedly heckled the GOP front-runner for his litany of bigotries), this served to raise the controversy without having to deal with it, which smacks of Lorne Michaels all over. With reports coming out this week that Chappelle’s booking surprised and dismayed several people backstage, it came off as pretty gutless, which is not something I’d traditionally attribute to Chappelle, regardless of his recent turn toward out-and-proud TERF-dom.
The monologue we got was classic Chappelle—risk-taking, expertly crafted, and possessed of the comic’s unique confidence and style. The expected jokes at the expense of two Black celebrities recently cannonballing into the anti-Jewish bigotry sewer (Kanye and Kyrie) are the sort of material Chappelle can parse so ticklishly. While calling out the idiocy of the “documentary” NBA star Kyrie Irving linked to, Chappelle yet told Jewish people that they “can’t blame [anti-Semitism] on Black people.” Because he’s Chappelle, the twist that Kyrie had nothing to do with the Holocaust—“In fact, he’s not even certain it exists,”—serves as a head-spinner of a rhetorical flourish. Similarly, his criticism of the “not crazy, but not well” Kanye West couples with Chappelle’s underlying theme that West and Irving are being persecuted for daring to lump Jews together as others do Blacks or Italians when it comes to playing the blame game. Chappelle notes that he’s unfazed by Jewish people because he knows a lot of them and grew up with them, his daily encounters with Jewishness erasing fear and prejudice. (Here’s where people in the trans community say, “You’re so close to it, Dave.”)
It’s a long monologue, which, controversies or no, is probably preferable to whatever sketches we’d have gotten instead. (It was nearly midnight when Chappelle closed the set out.) Still, here’s the thing. Sometimes, an artist shows their ass in such a disillusioning way that it disfigures their whole output. If the MAGA years have taught this particular cranky old man reviewer anything, it’s that some things aren’t just disagreements that can be put aside in order to maintain a relationship. When, just for example, a comedian you’ve always admired (in the extreme) goes all-in on attacking an entire segment of humanity because of who they are, well, you start to see the cracks opening up everywhere. When Chappelle closes out his monologue with the complaint that he’s getting fed up with audiences’ criticism, that “It shouldn’t be this scary to talk,” and hinting that those same [wink wink] unnamed people who’ve cost Kanye and Kyrie some serious cash might come for him next, the victimhood vibe is as unearned as it is disappointing. Nobody’s “cancelled” this week’s host of Saturday Night Live. Even if, and hear me out, constantly harassing trans people from your sold out comedy shows and Emmy-nominated Netflix specials probably should have some actual consequences.
With Chappelle’s extra-long monologue, two extended (and excellent) musical numbers from the reunited Black Star, and some pretty egregious late-show band-vamping, the sparser-than-usual sketches seemed almost beside the point tonight. And even though it’s a one-joke sketch, the morning talk show bit rests on a pretty potent joke, so it gets the top spot. With Chappelle’s bluesman Willie T. Hawkins guesting on a very vapid, very white morning TV show, the hosts continually seize upon the title of his new album My Potato Hole for some very bad pun-play, at least until the reluctant singer explains just what a potato hole was.Heidi Gardner, Andrew Dismukes, Chloe Fineman, and Michael Longfellow’s on-air talent is suitably horrified and as repentant as their blown-dry personas will allow, and that’s the sketch. Chappelle is tersely funny, at first not wanting to blow up his gig with the truth (his name and album title seemingly inspired by Booker T. Jones), and finally relishing in making his hosts squirm. Short sketch, one joke, and I liked it.
One decided bit of deference shown during Chappelle’s hosting gigs is SNL allowing him to break format, often introducing the upcoming sketch from home base, as he did so memorably back on Chappelle’s Show. I like that—SNL could use some energizing format-breaking from time to time. (I still don’t know why they never went back to those topical bumpers when Kate McKinnon’s Kellyanne Conway and Aidy Bryant’s cop-calling Karen just appeared live onstage at the end of that episode’s sketches a few years back.) But Chappelle’s cited love for the Game of Thrones sequel series House of the Dragon felt like a pretty slapdash Chappelle’s Show bit, even with all the celebrity pals on hand as Westeros’ newly integrated power players. (In addition to Chappelle bringing back a “dragon rock”-smoking Tyrone Biggums, we got Ice-T and Chappelle’s Show and The Wire actor Donnell Rawlings decked out in increasingly flamboyant fantasy finery.) Kenan had a funny role as the Black sea captain over-stressing how none of his fellow Black sailors are in any way worried about what could happen to them on an old-timey sailing vessel. Other than that, though, the yucks were on the easy side, although I did appreciate how herald Michael Longfellow’s family tree and who’s-sleeping-with-whom tree are one and the same. (“How’s it feel having sex with your niece? Yuck,” Chappelle’s ambassador blurts.)
Longfellow got another solid role in the barbershop sketch, as the one white barber in Chappelle’s crowded shop, bringing unwanted outsider perspective to the clientele’s debates about current events. Picking up where the monologue went off, the sketch is very much about clashing (if nominally aligned) interpretations of the world falling along racial lines, with Longfellow’s attempts to extend the others’ disapproving observations resulting in politely averted gazes. As in the monologue, the premise asserts that Black and white people’s different experiences lead to different lines being drawn. (Longfellow’s attempts to chime in on the Herschel Walker runoff in Georgia by asserting the need to take God out of politics is met with awkward silence, as is his attempt to add Yellowstone to his colleagues’ list of the best shows on TV like Abbott Elementary and Atlanta.) The punchline toward the departed Longfellow (“He’s police, ain’t he?”) continues the disconnect, which lends a bit of complexity, even if the uneasy echoes of Chappelle’s shaky original comic premise linger in Longfellow’s unsuccessful attempt to seek support for a condemnation of Kanye and Kyrie’s anti-Semitism.
I liked best the meta element to “Black Heaven,” with Chappelle once more coming out as himself, this time to announce that he needs a break, so an SNL cast member will be taking his place. With Ego, Kenan, Devon Walker, and Punkie Johnson all on hand, Chappelle’s role of a flashy, streetwise angel is naturally played by… Mikey Day. As in the morning show sketch, Chappelle clearly has fun fucking with some white performers, this time the actual Day, increasingly discomfited at having to read out Chappelle’s supposed lines. (He does stammer out something about “chicken-headed white hos,” but wisely demurs at dropping an n-bomb.) Day is once more stuck playing the guy in a sketch who points out the absurdity of a premise, but it looks better on him here, especially when he points out that, instead of Chappelle resting as he’d claimed, he, Rawlings, and both members of Black Star are laughing it up at his expense. It’s pretty solid, even if the sketch suffers since the actual Black Heaven sketch wouldn’t have worked even if it were Chappelle in the fur cape.
“I don’t know if that’s really official, but we’re not a real news program, so I’m just gonna call it.” I get it, Jost, but you could still put a little more effort in. Jost was referring to the (actually called) fact that, thanks to the pre-air announced reelection of Senator Catherine Cortez Castro, the Democrats have retained control of the US Senate and, while writing Update as the ticker rolls in must be a wearying job, man, these jokes were dusty as hell. Jost joked about his poll workers being old. Che joked about Joe Biden being old. Both joked about GOP senate hopeful Herschel Walker being dumb. Toss in another of Che’s smirky misogynist (or am I?) jokes and that’s basically it on the first show after a Midterm election cycle that was, let’s just call it, “eventful.” (Che also takes time to call Cleopatra ugly, since, Che.)
Marcello Hernandez had another correspondent spot, this time as a young Cuban-American politician whose entire schtick is that everything is basically fine. It was basically fine. Hernandez has the energy, but the writing here isn’t anything special, essentially just his candidate Jose Suarez ranting that people complain too much and ultimately threatening Jost with his mother’s chancleta. It feels like a tryout for a recurring character that should in no way return.
Sarah Sherman returned, this time with her own “Sarah News” animation and backdrop (both reminiscent of her Sarah Squirm channel) to harass Jost and make a lot of jokey references to her vagina. (SNL really loves vagina euphemism humor. Thinking here of Colleen Rafferty’s thesaurus of explicit undercarriage puns and, tonight, Sherman’s deployment of “musty tunnel” and “turkey wattle.”) I love Sherman’s weirdness and her energy, and taking the piss out of Jost is always good for a laugh. Tonight, Sherman accuses him of fondling her under the Update desk, shows an allergic reaction photo intended for H.R. blackmail, and plants supposed bikini-clad doodles of her hidden in Jost’s notes. (She also asserts her lust for “big, gorgeous monster” and new Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman by assuring viewers she’s “as straight and Michael Che’s Update persona.”) With Kyle Mooney gone, someone has to operate out of the oft-unmanned SNL freak castle, so here’s to you, Sarah.
Apart from some throwback Chappelle’s Show characters, we’re six episodes into Season 48 without a recurring sketch that I can recall. (Oh crap, David S. Pumpkins. Sort of washed that one out of the old brain.)
“There’s a sketch at the end of this that I don’t like so I’m hoping if this goes long it’ll get cut. I play a woman and I can’t tell if it’s transphobic or just really dated.”—Political Comedy Report
Oh, the Fox and Friends cold open is back everybody. Yay? The impressions aren’t anything remarkable, and having the Fox morning show airheads natter on in sycophantic chorus is about as by-the-numbers a way to open the show as it gets. James Austin Johnson’s Trump was back, barely paying attention to daughter Tiffany’s real-life wedding to plead with the hosts not to drop him after the Republicans’ humiliating Midterms defeats (including almost literally every single Trump-endorsed candidate), as per the wishes of jumping ship Fox News tyrant Rupert Murdoch. “New phone, who dis?” jokes aside, Johnson’s Trump remains an upgrade—I laughed when Heidi Gardner’s Ainsley Earhardt interrupts Trump’s ramble (quoting, among other things, OMC’s “How Bizarre”) to ask if he should be walking his daughter down the aisle. “Missed it,” Trump notes unconcernedly, before resuming his begging, citing all the possible reasons why the Fox News machine might be jettisoning his ass. (Just as the actual Trump did this week, Johnson attacks new Fox golden boy Ron DeSantis by confessing to using the FBI to rig DeSantis election for him. Seems like that should be a bigger story, honestly.)
Speaking of Trump-endorsed losers, on the brink Arizona whack job Kari Lake (Cecily Strong) was back, too, along with the gubernatorial candidate and election denier’s real-life gauzy interview filter. With Lake pivoting on a dime between full-blown conspiracy sedition (when Bowen Yang’s Brian Kimeade announces she’s behind), to full-throated support of the Arizona election officials (when she’s momentarily ahead), the sketch at least points out how transparently shameless this GOP playbook is, and Strong is so good at channeling the glassy-eyed nut-jobbery of Republicans like Lake that the sketch at least rises right up to serviceability. Yay?
There were rumors that several SNL hands were on the verge of dropping out of this week’s show thanks to the host’s history of transphobia, and so it sucks to have to point out that non-binary featured player Molly Kearney didn’t appear onstage at the goodnights. (Non-binary writer Celeste Kim is reported to have been very unhappy as well, posting an unequivocal condemnation of anti-trans bigotry on their Instagram stories.) It sucks because that’s not a position they should be put in, and it sucks because SNL booking Chappelle makes me write about it. Being a human being is hard enough, never mind fighting for a place on Saturday Night Live. It’s like when Lorne and company screwed up the vetting on that racist dingbat a few years ago, and suddenly everyone focused on new hire Bowen Yang since Shane Gillis was discovered to be fond of both Asian and gay slurs in his standup. In the end, Kearney got a decent showcase on the 10-to-one Please Don’t Destroy pre-tape that ended the show, so make of that what we must.
Nobody had much room to breathe otherwise tonight. Sherman and Hernandez got solo spots, and it was nice to see all the show’s Black actors in sketches together for a change. Longfellow continues to find his way into sketches, the most of the new hires. Chappelle in the house traditionally means less room at the table for the cast.
Kearney got to shine here, as their offhand tweet about running for attorney general of their home state of Ohio sees the featured player rushing to the Please Don’t Destroy guys for a last-minute makeover and politics crash course. Kearney goes big (I get an unashamedly broad Chris Farley vibe from them so far), and the sketch rides on their energy, with the guys (backstage once more, where they operate best) vainly attempting to whip Kearney into CNN interview shape. (Cue cameo from unlikely election night lust object Steve Kornacki, announcing that, should Kearney mess up their speech, they’re going straight to jail.) Kearney, stuffed into a suit and toupee (“I look like a Lego guy!”), is also kitted out with an adoring wife and two children, only for the close to announce that they became the single worst attorney general in history, all while news reports keep downgrading their position on the show. (“I’m in the cast!,” Kearney booms after being referred to as an “SNL background extra.”)
There are plenty of organizations fighting anti-trans bigotry, like the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Jost, echoing Trump’s attack on the Florida governor and potential GOP rival, “Did you know Ron DeSantis is in charge of a state where some maniac was hiding stolen nuclear secrets?”
The best part of Chappelle’s monologue was his analysis of why his white Ohio neighbors were so attracted to Trump. The description of Trump as “an honest liar,” is, coming from Chappelle, so on-point as to guarantee the bit will last.
Chappelle also conceded that the whole increasingly obvious Russian collusion thing has him reevaluating Melania, calling her, “the kind of chick James Bond would smash but not trust.”
We’re off until December 3, when Nope star Keke Palmer hosts alongside musical guest SZA.
Dennis Perkins is an entertainment writer who lives in Maine with his wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, (Special Agent Dale) Cooper. His work has appeared in places like The A.V. Club, Ultimate Classic Rock, and the Portland (Maine) Press Herald. You can find him on Twitter, where he will anger you with opinions, and Instagram, where you will be won back over by pictures of Special Agent Dale Cooper.