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Dave Chapelle Image Credit: AP

Dave Chappelle returned for his third stint as host of ‘Saturday Night Live,’ which gave the controversial comedian a starring role in an episode dominated by the midterm elections and the fallout from Kanye West’s antisemitic remarks.

As Chappelle walked onto the stage for his opening monologue, he pulled out a piece of paper from his pocket and said he was going to “read a brief statement” that he had prepared.

“I denounce antisemitism in all its forms, and I stand with my friends in the Jewish community,” he began.

“And that, Kanye, is how you buy yourself some time,” he said, to laughs from the live audience.

Controversial rapper Kanye West
Controversial rapper Kanye West Image Credit: AP

The choice of Chappelle, who hosted SNL after the presidential elections in 2016 and 2020, to anchor the post-midterms episode raised eyebrows because of his past jokes about transgender people. The release last year of his Netflix special ‘The Closer’ sparked a walkout by some employees of the streaming service who viewed his jokes as transphobic. Last week, Page Six reported that some SNL writers were planning a boycott in protest of Chappelle. In a statement to CNN, a representative for Chappelle said that “we’ve seen nothing to support media reports of a writer’s boycott.” NBC did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Sunday.

Chappelle has repeatedly joked about trans people over the years in ways some have deemed offensive and dangerous. 

In Saturday’s episode, Chappelle did not directly address the controversy over his jokes about trans people but touched on several other hot topics. He dedicated almost half of his opening monologue to the backlash over antisemitic statements and material shared by Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, and by Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving.

Chappelle joked that he had learned in his decades as a comedian that “there are two words in the English language that you should never say together in sequence - and those words are ‘the’ and ‘Jews.’ I’ve never heard someone do good after they said that.”

In recent weeks, Ye lost lucrative endorsement deals and attracted condemnation from all corners of the entertainment industry for his remarks about Jews, including a threat on Twitter to go “death con 3” on them. And the Nets suspended Irving after he tweeted a link to a documentary the Anti-Defamation League described as including “extensive antisemitism.”

In his jokes, Chappelle appeared to pull from the same themes that landed Ye and Irving in hot water, alluding at one point to the unfounded antisemitic trope that Jewish people wield disproportionate power in some industries. Speaking of Ye, Chappelle said he broke “the show business rules [of perception],” which Chappelle described as: “If they’re Black, then it’s a gang. If they’re Italian, it’s a mob. But if they’re Jewish, it’s a coincidence, and you should never speak about it.”

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Dave Chappelle at the 90th Academy Awards in California in 2018

He also said he understood how someone with “some kind of issue” - Ye has bipolar disorder - could “adopt the delusion” that Jewish people “run show business,” another antisemitic trope.

“I’ve been to Hollywood, this is just what I saw. It’s a lot of Jews. Like, a lot,” Chappelle said. “But that doesn’t mean anything, you know what I mean? There’s a lot of Black people in Ferguson, Missouri. Doesn’t mean they run the place.”

The other half of Chappelle’s monologue - and much of the rest of the episode - was dedicated to politics and the midterm elections, whose outcome came into sharper focus after the episode began as a Democratic win in Nevada allowed the party to retain its Senate majority. Control over the House is still being decided.

In his monologue, Chappelle also took aim at Herschel Walker, the Republican candidate for Senate in Georgia, whom he called “observably stupid,” and said Trump is an “honest liar.”

Many of the sketches walked the line between comedy and discomfort that Chappelle has honed since “Chappelle’s Show,” poking fun at White people and their perceived cluelessness about Black culture and history. In one skit, Chappelle, playing a blues musician, explains to stunned White talk-show anchors and reporters that “potato hole” is not, as they seemed to infer, a word with sexual undertones, but rather describes the holes in the ground in which enslaved people in the United States buried food.

Another, one of the sharpest in the show’s recent history, found White cast member Mikey Day replacing Chappelle in a sketch about heaven.

But Chappelle’s jokes about the backlash to Ye’s and Irving’s antisemitism appeared to have attracted the most attention, and he was trending on Twitter early Sunday as a split audience debated his performance and shared the unsubstantiated report that some SNL writers refused to work on the episode. At the heart of the heated online debates was whether Chappelle was endorsing antisemitism along with Ye and Irving’s recent statements - or if he was lampooning it.

“That Dave Chappelle SNL monologue probably did more to normalize anti-Semitism than anything Kanye said,” argued Time Out New York theater editor and critic Adam Feldman on Twitter. “Everyone knows Kanye is nuts. Chappelle posits himself as a teller of difficult truths. It’s worse.” Journalist and author Mark Harris quote-tweeted Feldman, adding: “Yep. It’s not brave or edgy to play games with the idea of anti-semitism, and ‘We all know it’s kinda true but we just can’t say it’ is a glib, ugly approach to the subject that many anti-semites, who see themselves as embattled truth-tellers, will love.”

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Dave Chappelle, presenter for JAY-Z, speaks during the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard) Image Credit: AP

“So cool that SNL gave Chappelle the stage to deliver a TED Talk about how antisemitic dog-whistles are good, actually,” tweeted screenwriter Amalia Levari.

Argued Jewish-Israeli rights activist Rudy Rochman: “Dave Chappelle’s SNL skit was a meticulous & calculated move to desensitise the population from antisemitism, getting society to laugh at Jewish traumas/struggles, and normalising historic tropes by manipulating the average person’s pain and redirecting their reactions onto Jews.”

Television producer Jonathan Goldman seemed to think the opposite, tweeting: “Dave Chappelle has offended everyone in his career bc it’s his job, to address the uncomfortable. There’s a diff btwn bigotry and social commentary. It’s not for the faint of heart but if we’re gonna survive, we have to understand nuance. Last night was Carlin level [expletive],”

As did Tangle News founder Isaac Saul, who tweeted: “Let me be the first Jew to say: Dave Chappelle’s SNL open last night was hilarious, timely, honest, and a reminder that he still understands this country better than a lot of people whose whole job is to understand the country. . . . It’s okay to acknowledge there are a lot of Jews in media and Hollywood. And like Dave said, you can simultaneously note that it’s very stupid to think this means they are in some cabal controlling the world.”

Some even fact-checked the monologue. Wrote InsideHook managing editor Bonnie Stiernberg: “Dave Chappelle’s SNL monologue (which felt a little too ‘tee-hee, you can’t even say the Jews control the media anymore these days’ to me) had a line about how Adidas dropped Kanye ‘immediately,’ which. . .no, they didn’t? They dropped him after two weeks of public pressure.”

The only certainty is that the monologue was divisive, but, as musician Felix Kay opined: “Dave Chappelle is a comedian. You either like his jokes or you. don’t. He doesn’t care.”

The comedian appeared to acknowledge the divide over his humour and role in popular culture toward the end of his monologue, saying: “It shouldn’t be this scary to talk - about anything.”