As with other recipients of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Dave Chappelle (who receives the prize this Sunday at the Kennedy Center) has a few basic things in common with the award’s namesake. The most obvious, of course, is his keen sense of humor. Like Twain, Chappelle has honed his natural talent into a phenomenal career in comedy. Aside from performing 1,600 sold-out concerts around the world since 2015 alone, the Kennedy Center notes that Chappelle is “the mastermind behind the 2003 sketch comedy hit, Chappelle’s Show— one of the highest rated programs on Comedy Central. The show earned three Emmy nominations and went on to become the best-selling TV show in DVD history.”
Also like Twain and other prize recipients, Chappelle’s success is not merely based on a knack for telling jokes; it’s rooted in a mastery of comic storytelling. Where many comedians string comedic bits loosely together during a stand-up routine (no easy task in itself), Chappelle follows Twain’s lead by crafting longer, multi-layered narratives. Through a deceptively simple, conversational style, steeped in common (often vulgar) language, such comic narratives provoke laughter while exploring sensitive truths.
What sets Chappelle apart from most of his fellow prize awardees, however, is the flair for controversy that he shares with Mark Twain, as the clamor surrounding his recent Netflix special “Sticks and Stones” attests. Back in 2005, Chappelle also made headlines when he walked away from his TV show (even leaving the country for a while) at the peak of his fame and fortune because, as he would later explain, “it just didn’t feel right.”
Few other Mark Twain Prize winners have found themselves so often embroiled in the cultural firestorms that Twain himself continues to ignite. The Twain Prize’s first recipient, Richard Pryor, shares this distinction with Twain and Chappelle, along with a storytelling style that’s intertwined with his notoriety.
Pryor’s volatile comic genius is credited with creating, as Stefan Kanfer puts it, “a new kind of comedy (in the 1970s)—a hilarious, heartbreaking, and conflicted view of life seen from the underside.” It’s in the “hilarious, heartbreaking, and conflicted” heart of Pryor’s comedy where his narrative-style intersects most closely with that of Twain and Chappelle, especially when it comes to their comedic attempts to unravel the Gordian knot of race relations in America.
The similarity goes much deeper than the purposed invocations of the N-word which pepper the work of all three humorists (Pryor famously swore off using it after a visit to Africa). As scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin pointed out in a talk she gave at the Kennedy Center before Pryor’s award ceremony in 1998, Pryor and Twain (and I would include Chappelle) “derived their narrative skills from African storytelling.”
Fishkin noted that, “As a 15-year-old, Twain spent a lot of time with ‘Jerry,’ a slave who ‘daily preached (satirical) sermons from the top of his master’s woodpile with me for the sole audience.’” Twain confesses that his “mother beat him for associating with Jerry, but ‘to me he was a wonder. I believed he was the greatest man in the United States.’” Fishkin suggested, according to the Los Angeles Times, “that Pryor’s storytelling, like Twain’s, grew out of the same tradition of satire and subtlety, using humor drawn from their life experiences, wielding stories like weapons to destroy preconceptions and stereotypes.”
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, despite all the racial controversy swirling around it today, is perhaps Twain’s greatest satirical weapon in this regard. In Mark Twain: Social Critic, Philip S. Foner states that aside from “the book’s endemic lying, the petty thefts, the denigration of respectability and religion, the bad language, and the bad grammar, it was clear…that the (offended) authorities regarded the exposure of the evils of slavery and the heroic portrayals of the Negro characters as hideously subversive.”
This point is illustrated in Mark Twain Tonight!, when Hal Holbrook performing as Twain tells the “hideously subversive” story of Huck’s friendship with Jim, a runaway slave (while also demonstrating how Twain’s popular career as a stage performer helped to pave the way for the modern stand-up scene):
In accepting the Twain Prize, Pryor acknowledged his comedic camaraderie with Twain: “I am proud that, like Mark Twain, I have been able to use humor to lessen people’s hatred.” Although, as Kanfer says, “was a savage, equal-opportunity satirist (targeting) white racism, his fellow African-Americans, and—finally and most severely—himself,” he used his razor-sharp humor to cut into stereotypes and expose our shared (albeit deeply flawed) humanity. In this clip from the 1977 pilot of Pryor’s short-lived TV series (which, like Chappelle, he sabotaged because the way Hollywood tried to confine him didn’t feel right), Pryor is joined by John Belushi and, perhaps most surprisingly, Maya Angelou in a poignant sketch about an alcoholic’s broken dreams.
Chappelle does not shy away from the uglier aspects of racism that Twain and Pryor tackle. Perhaps the most famous example is a bitingly funny Frontline parody about a blind white supremacist who also happens to be black, a skit that co-writer Neal Brennan called “abrasive in the best possible way.”
Chappelle’s comedy, however, tends to be more good-natured in debunking the absurdities of racial prejudice. In another skit ridiculing racial stereotypes and music, Chappelle conducts a satirical experiment that calls to mind Twain’s religion experiment in “Man’s Place in the Animal World” (also known as “The Lowest Animal”)—only where Twain’s caged religious believers tear each other apart over theological differences, Chappelle reaches a more optimistic conclusion:
As much as Chappelle and Pryor have used humor to bring us together, it’s sad to realize just how bitterly divisive race remains in this country well over a century after Huckleberry Finn was published. It even seems at times that Twain may have overstated the liberating power of comedy when he wrote, “Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.”
However, Twain also observed, “Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.”
Fortunately, Dave Chappelle, Richard Pryor, and other comedians honored with the Mark Twain Prize have embraced Twain’s calling as a humorist “to excite the laughter of God’s children” in this earthly realm, where laughter may not blast our sorrows to rags and atoms, but it certainly helps make everything human seem a lot less pathetic.