Dave Chappelle’s SNL monologue was shrewd and political — but chill

Faced with the daunting task of delivering Saturday Night Live’s post-election opening monologue, Dave Chappelle opted for a tone atypical of his brand of comedy: muted rather than scathing.

Chappelle appeared following a lackluster but earnest cold open, which parodied the victory speech that President-elect Joe Biden gave earlier Saturday evening. The majority of mainstream media outlets finally declared Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election on Saturday afternoon after five days of seemingly endless vote-counting.

While many at-home viewers seemed to be anticipating a night of searing political comedy aimed at this exhausting election week, Chappelle’s monologue veered away from the biting tone you might expect from the incisive, no-holds-barred comic.

Wearing a great suit and apparently smoking a cigarette onstage — in his defense, this was the kind of week where a performer of Chappelle’s stature could probably get away with smoking on an NBC soundstage in front of a studio audience — Chappelle’s set kept with his ongoing themes of calling out racist double standards in the US.

Chappelle started out the monologue by talking about his great-grandfather, a slave Chappelle has brought up before, most notably in his sober commentary on the death of George Floyd earlier in 2020. But rather than using his great-grandfather’s story to begin a commentary on the many racial and social issues of America today, Chappelle veered into the unexpected, pivoting to a self-deprecating joke about his current Netflix and HBO specials that set the tone for the rest of the set — and arguably for the rest of the show, which seemed determined to skew toward the calm, even apolitical end of the spectrum.

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He was quick to remind viewers, however, that ousting Trump doesn’t mean the country is magically safer, despite liberals’ undoubted feelings of relief. “You ask what life was like before Covid,” he noted. “A mass shooting every week. Anyone remember that? Thank god for Covid.”

Chapelle also got in a few digs at the white working-class Trump voter — “I don’t know why poor white people don’t like wearing masks. What is the problem? Wear masks at the Klan rally, wear it at the Walmart too.” — as well as Trump himself, pointing out that the president took a helicopter to Walter-Reed hospital when he contracted Covid-19 even though it was just a few blocks away.

He also argued that Trump’s selfishness was indicative of larger problems with the way white Americans view times of crisis.

“Don’t even want to wear your mask because it’s oppressive? Try wearing the mask I been wearing all these years,” he said. “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. Whites come, hurry, quick, come get your [n-word] lessons. You need us. You need our eyes to save you from yourselves.”

But if Chappelle dug his heels in on his typically trenchant humor, he delivered it with a style that felt atypically disengaged, which might explain why many of his jokes met with an ambivalent studio audience. “Trump getting coronavirus was like when Freddie Mercury got AIDS,” he joked at one point. “Nobody was like, how did he get it?” True. But nobody laughed, either. Chappelle also chastised the audience for being too woke, a theme he’s harped on repeatedly, and ended his monologue by suggesting that one of the other “lessons” that SNL’s presumably left-leaning audience needs to learn is one of forgiveness and reconciliation — certainly not an idea to which many people are receptive in the wake of a polarizing election.

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Despite the inherent tension in that message, Chappelle made it sound almost like neighborly advice, well worn, rather than an admonishment. “I know how that feels. I promise you, I know how that feels,” he said.

“Everyone knows how that feels. But here’s the difference between me and you. You guys hate each other for it. And I don’t hate anybody. I just hate that feeling. That’s what I fight through. That’s what I suggest you fight through. You got to find a way to live your life. Got to find a way to forgive each other. Got to find a way to find joy in your existence in spite of that feeling.”

Perhaps not the message everyone wanted to hear at the end of this election week — and not necessarily the burn that many SNL viewers wanted. But, perhaps, it was the one we needed.