The great American writer Mark Twain once said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”
I can’t think of any comedian who has embodied this more than Dave Chapelle, this year’s winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Chappelle was awarded the prize in October, but his acceptance speech, which doubled as a comedic set, just aired on PBS on Jan. 7. What a treat to be made privy to Chappelle’s brief acceptance speech, which demonstrated just how and why he came to earn such an award: He was poignant, hilarious, and of course, politically incorrect.
Chappelle shows courage that Twain would unabashedly applaud. Rather than accept the award sheepishly, Chappelle took the opportunity on stage to defend his genre, and to explain how important stand-up comedy is to America as an art form.
“There’s something so true about this genre, when done correctly, that I will fight anybody that gets in a true practitioner of this art form’s way,” Chappelle said. “Cause I know you’re wrong. This is the truth, and you are obstructing it. I’m not talking about the content; I’m talking about the art form.”
Twain, like many excellent humorists, believed good comedy didn’t just make people laugh, but contained an element of truth. Chappelle claimed American comedy is so diverse, every viewpoint in America is represented in a comedy club somewhere.
Chappelle joked that the First Amendment was there to protect Americans in a myriad of ways but that the Second Amendment was there “just in case the First one doesn’t work out.”
Chappelle joked that he was smoking on stage, indoors, not because he asked permission but because he can do what he wants when accepting such an award, and he uses this freedom as “leverage.” This kind of gentle, yet brave, and, of course, always funny defiance exemplifies his career, especially in the last 10 years.
In his Netflix special “Sticks & Stones,” for which Chappelle received scathing criticism from professional critics but thunderous applause from the average viewer, Chappelle takes aim at the progressive, politically correct. No topic is off limits.
He rattles off taboo topics and, best of all, elicits belly-aching laughs. Chappelle makes the audience laugh as he pokes fun at everyone, while also joking about the people who not only make jokes at his expense but would also rather he be quiet, such is the firestorm his bravery and comedic prowess combined creates.
In his acceptance speech, Chappelle acknowledged his long career path, as he thanked various people who’ve influenced him. It’s clear, Chappelle didn’t just arrive: He paid his dues. He started working in night clubs at the age of 14, chaperoned by none other than his mother, who would watch him perform after spending an entire day at work. (His parents split when he was younger.)
He thanked men who influenced him and took him under their wing: Tony Woods, Neal Brennan, and his mentor, Stan Lathan, who helped him produce his five Netflix specials, something Chappelle called “straight fire.”
Chapelle told the audience his mother was integral to his success. “You have no idea what I put this woman through,” he says. Chappelle’s mother encouraged him to learn about black history, remember it, and pass on the stories of previous generations.
“I was a soft kid. I was sensitive, I cried easily, and I would be scared to fist fight,” he said. Still, his mother would say, “Son, sometimes you have to be a lion so you can be the lamb you really are.”
“I talk … like a lion … just so I can chill and be me. And that’s why I love my art form.”
Dave Chappelle may be controversial, but he’s an important part of the very American genre of stand-up comedy: He tells it like it is, without hesitation, and that courage has helped show Americans just what’s good—and bad—about trends and ideas in this country.
Chappelle is a worthy winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, and his acceptance speech is an insightful look into why comedy is important—and courage is, too.
Nicole Russell is a freelance writer and mother of four. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Politico, The Daily Beast, and The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter @russell_nm.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.