Late last month, Katt Williams’ first special in four years, Great America, made its Netflix debut. If word of this release is news to you, it’s probably because the special didn’t offend anyone. Unlike Dave Chappelle’s last four contributions to the streaming service, Williams’ Great America has yet to inspire a single think piece or Twitter thread calling for his cancellation.
Williams is on record saying that he believes Chappelle is funnier than he is. But upon review of their latest works, it’s clear to see Katt has mastered an aspect of comedy that even this generation’s Pryor has yet to learn. It’s an element that, through the evolution of the times, has become essential to being found funny in 2018: Williams has successfully grasped the concept of respecting his range.
What makes this feat so interesting is, as contemporaries in the early aughts, Williams’ range as a thinker and comedian never felt terribly dissimilar to Chappelle’s. But for reasons both within and beyond their control, the former has always garnered less respect than the latter.
Since both men hit the scene two decades ago, the same descriptors could be used, to sum up their acts—lewd and sophomoric, but enriched with an obsessive desire to discover the taboo ways race can be made funny. The two only begin to diverge when we discuss the ways they actualized that desire. As Williams embraced and satirized certain sensibilities of Blaxploitation-era pimps, Chappelle offered more observational takes on the everyday Black experience. One resonated deeper than the other, and thus, where Chappelle was valorized, Williams was marginalized. Dave’s comedic genius has since been taken far more literally than Katt’s—an outcome that has followed them both for years.
As fans, cultural critics, and even fellow artists such as Jay-Z look to Dave Chappelle’s “leadership,” the culture has largely abandoned Katt Williams, looking to him for mug shots and TMZ fodder.
Perhaps their off-stage moves have contributed to their opposite narratives as much as their on-stage performances. As Katt derailed his career with antics and arrest warrants, Chappelle willingly surrendered his with a self-imposed exile, forever forging an unshakable legacy as a man detained by his principles and nothing else. And thus, upon his comeback, fans assigned Chappelle a largely unearned task of making sense of urgent times, when all he really did when he was with us was make jokes.
As understandable as the impulse was to have the man who wrote “Black Bush” host Saturday Night Live days after the election of a white supremacist, it’s difficult to grasp how certain Chappelle faithfuls refuse to admit he typically misses the mark on his trans jokes, landing in an area resembling transphobia.
It’s almost as if Chappelle has posterized race so many times that his apologists ignore how often he bricks his takes on gender—a particularly strange oversight, given that his go-to move in both Equanimity and The Bird Revelation is to present race as a red herring whenever gender arrives in his act.
Whether it be suggesting that trans issues shouldn’t be discussed “in front of the Blacks,” as if Black trans folks don’t exist, or belittling Louis C.K.’s victims on the basis of himself being held to a “higher standard of accountability” as a Black man, Chappelle displays an almost willful misunderstanding of the roles patriarchy and heteronormativity play in white supremacy.
Even in his sole moment of empathy, he has it right until he has it wrong. When describing an instance in which he nervously traveled through Brooklyn with a backpack containing $25,000, he jokes, “If those same drug dealers gave me a pussy and said, ‘Put it in your backpack and take it to Brooklyn,’ I’d be like, ‘Nigga, I can’t accept this.’”
That joke quickly became a fan favorite, as if Chappelle understanding gender issues through genitals isn’t the same logic that resulted in all of his cringe-worthy “cut their dicks off” trans jokes.
What became clear this year and last is that Chappelle doesn’t have the intellectual or sociopolitical range most folks thought he did. Moreover, when considering the reason he ventured outside his wheelhouse to discuss topics he’d never broached, it appears to be more about fans’ insistence on finding him universally brilliant than his own inclination to find the plight of trans people anything other than “kind of fucking hilarious,” as he puts it.
Williams, on the other hand, entered 2018 well aware of the climate. Having not taken nearly as much time off as Chappelle, he was fully prepared to strictly and exclusively joke about what he knows about.
The comedian, who is often stigmatized as deranged and erratic, spent the first 12 or so minutes of his 60-minute special exploring the uniqueness of Jacksonville, Fla. He then proceeded to flesh out some material on Arby’s and Viagra, with a few obligatory Trump jokes in between. He inspired huge props from the crowd without a single joke at the expense of sexual assault survivors or trans women.
And contrary to the popular opinion of self-presumed authorities on comedy, no one felt cheated for having not heard anything offensive. Great America was simply a great time.
While Williams’ special didn’t have the highs of Equanimity or The Birds Revelation, it certainly didn’t have any of the lows. But that balance remains a quiet one, as a culture hellbent on enforcing static narratives only makes noise when someone falls short of the role they were assigned.
The shame is, as fans have split the two comedians based on a made-up standard of romanticized wokeness, folks have come to demand more from Dave Chappelle and require nothing of Katt Williams, even though they should probably expect the same from both. While there’s no doubt Chappelle’s comedy is funnier than that of his counterpart, it isn’t smarter. Fans pretending it ever was is how Williams wound up with the more palatable new special.