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Dave Chappelle Was Healer-in-Chief on ‘SNL’

The comedic recluse brought us to church on Saturday night


So, hell of a week, huh?

Kate McKinnon opened Saturday Night Live in a state of mourning, in character as Hillary Clinton, seated alone at a piano, under dimmed lights, performing “Hallelujah,” a song written by the late Leonard Cohen. That’s a great dosage of grief to pack into a cold open, and the night’s music would get no less somber since the musical guest was A Tribe Called Quest, a rap group that lost its cofounding member Phife Dawg in March due to diabetes complications. Clinton’s stunning loss, Cohen’s recent death, and the fresh memory of Phife’s passing all conspired to weigh the evening with sincere, post-partisan healing (instead of rebellion) and solemn remembrance; it’s the first time I’ve watched the closing, send-off portion of an SNL and truly appreciated how much it looks, sounds, and feels like a black gospel benediction.

As host, Dave Chappelle billed the evening as “a comeback” (“or whatever you want to call it”) for Tribe, who released their first new album in 18 years this past week, as well as for himself. In recent years, Chappelle’s tour dates have proved fraught and controversial for various reasons; the New York Observer reported his criticisms of Hillary Clinton in a recent stand-up set as a tacit endorsement of Donald Trump. Chappelle didn’t address this misunderstanding and the backlash it wrought in his opening so much as he got up there to remind everyone that this — hyperbolic, lose-lose social critique from a position of earned cynicism — is what Dave Chappelle does.

The night’s first sketch was an election night watch party in which a few smug, white urbanites gather to watch Clinton’s battle map unravel and suddenly realize that American voters are, indeed, bigoted enough to elect a candidate supported by white nationalists as president. Chris Rock joined Chappelle for the sketch, and both of their characters joke that their white friends’ erstwhile belief in American sanctity is preposterously naive. This was a frequent theme of Chappelle’s Show, and it was the gist of his opening monologue, in which Chappelle joked, “I know the whites.” Still, much as McKinnon closed her piano performance by telling viewers to never give up, Chappelle closed his opening remarks with a note so optimistic and restorative, but nonetheless plaintive, that you would think Chappelle were giving Clinton’s concession speech. “I’m going to give him a chance,” Chappelle said of Trump. “And we — the historically disenfranchised — demand that he give us one, too.”

Lest election postmortems dominate the entire 90 minutes, Chappelle also did a solo Walking Dead sketch. Here, he ran the gamut of beloved Chappelle’s Show characters, including friendly neighborhood crack addict Tyrone Biggums and black Klansman Clayton Bigsby. It was a bit of victory-lap fan service executed somewhat grudgingly, I imagine, as Chappelle really shines brightest when he’s engaging with pop culture and hitting the moment in a direct fashion, whether he’s in character or not. His opening set and the election night sketch were the incisive highlights of a show that took a bit of a nosedive after “Weekend Update,” when the sketches started to swap out Chappelle for Leslie Jones, yielding one too many meta-sketches with no hook.

Surprisingly, the loudest powder keg wasn’t Chappelle, but rather Q-Tip, who at one point rapped “nigga” in such a resounding and rapid-fire manner that surely NBC now owes the FCC $1 trillion. Tribe’s still got it, man. As they performed “We the People…” the first of their two designated songs, a watercolor banner portrait of the late Phife unfurled from the rafters, and Q-Tip and Jarobi pressed their mics to his lips during his prerecorded verses. The performance took even fuller shape once Consequence and Busta Rhymes joined Tribe on stage for the final measures of the group’s second song, “The Space Program.”

Chappelle, a TV recluse, was a rough but exciting bet to lead a congregation Saturday night. That he would be hosting less than a week after Trump’s election and in concert with A Tribe Called Quest undoubtedly led many of us to wonder whether Lorne Michaels might catch lightning in a bottle here, perhaps achieving a resonant moment of dissent from one of black comedy’s most beloved stand-up sociologists, soundtracked by the new music of a beleaguered but, ultimately, invincible rap group. But for all the daps and hugs, this wasn’t that. This wasn’t a block party. And it wasn’t a protest. It was a watch night service; it was church. Chappelle, who has certainly aged and sounded a bit winded, gave as charming and hopeful a sermon as the comedy mastermind could’ve mustered in the face of such a grave national mood. Even if the Book of Revelation gives us very little to look forward to, much less laugh at, these days.