…It’s the ‘Niggar’ family!” The Chappelle Show’s Season 2 skit “The ‘Niggar’ Family” opens by depicting a 1950’s style TV sitcom revolving around an affluent white family “the Niggars.” This is the typical Leave-it-to-Beaver-type nuclear family, except for the fact that the family name is pronounced exactly like the racial slur. Most of the skit’s humor is created by the disparity between the family’s extremely white appearance and their last name “Niggar.” Keeping in mind the last name of this fictitious family, Chappelle sets up a series of scenarios in which he applies African-American stereotypes to the white family. For example, the family affectionately comments on their newborn niece saying she has “those Niggar lips,” and jokingly chastise their son for sleeping in, calling him “one lazy Niggar.” Furthermore, the family’s African American milkman Clifton (played by Chappelle) puts specific emphasis on the name of “his favorite family to deliver milk to – the Niggars!” While some may argue that Chappelle is merely using racism as a means of humor, the skit “The Niggar Family” effectively critiques unfair yet deep-seeded African-American stereotypes. By presenting audiences these stereotypes, Chappelle shines a harsh light on racism that the public would otherwise lack the audacity to address, and further ridicules these prejudices by imposing the same stereotypes on a White family.
In this skit, Chappelle addresses a multitude of racist presumptions about African Americans, such as their athleticism, their love for pork, and their forgetfulness when it comes to paying bills. By presenting these stereotypes in a comedic fashion, Chappelle essentially mocks and makes light of an otherwise serious issue. His mockery is as blatant as his jokes are – he criticizes racism by making the prejudice the subject of laughter. As Kant stated, “laughter is an affectation arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing” (Berger 6); thus Dave Chappelle turns this racism into the focus of his comedy and reduces it to nothing. He takes an otherwise fragile subject and makes it approachable, and impels audiences to address these stereotypes, even if it is on a comedic level. For instance, the opening song introduces the family, but also presents something socially controversial – the use of the ‘N’ word – rather jarringly. This bluntness creates the humor that Chappelle utilizes to critique the racist stereotypes of African Americans by bringing them to the forefront of the audience. Just as the family in the skit acts as if there is no racism at hand when there is a clear and direct reference to it, Chappelle draws a parallel to society, ignoring racial context, stating that it is still very present. In fact, the latter portion of the skit directly tackles the issue when Chappelle bets that the white Timmy Niggar will “get the finest table a ‘Niggar’s’ ever gotten in this restaurant.”
Yet another prime example of how this critique functions is the portion of the skit where Jenny Halstead’s father learns that she is having a date with the “Niggar” boy from school. Initially thinking that she is to have a date with an African American, he acts appalled and concerned. At this point, laughter is generated by making fun of such a racist close-minded reaction. And when the father is relieved knowing that the boy is actually white, his relief from what he considered to be a problem pushes the humor even further. This instance takes a glance at racism in a similar household and ridicules it. Jenny’s father is portrayed as holding racial prejudices and is the center of the joke; Chappelle illustrates the fallacy of the father’s view that the situation is acceptable since the boy is white. He presents the prejudices as illogical and unwarranted, and audiences find such a perspective hilariously candid.
By relating these stereotypes to a White family, Chappelle degrades the racist conventions that, until then, had only applied to African Americans. As Assata Shakur believed in the 1970’s, these white stereotypes of African Americans were so ingrained in society, that Blacks called each other similar derogatory terms (30). However, in Chappelle’s system of comedic retribution, the White family is faced with the same prejudices that they perpetuated for decades. While some may argue the skit merely fuels this cycle of racist stereotyping, Chappelle illustrates its absurdity by bringing it full circle to Whites. In “The Niggar Family,” the whites are the ones being forgetful of paying bills, loving pork, being athletic, or being lazy. The skit illustrates that a family of any color can exhibit these same stereotypes that were previously reserved for African Americans. Furthermore, the skit degrades the racist standards by placing such a light tone on the atmosphere; although the racism is there, the skit remains cheery and jovial. As Chappelle would say in response to these racist remarks, “Niggar, please!” The skit turns the stereotypes into what they are – merely stereotypes – and undermines their power.
Chappelle’s degradation of these stereotypes is mirrored by his similar breakdown of the ‘N’ word. What makes this skit presentable to mixed audiences is that Chappelle uses the ‘N’ word to refer to the white family “Niggars,” when it is a clear reference to the racial slur. In fact, Chappelle phrases the family name no differently than in the manner he says the ‘N’ word, such as “Peace Niggars!” While some may argue that he only does this to produce cheap laughs and use offensive language on television, he is breaking down the word’s derogatory connotation by making it simply a family name. He makes clear what he is doing when he calls Frank Niggar, “Mr. ‘N’ Word.” Just as the name “Niggar” is just a family surname, the ‘N’ word is merely a word. Here, he undermines the power of the ‘N’ word by presenting it to the opposing race. Had he used an African American family, however, the skit would merely reiterate the historical self-hatred (Assata 31) among the Black community and perpetuate prejudices. But because the family is white, Chappelle is able to utilize the ‘N’ word in an unconventional setting and thus portray it as nothing more than a word to be made fun of. For instance, when Chappelle introduces Timmy Niggar to his wife, his wife actually mistakes him for another one of her African American acquaintances. This mix-up portrays the ‘N’ word as something not only used to refer to African Americans, while still being connected to its traditional use.
Yet another layer of critique present in “The Niggar Family” addresses how Whites are more socially accepted than the opposite race. In the skit, the white “Niggars” can get away with having such an offensive term as their last name as well as possessing some of the negative qualities that stereotypically black people are said to have. This notion focuses on the day-to-day cases, as well as historical incidents, in which African Americans are persecuted and scrutinized for their actions more heavily than Caucasians. This inequity is also a source of laughter for audience members, and Chappelle makes them aware of this disparity with his concept of a family that seems to resemble a Black family, but is more socially acceptable because they are white.
Now according to journalist Dexter Gordon’s theory of humor, Chappelle’s skit would be a “ridicule of White slaveholders” as a “safe way to do violence to the oppressor in return for justice” (256). He further states that this African American humor provides a channel for a “venting of anger and aggression while providing the community a sense of solidarity” (256). While this may be plausible, Gordon’s argument is not particularly valid because Chappelle’s social commentary isn’t limited to blacks. His audience is a mixed one, and his show holds massive appeal across the ethnic spectrum. Although his blunt commentary may be more acceptable for audiences because of his own race, he addresses both blacks and whites since they have both perpetuated these racist conventions. Plus, the closing portion of the skit features a family called the “Wetbacks” and opens the door for the breakdown of stereotypes for other races. Chappelle not only tackles issues of African American racism but racism in general.
However, there is merit to the argument that “The Niggar Family” simply encourages the racism it is intended to critique. Chappelle’s social commentary can fall onto the wrong audiences. Although most can see his evident critique, there are bound to be some, among the millions of viewers, who see nothing but racist jokes. Chappelle was actually concerned that he was acting “socially irresponsible” by potentially contributing to the very prejudices he is trying to break down. What he may not have considered is “how many people watch [his] show” and that the hottest comedian at the time had had a “moral responsibility” in his content (Chappelle). The effectiveness of his sketches is contingent on his audience, and he is socially aware of this. In his interview with Oprah, he acknowledges “that [there are] a lot of people who understand exactly what [he’s] doing…[and] then there is another group of people who will get something completely different” (Chappelle). This group of people refers to the racists he seeks to make fun of – and his skits can be taken as a means to reinforce their views. For instance, viewers who actually hold the prejudices Chappelle pokes fun at may only see the racism on the surface of his show and further uphold their prejudice. While the slim percentage of these viewers limit Chappelles’ social commentary, the majority of his audiences can view his message clearly in this skit.
Although Chappelle holds no moral obligations in his content as a comedian, his stance on his humor is clear. It is obvious that his skits aim to address social issues; and in the case of “The Niggar Family,” Chappelle breaks down racial stereotypes and the use of the ‘N’ word. His critique comes full circle at the end of the skit when he laughs, “This racism is killing me inside;” he implies that the racism is killing him humorously but also literally in a double entendre. Overall the skit’s directness clearly addresses issues of race, but is limited by the few who fail to see beyond Chappelle’s racist jokes. The meaning behind the skit is ultimately subjective to its audience, and cannot be perfectly conveyed with such a broad base of viewers. When taken as a whole, however, “The Niggar Family” can be interpreted for its social commentary by any conscious viewer who pauses to think for a moment.