Dave Chappelle, Louis C.K. & Basquiat: The Medium is The Message

Updated: Oct 22

“The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by the Canadian communication thinker Marshall McLuhan and introduced in his Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published in 1964. McLuhan proposes that a communication medium itself, not the messages it carries, should be the primary focus of study. He showed that artifacts as media affect any society by their characteristics, or content. McLuhan says "Indeed, it is only too typical that the 'content' of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium". For McLuhan, it was the medium itself that shaped and controlled "the scale and form of human association and action".


Taking the movie as an example, he argued that the way this medium played with conceptions of speed and time transformed "the world of sequence and connections into the world of creative configuration and structure". Therefore, the message of the movie medium is this transition from "lineal connections" to "configurations." The advent of mediums like writing, television, computers, the internet and smartphones have completely shifted the global, social, political and economic landscapes, and have proven to be the real messages. Our ability to transfer content and information through vast networks connected to satellites around the world, shows that the mediums are in fact the message, the overlooked content of the medium symbolizing global connection, trade, innovation, information and progress.


Artistic genres and mediums are tools used to help us cope with aspects of reality, the tools can provide solace, inspiration, convey arguments, and a variety of other complex feelings and ideas that add to our lives. While the medium is the message, a true master of the medium is noticeable by the quality of content they produce, the prolific rate in which they produce it, and the masterfulness they exude when producing. Stand up comedy as a medium has provided society with a place where we can gather to share amusing findings about the absurd nature of existence through a literary, and oratory performance piece.


When we laugh at comedy we are ultimately understanding the conclusions, findings and perspectives the comedians have come across, and finding a shared humour about it. Whenever you find something funny, there is a level of relatability or irony to it. It's true that the medium itself is deeply meaningful, but once you see a true practitioner at work, you somehow know that this, is different. Creators should create what they feel, but with the understanding that there is an aesthetic criteria from the audience, based on several years of various attempts in almost every genre.


The postmodern condition is the awareness that basically every idea you have, has been had, and it's probably been had in a much better way. You can be a playwright but there’s a Shakespearean precedent set, that's the same with every medium. The medium of stand up comedy has provided us with so many genius artists that we must applaud as practitioners of their art form. People like Andy Kaufman, Bill Hicks, Louis C.K. Patrice O’neal, Bill Burr and George Carlin are all profoundly wonderful comics and great practitioners of their craft. But after the existence of a recorded century, of an infinite amount of comics and many truly great and prolific comics, it becomes almost impossible to achieve certain levels of notoriety or greatness, because everything has been done and is being done.


There’s thousands of comics that you can tune into any second, from any era, and many of them tend to do the same kind of thing. With anything in life, there’s a few really outstanding people and a bunch of very average people. Majority of people that use tools tend to be average because they just might not be as talented as someone else, they might not work as hard as someone else, and they might not be leaving the comfort zone of the discovered frontiers of the form. If everyone has already discussed all of the content, in the way that you’re doing it, then the next frontier is to innovate the form and give it your own twist. When someone finds an innovative way to practice the tool, it's visible, that’s where Dave Chappelle comes in.


The medium is meaningful by itself, but you feel the difference between an Ellen Degeneres and a Dave Chappelle, no offence to Ellen, but she’d probably tell you herself. I personally believe that Dave Chappelle plays the instrument of stand-up, better than anyone before him, hands down. Not because he’s the funniest man to ever do stand up comedy, but because he is the best at using the medium. He has mastered his craft, he adds aspects of a variety of mediums into the building of his own. Dave was born with a mic in his hand, he was destined for greatness. Chappelle plays the instrument of stand-up like a bebop jazz player, often focused on outwitting the audience by capturing them in enthralling stories, that is his stream of consciousness. Dave narrates twists and turns through stories that weave in profound philosophical arguments and social critiques, all while staying a step ahead of the audience, keeping them focused and keeping them guessing.


Chappelle uses all the literary devices from playwrights, novelists, journalists, even African Griots. Chappelle understands that he needs to hone the medium, and the medium is carried within a variety of mediums. In the same way that an iPhone is the collection of a phone, camera and the internet, which are all separate things at one point, stand up comedy is a collection of different linguistic and performance mediums that can all come into play. If you read between the lines of Dave's comedy, it's poetry in the form of a verse novel, but it's also a Ted Talk, and it happens to be funny. Dave’s comedy, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. He's one of the best orators of our time, one of the greatest storytellers and artists alive, and also one of the best practitioners of a medium that exists today. Dave Chappelle is to stand up, what Floyd Mayweather is to boxing and what Michael Jordan is to Basketball.


I know I sound like a Chappelle stan, and I am, but it's because of my love for stand up as a medium, art in general and just plain greatness in all forms. The reason why Chappelle is so great is because of the way he bends the genre, takes risks and has his risks pay off. Truly great modern comedians understand that, you don’t really have to be the funniest guy. I love a good funny comic, comedy is an entertainment art form, and so it should entertain, and mainly through humour. But, we’ve seen funny. In a world of the internet where every single piece of content, that has ever been created, is accessible on the internet, I can tune in to, literally anything, for a laugh. Tik toks make me laugh, Youtubers make me laugh, there are so many Netflix specials, mediums and genres, I can tune into for humour. I tune into stand up for an interesting person's unfiltered perspective. I need someone who is willing to capture my attention for the next hour and say something that I haven’t heard said in that way before.


In the last few years, we have seen the rise of stand up comedians getting their own sitcoms, only to bend the genre completely and give us something new and innovative. Ricky Gervais with 'The Office' and Louis C.K.’s 'Louie' changed the genre of sitcom completely. Sitcoms were historically 30 minute, multi camera shows, with laugh tracks, a certain pace of joke telling and a specific shooting style. Every few seconds there would have to be a joke, and you would have to hear an audience member laugh in order to laugh. Since the release of The Office, every sitcom tries to copy its mockumentary style and since the release of Louie in 2011, many shows have tried emulating the darker toned, single camera, comedy style that is so popular today. Shows like Atlanta, Bojack Horseman, Rick and Morty and Master of None wouldn’t be able to exist with their dramatic, complex characters, cinematic feel, and surreal realism, without Louis CK getting Louie on FX, and having it succeed critically and commercially. Louis C.K. is already a genius comic, but his tv show changed the landscape of modern television and cemented him as a top tier practitioner in the medium of television production.


Louie conceptualized a comedy that isn’t necessarily funny all the time, has some strange twists and turns and leaves you thinking through complex, dramatic feelings, all while giving you gut wrenching laughs, every once in a while, and he opened the floodgates for shows after him. That is the hallmark of great content bending the form of a medium, when it inspires, influences and is emulated. That is what Dave Chappelle has done for stand up comedy. Chappelle came out with a special on December 31st 2017, that I am outspokenly a huge fan of. This special challenged the format of stand up and changed it.


The Bird Revelation was filmed in the warm Comedy Store, with Dave engaging an intimate audience, smoking cigarettes while slouching on a stool. When Dave speaks, it feels as though he is going off the cuff. He would ask a fan a question, and they would respond, and it would seem as though that triggers the thought Dave just had, he then goes on this soliloquy, only for the punchline to make you realize that, he was well aware of every move in that routine and he is playing your reactions as the instrument. This isn’t just a man rambling, he knows every piece and maneuver that goes into making this bit work.


Comedy can be like music where precision is key, timing is important, mastering the literary, artistic and performance aspects of the medium are essential, and Dave has done just that, and now he is giving his own take on the form through the Bird Revelation. The special wasn’t funny for long periods. A lot of the time Dave told stories that sent shivers down the coldest spines, during other points, he was giving social commentary, critique, philosophy, advice and he was also really, really funny. It was a masterful exhibition of the craft and it shows that Dave cares about the art form. Dave's work has since been emulated by some of his greatest peers, like Aziz Ansari and Chris Rock who both followed suit and created edgier, less funny and more philosophical, comedy specials.


In sports, it’s easy to determine who is the best. The criteria is set and there are visible, tangible, measurable and repeatable tasks that need to be met in order to rank you accordingly. There’s a certain artistic relativism that lingers over art, that disallows the judgement of one piece of art to be ranked as superior to another because of the subjective nature of art itself and often, when a style becomes overused, its descendant is something wildly different. Like when minimalism controlled the majority of the fine art market, and then graffiti swept the world and expressionist artists, like Jean-Michel Basquiat, went against the grain and brought back a movement with a new spin.


What Basquiat did that put him in a different category than other graffiti artists is that he always used and cited his influences in art history. He adapted various styles, methods and ideas from a variety of influences. Basquiat even began speaking with his influences, through his art. He reinvented the form but acknowledged that he is in a lineage of art history that he could not exist without, and he would speak to Da Vinci, Willem De Koonig, Jackson Pollock and everyone that paved the way in furthering the form by incorporating them in his pieces. Basquiat's twist on the form was incorporating various words, symbols, music, philosophies, histories, poems, stories and black cultural references, a lot like Dave Chappelle. Both Chappelle and Basquiat consider themselves Griots, which is a member of a class of traveling poets, musicians, and storytellers who maintain a tradition of oral history in parts of West Africa.


Chappelle cites all of his comedic influences all throughout his acts, like Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy, but he also cites his musical influences and various formative pop culture influences, like Thelonious Monk. Chappelle said he studies Thelonious Monk and various other Jazz and Hip Hop artists to learn their musical timing, because he takes those concepts and applies them to comedy. Which is why he has learned to play ‘Round Midnight’ by Thelonious Monk on the keyboard. That's similar to what Basquiat did, he would often paint his black pop cultural influences, like iconic jazz albums, Miles Davis, Robert Johnson, and others to celebrate black cultural icons, moments and history that would otherwise be forgotten, and not preserved, by a white dominated art industry. Both artists use their medium as a library of African American history.


Basquiat was said to paint with bebop jazz and various other types of music, television and books in the background. The best practitioners of crafts understand that they operate within a lineage and culture of work, there have been people who have done the craft very well, there is room for improvement, there is room for mastery, then there is room to break all the rules you’ve learned and bend the genre by applying them differently. Even though art can be completely subjective, those who are widely considered to be outstanding in any craft, usually have a good breadth of knowledge on the history that led to them gaining access to the tool, before continuing it and furthering the craft with their own take on it. Quentin Tarantino is the perfect example of this.


Tarantino does genre movies, and he has a wealth of film knowledge because he has seen a wide variety of movies, through absorbing an exorbitant amount of movies he has began to develop a taste for what he enjoys to watch in film and others might enjoy as well, so he takes a variety of the greatest shots, speeches, genres, stories, poems, even actors and adds his own charm, wit and pop culture knowledge to create some of the best movies of the past two decades. There’s been a bunch of gangster movies, but few are as original as Pulp Fiction, and that’s because Tarantino drew from his inspirations in novels, music, plays, and poetry, to add to the form of filmmaking.


There’s something admirable about someone who dedicates their time to learning, understanding, informing and innovating a form. It shows that this is really someone's passion project and they understand their importance in a lineage of a culture they love. That's what any medium is, it's an expression format. There are those who use the tool and those used by the tool. There are craftsmen who abide by the existing structures of the form, and they depend entirely on the content they are allowed to push out, as constrained by the perceived structures of the medium. There’s a presupposition in many that are inspired to do a task, to do it in the way that is most popular, or the one we saw someone else do. That's why so many songs sound the same, many movies share the same plot and many shows look and sound the same. Its monkey see, monkey do and it's good to get you started. There's a reason there's a formula, its because it works, especially if the goal is to make a quick buck. Many people follow the formula and get hot, but through time, most of those people whither away into an irrelevant sea of homogeneity.


If you are inspired to do a job and are shown how to do it by the training manual, you’re going to act exactly as in the training manual, until you develop your own way of completing the task. That's what these artists have been able to do. They have been able to add their own flair into the existing lineage of art history and have become some of the best practitioners of their craft, in all mediums. Dave Chappelle, Basquiat, Louis C.K. Miles Davis, Quentin Tarantino, Thelonius Monk, Biggie Smalls, Kanye West, Carvaggio and Steve Jobs are all great, but they are not only great for the content they provided, which is stellar, but also the way in which they manipulated the form as the message, to convey the content. Those are the artists that can possibly achieve the proverbial ‘classic’.


There’s subjective classics and cult classics, there are also many classics that don’t become classics till centuries later. A classic is a piece that is judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind, usually in the Western Canon. However, not all these works originate in the Western world, and such works are also valued throughout the world. It is a certain Western intellectual tradition that goes from, for example, Socrates to Wittgenstein in philosophy, and from Homer to James Joyce in literature. The Bible, a product of ancient Jewish culture, has been a major force in shaping Western culture, and has inspired some of the great monuments of human thought, literature, and art. The canon has been fairly stable for centuries even though It's clearly very male and eurocentric but, as of late the list has expanded to include disenfranchised communities, minorities, underrepresented groups as well as various non Western Countries and Continents.


Different mediums are adding different works to the canon, and evolutions are changing the canon completely. The innovations on flight technology and the advent of social media has created a world smaller than ever before. A classic work of art has to be widely accepted as being exemplary or noteworthy, for example through being listed in a list of great books, or through a reader's personal opinion, by a network of people, for a long period of time. A related word is masterpiece, which in modern use refers to a creation that has been given much critical praise, especially one that is considered the greatest work of a person's career or to a work of outstanding creativity, skill, or workmanship.


Historically, these words refer to a work of very high standards of production, that is what the artists I have named have given us within the last century. I truly believe one day, Dave Chappelle’s Birds Revelation will receive as much respect in the cultural canon as Homer's Odyssey or a poem from Roman poet Virgil. It's exciting to see a master in their work, the ease they exude through the intricacy. That type of undeniable mastery can inspires us to want to better our lives and ourselves in various crafts. Not to sound like a sensei but, to master any task, you must first master yourself, grasshopper.


Honestly though, the dedication, time, discipline, ingenuity and learning it takes to become truly great at something and produce a masterpiece is something that one can only do once he is able to be all of those things, in all aspects of life. Miyamoto Musashi said "if you know the way broadly, you will see it in all things." When you learn anything, you elevate everything. In trying to better any circumstance in your life, you elevate your existence, you make life run smoother and better, and seeing those results pushes you to continue creating, learning and elevating your life and the lives of those around you. When you have a situational problem and have solved it, you can apply the process of solving to other problematic situations. You see everything as connected and it helps you keep an open and creative mind.


That realization enhances your ability to critically think, discern, and solve problems in a creative and elegant manner. Everything from exercising, to writing poetry, making music, even juggling, if your goal is to learn this new skill and get better at it and seek excellence, you begin to excel more and more in all facets of life, you become more confident and are able to solve problems in other areas of your life, as well as attain mastery of other disciplines by learning the way of practicing, learning, failing, adapting and innovating. You would have to dedicate yourself to learning the ins and outs of formats, learn through constant failure, expand your influences, information and horizons, to ultimately try and gain inspiration from somewhere nobody has looked yet.


It's kind of like the concept of biomimicry. Biomimicry is the emulation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems. While attempting to build a flying machine, Leonardo Da Vinci and the Wright brothers both looked to bird flight, in order to gain an understanding of aerodynamics. In the same way, Japan's famous bullet train concept gained its shape because, luckily, one of the designers was an avid birdwatcher, and he conceptualized the design for the nose of the train to look like the beak of a Kingfisher, and successfully got the train to avoid being noisy, as well as making it faster and less pollutant. Inspiration is everywhere, you just have to find a way to implement, innovate and amalgamate new sources of information, to expound on the form of your craft, after mastering the content.


That level of greatness is only achievable through discipline, and that level of discipline is only accessible if the Will exists. If you have a calling and you are trying to learn a craft and dedicate your time to it, you owe it to the medium to not half-ass it, do it as best as you can by mastering it. The judges of a classic work are other people, but the creation aspect solely rests on your shoulders, if that is your goal. The internet and technological advancements are creating new amalgamations of mediums without any preexisting aesthetic criteria. ‘Internet art’ (for lack of a better term) like Youtube, blogs, podcasts, instagram, AI and more are still new, but rapidly growing and becoming more relevant, and if any classics would be made, they would be made within the confines of the current moment, so there is no way for us to know at this time, but people don’t usually just stumble across classics.


The medium is the message, craftsmen, like Dave Chappelle, who are aware of that reality, work tirelessly at their medium, and chisel away the marble for years, they fold and refold the katana blade, they educate themselves on the history, apply different methods, add their own innovative methods and proclaim their stake amongst greatness. They master the instrument then create their own symphonies. Dave Chappelle started stand-up professionally at 14, and achieved his classic at 44, it's not an overnight task. Personally, I am constantly seeking that classic piece, like the Gatsby lighthouse in the distance, within the mediums I practice and consume. There’s no guarantee I’ll ever reach it, we might all be incredibly average and fall into obscurity, but that should be the intention, and I feel uncomfortable saying that, but maybe my insecurity is a deficiency in the field at this time.


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