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

Updated: Jan 26

“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 t