Legal versus Ethical: Lessons From Dave Chappelle

Today, we take a break from the Contented Caregiver blog theme with a poignant lesson from Dave Chappelle. 


Let me state on the onset that I do not condone Dave Chappelle’s comedy.  His humor is often laced with grotesque profanity and lewd commentary that makes me uncomfortable.  We fundamentally disagree on our world views, but there is something to be learned from his messages.

Dropping The Bomb

In 2003, comedian Dave Chappelle enjoyed the benefits of having a hit show on Comedy Central.  Chappelle’s Show put Comedy Central on the map.  DVDs of the show sold 1.2 million copies in one week, becoming the biggest selling DVD tv show in history.  As the show’s ratings and Chappelle’s popularity climbed, the consensus was that Chappelle’s Show would be a mega-hit for years to come.   However, in 2006, Chappelle dropped a bombshell and walked away from his show and a contract worth over $50 million because of ethical and business concerns.

Chappelle explained his action to Oprah Winfrey when he said,

“I wasn’t walking away from the money.  I was walking away from the circumstances.” 

Chappelle explained the circumstances of having a hit show in Hollywood and his sudden departure from it when he said, “It’s incredibly stressful.  When you’re a guy that generates money, people have a vested interest in controlling you.”

In his performance, The Bird Revelation, Chappelle compares his experience in Hollywood to how a pimp controls prostitutes.  Hollywood used and abused Chappelle and tried to control him to turn the most profit.  That is why Chappelle walked away from millions of dollars.  

Medical Ethics

In medical ethics, specifically research ethics, researchers are not permitted to use participants solely to advance the research interest.  Participants are not a means to an end but an end of themselves.  Performing research without regard for the participant’s health is exploitation.  Dave Chappelle, like many other performing artists, was exploited.

Years later, Chappelle returned to the limelight and tried to make things right.  In one instance, ViacomCBS, the parent company of Comedy Central, licensed the Chappelle’s Show to Netflix and HBO for millions in profit without providing additional compensation to Dave Chappelle.  Though disgruntled, Chappelle admits that legally he had no recourse.  He had signed a contract.  But Chappelle admits he was young, inexperienced and realizes now how much executives took advantage of him.

“I forgot the hostility of the environment of show business.” 

Legal v. Ethical

Licensing his show was legal, but from Chappelle’s perspective, unethical.  As a result, Chappelle went on social media and begged his followers to boycott his unethically licensed show.  He also expressed his disappointment to Netflix and Comedy Central.  Chappelle’s pleading made a difference.

Netflix agreed to pull the Chappelle show and also gave Dave several Netflix specials.  Comedy Central also sat down with Chappelle and discussed a mutual agreement.  Finally, Chappelle signed another contract.  This one was worth $60 million.

Kudos to Dave Chappelle for calling out the unethical behavior of big corporations in Hollywood.  And kudos to the representatives of Comedy Central and Netflix for finally listening to Chappelle and making amends.  Just because something is legal does not make it ethical.  Chappelle learned this the hard way but came through more assertive on the other end.  Exploitation is never ethical and people should never be used as a means to achieving a desired end.  Let us all behave the way we ought and treat others with the dignity and respect they deserve.  And let us remember that just because something is legal does not mean it is right.


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