The comedian was doing the unglamorous grunt work of phone banking last week on behalf of businessman Andrew Yang, the underdog Democratic presidential candidate who Chappelle has endorsed.
A woman named Melissa improbably answered the unknown number and was also improbably cheerful about the whole thing. How would she rank Yang on a scale of one to five, “one being crazy about him and five is kind of like, let’s call it ‘Trump,’ ” Chappelle asked.
She responded “one” — a big fan. “Okay!” he said. “My name is Dave Chappelle. I’m a world-famous comedian.”
Then he became perhaps the first phone banker in history to sign off a cold call not with goodbye but “Wu Tang.”
The phalanx of journalists filming the whole thing burst out laughing.
But Chappelle wasn’t there just for laughs. He’d been making the case for Yang in South Carolina, where he hosted two stand-up comedy fundraisers in hopes of urging voters to head to the polls for Yang in the state’s crucial Feb. 29 primary.
Yang’s signature campaign proposal is a universal basic income, or giving an $1,000 a month “Freedom Dividend” to every American, forever. Chappelle sees him as the one person in the race whose policies could make an immediate difference in the lives of his neighbors in Dayton, Ohio, a third of whom live in poverty.
“You give a family like that $12,000 a year, or if there’s two adults in the house, $24,000, that is going to put them in striking distance of the middle class,” Chappelle told the reporters in Columbia. “I want health care and all of those things, but what good is health care without groceries?”
Chappelle, an iconoclastic black comedian being linked with an outsider candidate, who is also one of the first Asian Americans to make a viable bid for the presidency, is the kind of perfect, and perfectly odd, brand synergy that grabs headlines. And in a crowded field with Yang polling at 4 percent nationally, he could use the help.
Chappelle’s not alone in finding a candidate to love. Numerous celebrities — Ellen DeGeneres and Jennifer Aniston (Pete Buttigieg), Cardi B and Ariana Grande (Bernie Sanders) and John Legend and Chrissy Teigen (Elizabeth Warren) — have jumped in with the idealistic, likely futile, hope that their support could move the needle.
The race for the Democratic nomination is still unsettled and crowded, plus the Iowa caucuses were a mess, and the New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina primaries are coming up any minute. Sunday’s Academy Awards will probably feature stars using their acceptance speeches as political pulpits. Presidential endorsements are an extension of that activism, which is itself an extension of the way celebrities use their social media platforms to erase the boundaries between themselves and their followers.
“What’s really important about celebrities is that they help to attract an audience,” said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist who worked for the campaigns of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. But, “very few people will support a candidate because of a celebrity’s endorsement.”
Perhaps the only instance in which there’s empirical data that a big name made a big difference is Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Barack Obama in the 2008 election. A study suggests she gave him one million additional votes in the primaries and caucuses. The authors, economists from the University of Maryland, called it “the Oprah effect.”
Then there are the times when celebrity endorsements go bad, such as when Clint Eastwood talked to an empty chair that was supposed to represent President Obama while Eastwood was backing Mitt Romney at the 2012 Republican National Convention.
For now, Chappelle is making the most of his platform. He brought Yang onstage at his comedy show at Iowa State University in Ames two weeks before the caucuses and filmed a new campaign ad with Yang backstage. (Yang got 1 percent of the vote in Iowa as of Thursday.)
Tickets for his two South Carolina shows — in performing art centers holding more than 2,300 people — were sold at $128 apiece as direct donations to Yang 2020. (The campaign wouldn’t share fundraising numbers). In South Carolina, where black voters make up nearly two-thirds of the primary electorate, Chappelle appealed directly to African Americans by often mentioning that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had made the case for a similar form of guaranteed income in 1967, shortly before he died.
The campaign says that just by showing up, he’s boosting morale and helping them recruit volunteers.
“For a guy like me to be vocal about this type of thing, it’s not really my jam,” Chappelle told reporters in Columbia. Yang is the first candidate Chappelle has endorsed. “But I’ve got to do my civic duty. I don’t like to say I’m telling people what to do. I’m just letting them know an option that I think is incredible so that it gets more attention, shine more light on it.”
Supporters as cliques
Maybe the point isn’t that a celebrity’s support matters at all in the polls, but they can help you match a candidate to your personality, like an electoral Myers-Briggs or love languages quiz.
Squint, and the camps of celebrities who’ve formed around the Democratic candidates in this 2020 race look a lot like lunch tables in a high school cafeteria.
Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont, has the band, the chorus and the orchestra, plus all the kids who smoked under the bleachers and played in garage bands. His supporters joke that his roster is so big he could throw his own music festival, “Berncella” or “Bernaroo.” He had Bon Iver and Vampire Weekend play rallies in Iowa and soon the Strokes will headline a New Hampshire rally. Miley Cyrus, Jack White, Kim Gordon, Danny DeVito, Jack Nicholson and Killer Mike have endorsed, along with Phish. Even Tony! Toni! Toné! is on board.
Former vice president Joe Biden has cornered the debate team and straight-A athletes. John F. Kerry practically lives on his campaign bus. Michelle Kwan is on staff as surrogate director, with support from Vivica A. Fox, Tom Hanks and George R.R. Martin. (Okay, so this analogy isn’t perfect.)
The artsy radical feminists who all got into Brown University seem to flock to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.): Ashley Judd, who’s been stumping in New Hampshire, Scarlett Johansson, Megan Rapinoe, Amy Schumer, Shonda Rhimes and “Queer Eye’s” Jonathan Van Ness.
Pete Buttigieg’s celebrity endorsement vibe is straight out of “Glee,” and the earnest, high-achieving activist kids who remind you to recycle, like Mandy Moore, Ben Harper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Michael J. Fox, Ryan Murphy (who actually created “Glee”), Kevin Costner, and, an anomaly, Sharon Stone.
The closest thing to a celebrity endorsement Amy Klobuchar gets is Phill Drobnick, who coached the men’s U.S. Olympic curling team to a gold medal.
Mike Bloomberg has the whole disgruntled teacher’s lounge: Judith Sheindlin (better known as Judge Judy), Michael Douglas, Sam Waterston, Tim Gunn, Isaac Mizrahi, John Mellencamp (who voiced an ad for him) and “Sopranos” actress Lorraine Bracco.
Yang has the kids who stopped caring about cliques and are just waiting to get out of there and take over the world, like Chappelle, Donald Glover, “The Walking Dead’s” Steven Yeun, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and Elon Musk.
There’s a danger that too much celebrity support will backfire and lead to the nominee being painted as in the pocket of the “Hollywood liberal elite,” said GOP strategist Doug Heye, who noted that Hillary Clinton’s star-studded final rallies — Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga — looked like an overconfident victory lap to some voters.
But the bigger question for Democrats in this general election is whether celebrity endorsements will make any traction at all when President Trump, who was a reality TV star, now has an infinite platform as the sitting president and all the inherent advantages of an incumbent.
“Remember, Donald Trump himself is the ultimate celebrity and sort of remains at the center of this race,” said Mark Harvey, author of “Celebrity Influence: Politics, Persuasion, and Issue-Based Advocacy.” “Like it or not, they’re all dwarfed by him.”
The Democrats could announce a hundred more celebrity endorsements each, and, Simmons said, “[Trump] just gobbles up so much media coverage that your celebrity endorsement is maybe, like, a paragraph on A4.”
'Is this a sign?'
So if endorsing is somewhat futile, why and how do celebrities get involved?
For Mandy Moore, she saw Buttigieg speak early last year in Los Angeles and was so struck by his message of hope and unity that, she said, “after that I wanted to do anything I could to support him and his campaign.”
What began as an introduction at an event here and there turned into campaigning in Louisiana, Iowa and Florida with Chasten, Pete’s husband, which led to road trips and singalongs and a lasting friendship. Now she gets to do the second job of a surrogate, which is to show the human side of the candidate she supports.
“What always strikes me about the two of them is how dramatically their lives have changed over the course of the last year and yet how gracefully they adapted to those changes,” she says. “They’re so normal, which I know is a silly comment, but I love it.”
Two-time Olympic figure skating medalist Michelle Kwan was always leaning toward Biden because she knew him from working in the State Department under Obama and as a surrogate on Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Then she took a trip to the District just before he announced and not only met Biden’s future campaign manager, Greg Schultz, by chance through a friend, but also sat next to Jill, his wife, on her plane back to Los Angeles. It was a total accident.
“So,” Kwan said. “I kind of went, ‘Is this a sign?’ ”
Now she is Biden’s director of surrogates, a unique position that means she’s both in charge of recruiting other surrogates, and being one herself. And yes, there are ice-skating events.
Sally Field has actually never met Elizabeth Warren, but after watching seven debates decided to go with her gut and pick the woman, she says, who “has the clearest plan to address the symptoms that led to the election of Donald Trump.”
As soon as she made up her mind, her son, Sam, contacted the campaign, which put Field’s tweet language into a Warren-approved endorsement graphic.
Field worried that her celebrity might make it hard to help the campaign in the way she wants — given that Warren’s message is about the working class.
“I’m a citizen and I don’t want to be excluded from the process of helping just because I happen to be an actor,” Field said. “I [said to Warren’s campaign], ‘Look, I can hide the fact that I’m an actor. Trust me! I look like a schlub when I go to the market.”
Why Chappelle is Yang Gang
As for Chappelle, he says he found out about Yang when he asked a friend who he liked in the first debate, and, the friend responded, “‘I liked the Chinese guy.’” Chappelle thought he was joking. (Yang is Taiwanese American.)
Then months later, as Chappelle’s Netflix comedy special came out, friends started sending him Yang’s tweet saying that Chappelle was his favorite comedian. It so happened that that very week, a neighbor gave him a copy of Yang’s book, “The War on Normal People.” He read it and immediately asked his wife to reach out to Yang’s campaign. They met up after the December debate in Los Angeles and ended up connecting over their children and their concern for the country’s future. It was Chappelle’s idea to do a few shows for fundraising and the campaign’s idea to have him phone bank.
When Chappelle left the Yang 2020 field office in Columbia recently, he made sure to wear his brand-new blue MATH hat, one of Yang’s slogans, and his answer to Trump’s MAGA hats: Make America Think Harder.
Chappelle knows Yang’s chances are slim, but he pointed out that “there was a senator from Illinois one time, and people didn’t think he could do it.” Given the overwhelming amount of prejudice in the country, Chappelle said, he found Yang inspiring. “It’s inspiring to see someone have the courage to do something that seems unlikely and just be like, ‘why not?’ And I’m a big fan of ‘Why not?’”
Besides, it’s time for new blood, the comedian added: “My daughter is 10. Trump is her first white president. She thinks the whites are doing a terrible job!”