It should be no secret that my favorite comedy hour of all time is Dave Chappelle’s For What It’s Worth. Chappelle made a career on outrageousness, a crazy voice, and a willingness to push any envelope that could be pushed. Parks and Recreation has a similar craziness-rooted-in-truth shtick. So when Chief Ken Hotate started trolling Leslie and Ann in the cold open (“Water? Do you mean firewater? That is offensive . . . but seriously, I’d like a whiskey.”), I immediately thought of this bit.
Chappelle made his career on outrageousness, but on closer examination, he may be one of the subtlest artists of all time. In the Native American bit, he talks about how, “They get dogged openly, because everyone thinks they’re dead.” Then, he proceeds to roll out every Native American stereotype possible: bows and arrows, a single tear over a piece of litter, alcoholism, spirits, drug use, and names based on wildlife. He ends the bit by saying he was given “[his] own teepee to sleep in, which sounds nice . . . but was fucked up, because they all had houses.” The ending implicates every audience member for laughing at Native American stereotypes without considering history—it’s more fun to think about Westerns and Thanksgiving than genocide and property theft. That’s exactly what last night’s Parks and Recreation did, but with an added layer.
Leslie’s project on Lot 48 is finally coming together. Her nuptials are nigh. You really can have it all, apparently. But the muddled, bureaucratic mess that is Indiana municipal government must interfere! Leslie discovers Councilman Jamm has already broken ground on a new Paunch Burger franchise. Her bachelorette party is ruined, despite an appearance from a stripper dressed as Abraham Lincoln (Ann: “I know for a fact that you’ve had a sex dream about this.”). Drunk and distraught, Leslie remembers an ordinance prohibiting construction anywhere Native American artifacts are found. Obviously, she buries a bunch of artifacts in Lot 48 to halt construction on the Paunch Burger.
Now, what Leslie does here is a horrific exploitation of Native American history, a perverted play on ridiculous white stereotypes and fears, and completely inexcusable. But who has time to think about all that? Chris is throwing a five-way bachelor party!
To the surprise of no one, Ben’s bachelor party is nothing but beer and nerdy board games. Tom demands more, so Chris figures a way to give everyone the bachelor party they never had. The men of the show have the greatest evening imaginable: they play football in Lucas Oil Stadium with Andrew Luck and Reggie Wayne, they have their steaks paid for by Roy Hibbert (and possibly catch Newt Gingrich on a date), and they get ice cream at a place where Jerry is a regular. It’s a great storyline, full of laughs and moments of true friendship. The next morning, they realize that Chris was being incredibly selfless in ensuring that the night was a success, and thank him with a “Best Man” trophy and a story about him getting married in 2018. It’s a nice flip of the “always the bridesmaid” cliché, and in the end, Ben sets Chris up with the hot reporter, Shauna. All is well.
The next day, Leslie confesses to Chief Hotate that she planted the artifacts. Ken, recognizing Leslie’s misguided good intentions, schemes to stop construction of the Paunch Burger. It’s a happy bailout for Leslie. What’s swept under the rug is Ken’s decision. Ken has to choose whether to help the councilman so cynical he put “Eat up, fatties!” on a billboard or the councilwoman who tried to exploit his culture for personal gain.
The unfortunate thing about history is that it happened. There isn’t much you can do besides move on while being mindful of the past. Chief Ken begins and ends this episode, so obviously the writers want him to occupy our thoughts. Then, a lot of good things happen: Chris has a romantic prospect, Leslie has a chance to move on with her project, the guys all get great mini-bachelor parties, Donna briefly gets a lap dance—but Ken Hotate’s minor character is hard to ignore. Pawnee’s history of abuse of the Native Americans is foregrounded in the cold open. In the present day, the lone ambassador to the city council is used as a bargaining chip. It seems wrong to use the words “clever” and “funny” in conjunction with a perfect metaphor about white America’s collective amnesia regarding the land’s original citizens, but Parks pulls off the Chappelle trick—get the audience to forget about the atrocity haunting your hilarious, over-the-top presentation. The show is frequently slapstick caricatures, but it’s episodes like this that remind the viewer that underneath the comedy is darkness. Both are necessary elements of life. A comedy that can successfully illuminate them at the same time is a rare gem.