Nearly 13 years since his last comedy special aired and over a decade since his abrupt departure from his renowned Comedy Central series Chappelle’s Show, Dave Chappelle made his highly anticipated return to comedy with two standup specials that debuted on Netflix this week. Over the course of the two hour-long installments, Chappelle riffs on a myriad of new topics including his family life and current events while returning to some of his go-to topics of race, disgraced black celebrities, and interactions with the police. For the most part, he does this in his characteristic relaxed and conversational style involving elaborate and meandering stories and serious social commentary punctuated by quick and artfully silly punchlines.
The first installment, entitled The Age of Spin, is a bit different in style from his previous specials. It involves a series of stories including the four separate occasions in which Chappelle met O.J. Simpson, the time he pitched movie ideas backstage at the Oscars, and taking his son to see fellow comedian Kevin Hart. While Chappelle is usually a masterful storyteller, some of these anecdotes are at times long-winded and drawn out with less rewarding punchlines than one might expect from such a comedy legend. Some Chappelle fans may find themselves slightly disappointed, worrying he may have lost his touch, but fortunately, the second episode has a slightly different tone, rhythm, and structure more reminiscent of his previous specials.
Deep in the Heart of Texas has a more casual, relaxed feel. For some reason, he seems more at ease with this crowd, and it only enhances his comedy. At one point, he bums a cigarette off an audience member, takes a seat, and smokes it while delivering some of the most hilarious jokes of the entire set. The pace of this special is much faster as he expertly jumps from topic to topic, getting to punchlines more efficiently and delivering more laughs. Unfortunately, this show was recorded in 2015 so Chappelle spends a large portion of the show addressing some dated subjects including the controversies surrounding Paula Deen, Donald Sterling, and Ray Rice, but this does not make his observations any less humorous.
In both specials, Chappelle returns to the racial commentary for which he is known, elevating it to new levels by drawing comparisons between the struggle of African Americans and other oppressed groups. He reminds us that racism persists in America today through his jokes on the frequency of police shootings and being the target of racial violence and slurs.
Chappelle emphasizes this point by humorously pointing out that the gay community is demanding too much too soon, telling them to “pace themselves” in light of the prevalence of racism today given that it has been 50 years since the Civil Rights movement. He calls out his wife’s gay friends for petitioning to remove the words “husband” and “wife” from the law as nitpicking, telling them to take what they can get before they lose it all.
He empathizes with the struggle of transgender people saying they have a “tough road ahead” but also points out that as a black American, he is a little jealous of the ease with which the public and media embraced Caitlyn Jenner, joking that the transgendered are beating black people in the “discrimination Olympics.”
For someone who has been accused of homophobia in his comedy before, Chappelle did not shy away from making jokes about the LGBTQ+ community, returning to the topic at several points over the course of both specials. One could make the argument that at times he seems to be making light of their struggles, but upon closer inspection, he is expressing a clear sense of solidarity with them as a member of another oppressed group and reminding us all that we are a long way from true equality for all.
Chappelle stated in a recent interview that he views comedy as “reconciling paradox” and at many points in these two specials he does just that. The biggest paradox he reconciles is Bill Cosby. Chappelle, like many others, views Cosby as a hero. He says hearing that Cosby may have sexually assaulted or raped up to 54 women is like hearing that chocolate ice cream attacked 54 women—you just do not want to believe it. But Chappelle points out the fact that Cosby’s valuable legacy cannot be ignored, raising the intriguing question that perhaps through all his philanthropy and portrayal of positive images of African Americans on TV that the good outweighs the bad.
Like when he asked us in his last special For What It’s Worth, “How old is 15 really?” Chappelle forces us to contemplate the difficult questions by presenting the honest facts—opening our minds up to new perspectives and leaving it up to the listeners to determine how we feel about it.
Chappelle had a major hurdle to overcome with these specials. His fans have been anxiously awaiting his comeback, rewatching old material for nearly a decade, creating a buildup of anticipation, and a ravenous craving that is nearly impossible to satisfy, but overall, Chappelle delivers, reminding us all why he is one of the greats. While there are some slow portions the good outweighs the bad. Chappelle fans should walk away feeling satisfied and anxiously awaiting his next special.
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