A Study of How Dave Chappelle Isn't Nailing 2017
"The jokes were mean, they were lazy. They were something I never thought I'd see: Dave Chappelle punching down."
Lede illustration by Ashley Goodall
Last week on CBS Mornings, comedian Dave Chappelle used a naturalist analogy to explain why he walked away from a $50 million contract with Comedy Central. He described how African bushmen trap baboons using salt traps: The baboon grabs the salt, but it's unable to pull its clenched hand out of the hole. "In that analogy I felt like the baboon," Chappelle told host Gayle King, "but I was smart enough to let go of the salt."
When Chappelle famously walked away from Chappelle's Show in 2004, abandoning the third season of the critically acclaimed series unfinished, he became a myth. A sort of comedic Odysseus traversing the outer shoals of comedy and self acceptance, popping up at open mics, concerts, and festivals like a wayfaring Incredible Hulk—leaving nothing but awe and bust stitches in his wake.
And now Dave Chappelle is officially back. In 2016 he signed a $60 million contract with Netflix to produce three comedy specials (two that he'd already recorded) for $20 million a piece. Two of those specials, Deep in the Heart of Texas and The Age of Spin were released on the streaming platform last week. They marked the end of Chappelle as a myth, and beginning of his attempt to regain contemporary relevancy.
Dave Chappelle is my greatest influence as a standup. His classic specials Killin Them Softly (2000) and For What It's Worth (2004) are the closest things I have to holy texts. Seeing him live was my long-held impossible dream. I almost had an aneurism when it was announced he was coming to Perth in 2014, and I broke the bank buying scalped tickets. He was so funny that night that just thinking about it makes my ribs tingle with the muscle memory of the laughter. I saw him again later that year at Oddball Comedy Festival in Irvine, California. He was the surprise headliner of a bill which included Jeff Ross, Marc Maron, Aziz Ansari, and Louis CK. Chapelle was funnier than all of them combined.
So believe me when I say I love Dave Chappelle. And believe me when I say this 13-year wait has felt like an eternity, and believe me when I say I was disappointed by these first two specials.
3 AM in the ghetto
Chappelle's genius has always been his ability to elevate seamlessly run of the mill comedic content with his electrically brilliant form. His mercurial timing, the many masks he wears—he is the apex of the trickster comic tradition. Chappelle often cites Bugs Bunny as a key influence, and in the old specials, you can't help seeing the duplicitous rabbit in Chappelle's wiry frame, janky movements, and voice-swapping asides. In his "the Ghetto bit" Chappelle creates a rich world of surrealistic vignettes and characters with his near perfect miming of roller windows and approximation of the dead eyed stare of a baby dealing weed in the ghetto at 3 AM.
Time has changed Chappelle's act, dulling his physicality. He's bulked out, and the lanky almost child-like frame is gone. He's buff. Chappelle now moves and talks like a sage trying to convince his followers they're all fools. It's the difference between Chambers of Shaolin and Liquid Swords. Although he still skewers America's foundational hypocrisies with acerbic verbal assaults worthy of his character, Silky Johnson. Like when he's talking about black WW2 veterans returning home to America and says: "It's very hard to come back to America and sit at the back of the bus after you've been in the south of France getting your dick sucked for a crunch bar."
The baseline brilliance is still there, but the gears have shifted. Chappelle is back from his travels, a world wary road warrior from another age. He's struggling to keep up with modern culture, and what is contentious, and what is just cruel. Chappelle has always courted controversy. He had a sublime mastery of taking a taboo, reiterating it, guiding it to a point, flipping the meaning, and shooting it in the back of the head—while making it hilarious.
How old is 15 really?
The greatest example of this is his "how old is 15 really?" segment from For What It's Worth. Chappelle starts by discussing R Kelly urinating on his 15-year-old victim, asking "how old is 15, really?" He says it's probably old enough to know you don't want to be pissed on. It's a point made in bad taste and for relatively cheap laughs: "If a man cannot pee on his fans, I don't want to be in show business anymore." But Chapelle continues: "Well, America needs to decide" and launches into a story about how a "15 year old black kid in Florida" was charged with manslaughter after accidentally killing his neighbour in a game of backyard wrestling. "Now was he a kid?" Chappelle asks, "No! They always try our kids as adults… if you think it's ok to give him life in jail, then it should be legal to pee on him."
The arc of that routine is warped with so many bait and switches and varying levels of know-it-allisms, self-deprecation, basic piss jokes, and crushing truths. It's the perfect Chappelle bit. A baroque riff turned tangent turned slapstick with an impossibly masterful landing. I was waiting for anything like it in either of the two new specials.
Even when Chappelle started in on his trans and queerphobic jokes in the new specials, I found myself doing mental gymnastics. "A twist is coming," I kept thinking. When it never arrived, the comedy nerd in me ran a macro-history of the complicated intersectionality of queer identities and black standup—from the blatant homophobia of Eddie Murphy and (early) Chris Rock, to the complex performative bisexuality of Richard Pryor. Chappelle dropping "tranny" in 2017 is as awkwardly dated as Murphy screeching "faggot" in 1987. There are layers of complex black masculinity identity narratives that I—as a white Australian—cannot begin to unpack. But as a fan of the comedy and those comedians, and as a comic myself, I know this: If you start thinking like an academic during a comedy special, something is amiss.
A throwaway line about a "tranny's" dick popping out had my eyes rolling. The line about trans people "tricking" men into sleeping with them made me deeply upset and confused. Again, I was waiting for the "fuck you nigga, I have kids to feed" moment from "3 AM in the Ghetto." It never came. The jokes were mean, they were lazy. They were something I never thought I'd see: Dave Chappelle punching down.
A recent bit from Netflix
The frenetic Bugs Bunny of Looney Tunes has become the "I'm too old for this shit" Bugs of Space Jam. The madcap spasticity of Chappelle's performance has disappeared, along with his drawn-line lankiness. And the transformation from the little mischief maker to an intoning wiseman makes the lousiness of Chappelle's transphobic material even more stark. Still, I don't know whether the rascally Chappelle of Killin Them Softly could have taken these phobias and made them self-reflexive, more timely, or critical of a culture at large.
What became clear with both of these specials is that Chappelle is intensely wary of the politics of 2017—how the zeitgeist affects what a comic can and can't say. Perhaps Chappelle feels this shock more acutely than other comics, as he's been largely free of critical reactions to his work for the past 13 years. Chappelle's Show is one of the untouchable wonders of 21st century comedy: frozen in time along with the catchphrases that Chappelle himself recoils from so viscerally.
But how long is 13 years really? Buried within these uneven specials is the honest fact that Dave Chappelle may be the greatest comic of his generation, possibly ever. As an artist, he's one of the few stand ups who can rightly be called a genius. In these specials, that genius is surrounded by static, as Chappelle straddles the freak success of 2004, the hermit of the inter-years, and the resurrected colossus brought forth by ecstatic heralds like myself for the murky horrorshow that is the present. I do not want to see Dave Chappelle and think of Buck Nasty: "What can I say about that suit that hasn't been said about Afghanistan? It looks bombed out and depleted."
He has come back from exile to find the world has moved on in his absence. The Odyssean hero returns home, surprised his wife has moved on, and is recognised only by the most loyal of dogs. He cannot throw out a slap, and then when someone slaps back ask, "Why you hit me Charlie Murphy?" You cannot simultaneously be interlocutor, interloper, and interpreter of modern savagery, while requesting to be immune to it. To play the game that way would be the defeat of Dave Chappelle the subversive comic champion. He is Charlie Murphy underestimating the ball prowess of a high heeled prince. Murphy was not the hero or the victor of that story-sketch: it was game, blouses.
On Clinton and Bush
It all got me thinking as to why Dave Chappelle resonated so profoundly with me as a 13-year-old white boy in Perth, Western Australia. Not just me, but so many others like me. Chapelle toured Australia to sold out shows because, obviously, he's hilarious. But for those of us who still recite his old bits like past generations recite TS Elliot or Seinfeld, there's something else. Chappelle was the wet Bugs Bunny kiss slapped onto the dry oppressive conservatism of the Bush-Howard era. He was a little geek sticking his finger in everyone's eye with surgical precision. He could make Bill Clinton saying, "come here little nigger baby" seem disarmingly folksy. He could speak volumes just by reenacting the thumbs up between two black hostages in a plane hijacking, or have you dying from laughter at the surrealistic swirl of images from his description of a chauffeured limo trip to the ghetto at 3 AM.
I still laughed through these new specials. I still believe Dave Chappelle is the greatest there is. I'm still hoping the third special reaches the heights of Killin Them Softly, or even my own experience of seeing him live. But just because Dave Chappelle is Dave Chappelle, and just because I have been obsessed with him since I was 12 years old, you just can't forgive this bigotry and, honestly, mediocrity. I hope he sheds the robe of the cynical mystic, and comes back as whip lightning pisstaker who can take all comers, himself included.
Until then, Chappelle should take the advice he gave himself (and the baboon) and let go of the salt.
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