Photo: Lester Cohen/WireImage/Netflix
The highs of Dave Chappelle’s two new Netflix specials — The Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas — are just so high that they’re more than one review can cover. So, we decided to shine a light on the best of the best jokes. To be clear, Vulture defines jokes broadly, meaning not only a strict setup/punch-line combo, but a whole chunk of smaller jokes around one theme. This can include even something like the series of four O.J. Simpson stories Chappelle tells in The Age of Spin, as they fit together as part of a whole. Get it? Got it? Great! Here are the ten best:
The O.J. Runner
“OJ Simpson, one of the nicest men I’ve ever met. He was nice to me, nice to my friends. The conversation was filled with warmth, levity, humor, and wisdom. We talked for 90 minutes and then suddenly, the Juice said, ‘You know what, I’ve got to be going. But it’s good to see you again, and I’m glad things went so well.’ I said, ‘Thanks, Juice.’ … He said, ‘No, thank you for your hospitality. Good night, guys.’ And we said, ‘Good night,’ and he just walked out of the room. And as soon as the door closed, we all looked at each other like, That nigga did that shit.”
When I first heard that The Age of Spin was built around the four times Dave Chappelle met O.J. Simpson, I was curious: Is Dave Chappelle about to drop a one-man show? Instead, the O.J. runner works partly as a framing device, and partly as a method for organization. Maintaining momentum within an hour of comedy is a distinct challenge for stand-ups, but the O.J. stories offer a nice sense of comfort while not feeling overly structured. The stories, like Chappelle’s smartest pieces, work in the subtext. On the surface, they are four increasingly ridiculous stories about an increasingly ridiculous person; but as Chappelle starts each by noting where he was in his own career, he is able to use them as a subversive way of looking at black celebrity, a theme that also carries through the entire special, from Bill Cosby to Kevin Hart to himself. Together, they show one of the all-time greats at the height of his abilities.
Flint, Michigan v. the Oscars
“What am I, a fucking superhero? I need to have fun. I need to live, too! I didn’t fuck that water up! Stevie Wonder was there, they didn’t need me!”
Though Chappelle applauds the diverse crowd at his taping of The Age of Spin, he laments that black people “don’t fuck with me like they used to,” in part because “my own actions drew a wedge between me and the community I hold so dear.” Case in point, he skipped out on an appearance at an African-American-organized Justice for Flint benefit in order to attend the Oscars, which was held on the same night. This bit is a confession, a mea culpa, an apology, and a kiss-off rolled into one. The joke works not because Chappelle is right, but because he’s real. He happily bursts the bubble of our own lofty, humanitarian impulses, exposing the petty, selfish part of each of us that would as soon put on a tux and hobnob with Ryan Gosling at the open bar as save the world.
“Them little teddy bears would lock arms and stare at the problem, and — I’m not even bullshitting — actual love would shoot out of their chests, and would dispel anything that was fucked up. And when we grew up, we wanted to be like those bears. And then we got our hearts broken, because we found out that life wasn’t going to let us do that, and it was impossible to shoot love out of your chest. However … I have shot love onto somebody’s chest before.”
Audiences are so comfortable with Chappelle onstage that they afford him a good deal of leeway in terms of making them laugh. In turn, Chappelle uses that to build tension. Especially since his departure, people have elevated Chappelle as a sort of a grand social critic, in the vein of Chris Rock, despite that not being a large facet of his work. Here, he’s using that against his audience. From start to finish, this joke is about five minutes long. And for most of it — save a note about the irony of the name “Planned Parenthood” — is free of any real-life laugh lines. You feel the audience expecting him to make a big point, as he compares the Challenger explosion to what every day feels like in modern society, and starts a fairly earnest tribute to Care Bears. But the joke’s on you, audience — he was just setting up a dumb, coming-on-a-woman’s-chest joke the whole time. Chappelle is one of the most playful stand-ups ever, and that’s on full display here.
“She doesn’t know what it feels like to think that your hero might have done something so heinous … It would be as if you heard chocolate ice cream itself … had raped 54 people. You’d say to yourself, ‘Aw, but I like chocolate ice cream. I don’t want it to rape!’”
In the longest and knottiest section of The Age of Spin, Chappelle examines the state of Bill Cosby’s legacy. As Chappelle himself says over and over again, “I know.” Surely, this bit was hard to write: He is all too aware of how hard it is to reconcile Cosby the entertainer and philanthropist with Cosby the rapist. Despite this, Chappelle does an admirable job of threading the needle — or making his best attempt, anyway. The opening joke, a sudden swerve from a winding monologue about half a century of tumultuous American history, is worth it alone. From there, the comic talks about a contentious encounter with a female audience member, the idea of “comparative suffering,” how it feels to lose an idol, and whether it’s possible to salvage something of that idol’s accomplishments. Sure, not everything is in great taste, but the rewards of fording these murky waters are worth the effort. Plus, the final callback to another morally ambiguous superhero of Chappelle’s invention is a great reveal that says everything about his take on Cosby.
“The longer the show went on, the madder I got. ‘Cause his show was fuckin’ outstanding. It was maddening. These people were holding their stomachs. My son was slapping his knee. ‘Ha-a-ha-ha!’ Uh, nigga, I do this, too.”
Wait, Dave, jealous?! It’s fascinating that one of the best comics in the world, who was paid $60 million for three Netflix specials, still wrestles with professional envy. In The Age of Spin, he takes a quick shot at Key & Peele (“I had to watch [them] do my show every night!”), and later tells a longer story about taking his kid to see Kevin Hart in Ohio. While many Chappelle yarns slowly diverge from reality as they succumb to Dave’s deliciously puerile imagination, this story feels completely true. The details — a 12-year-old’s earnest plea to see K. Hart with his dad, the crowd’s rapture, Chappelle’s mounting rage, the hesitant visit backstage, Hart’s feast, and Chappelle getting embarrassed by his kid — all have a ring of authenticity. It’s vulnerable and revealing in a way that most of his longer, personal stories are not. And maybe, maybe Chappelle shows signs of maturity by allowing Hart one of the funniest lines from the bit. When Hart sees Chappelle eyeing a box of souvenir sports jerseys with Hart’s name stitched on the back, Hart gives one to Chappelle’s son, saying, “If your father ever makes you mad, put that on.”
“The police came in, they were like, ‘Well, Mr. Chappelle … we ran the tags, two young men that had their mother’s car. We have all four suspects in holding, and their mother is here. It’s up to you, whatever you want to do. If you want to press charges, we’ll move ahead. Mr. Chappelle, are you okay?’ ‘Huh? Sorry about that, Officer, I’m a little flustered. I’ve never been in a position where I could decide the fate of white children before.’”
Historically, we lacked the vocabulary to describe what good stand-up comedy meant. It was usually just, If it’s funny to me, it’s good — and sometimes, If it makes a smart point in a clever way, it’s good. Chappelle’s story about being hit by a snowball in his hometown is good stand-up. The story, about when a car of teens threw a snowball at him, plays out like a mini-movie or Chappelle’s Show sketch, with Chappelle inhabiting multiple distinct characters along the way, unleashing what might be history’s greatest white-guy voice, and finding little pockets for jokes throughout. Artfully constructed as it is, Chappelle still makes sure to end it with a big, silly punch line — asking the mom of the assailant to his suck his dick “a little bit” — and his trademark laugh and slapping the mic on his thigh.
The Racial Hot Seat
“All manner of things kill white people, but you know what kills more black people than anything? More than police or terrorism? Salt, nigga. Regular-ass table salt.”
In this joke about the ostensible camaraderie between the country’s many struggling minorities, the comic considers who America — ahem, white America — is vilifying today. With immigration and terrorism at the forefront of so many minds, Chappelle thanks Mexicans and Arabs for deflecting attention from black people (“We, African-Americans, want to thank you for your sacrifice and your struggle.”), and talks about newfound advantages to being out of the spotlight (“At least I can leave my backpack someplace.”). But at the end of the day, Chappelle argues that “fat black people” have it worse than anyone else. Why? The underlying implications here are many, and Chappelle only hints at them: Tendency toward hypertension and diabetes, the ready availability of cheap junk food, and a sense that the health-care industry will bend over backward for the fairer skinned. (“Here, white people are getting Ebola cures,” he says, “And meanwhile, I’m here dying from a flavoring.”) Boiling it all down to one word, salt, is an impressive bit of condensation. Chappelle is less skilled at making the big point than the small, ridiculous one, and this joke fits among his bests.
“‘Pussy, let’s take a look at round four, this is where it all went wrong for you … 50 [Cent] slips you a jab and there — right there, you see that — 50 punches you on that little bean thing you have on the top of your head. I don’t know what that is. There’s 50 just pounding away at that bean, over and over. Now, Pussy, tell me, what goes through a fighter’s mind when the bean gets rattled around like that?’ ‘I don’t think I was thinking anything, Larry. You know, I’m a real good defensive fighter. It’s real hard to get to me. I’ve never been punched directly on my bean before. As a matter of fact, most fighters don’t even know that bean exists. I guess he just hit me, then I lost control of my legs, I don’t know what to tell you.’”
Midway through Deep in the Heart of Texas, Chappelle is lightly heckled, prompting him to give the drunk woman’s date some advice: “Get some water in her, or you’re going to have some dry pussy when you get home.” The interaction causes a shift in Chappelle: He sits down afterward and asks for a cigarette. It’s a familiar sight to those who have seen Chappelle late night at a local comedy club, just chilling and riffing for an hour or two, but it’s a refreshingly unusual thing to see in a film special. This five-minute section, which might have been unplanned, showcases Chappelle at his loosest and dumbest (in a good way). Maybe the silliest part of both specials is when he breaks down the saying “beat that pussy up,” playing the part of post-fight boxing analyst and the beat-up pussy. Few comedians can take an audience on a flight of fancy like Chappelle.
“Five days later, I come home and there is another video tape on my front porch. Soon as I saw it, I just called the police: ‘They’ve done it again. Uh, you should probably look for a guy with bell-bottoms on because I don’t know who the fuck is SENDING TAPES!’ And that second tape was the worst shit I’ve ever seen in my life. It was awful. Career-ending bad. It was a tape of me … jerking of to the tape from a week earlier.”
The callback is bit of a lost art in stand-up. It’s hard to say it’s completely obsolete, but you definitely see less referencing of previous jokes in the same way. It’s hard to say exactly why — maybe it’s that it rubs against this era’s stress on conversationality and perceived spontaneity. If a comedian is referencing something from earlier in the set, he or she is definitely not in the moment. While Chappelle paved the way for this era of looseness, his penchant for inner linking is classic. The nearly 20-minute closer to Deep in the Heart of Texas is like a puzzle, with each piece its own discrete inner joke that builds to the big (very gross) finish. It’s all in the linking: Chappelle’s relationship with his dog ties into his habit of eating his kids’ lunches; which ties into someone trying to extort him by threatening to release a sex tape of him having sex with someone (and a tape of him jerking off to the first tape); which ties into other parents not liking him at school; which ties into one of his sons getting into a fight at school; which ties back to the sex tape; which ties back to a joke about having sex with feet from earlier in the special; which ties back to his relationship with his dog. Chappelle plays with the tension between looseness and structure like no other.