Dave Chappelle has two new stand-up specials out, and the two best descriptions of them come from the specials themselves. Both occur in the closing hour, titled The Bird Revelation.
In one of the bits, Chappelle segues from a long riff on the recent sexual-misconduct scandals and announces, “We must never forget that R. Kelly peed on a 15-year old girl. And he also wrote ‘I Believe I Can Fly.’ Same guy, same lifetime. If showed you that video of him peeing on that girl and scored it to ‘I Believe I Can Fly,’ you’d be torn.” The whole bit has that razor-edged, Richard Pryor–George Carlin audacity that we want from somebody like Chappelle, even as it sums up the fitfully glorious ruin that is Chappelle circa 2017–2018. When the comedian sings “I Believe I Can Fly” and pretends to piss into the audience, he’s evoking a horrifying, surreal hypothetical scenario, but one that’s ultimately on the side of the comedy angels. It makes you gasp and laugh because it’s got that junior-high lunchroom clown audacity that made Chappelle a star, but also because it gets at an undeniable truth about our relationship with certain performers, whether it’s Kelly or accused child molester Michael Jackson (whose psychology Chappelle speculates on at length): Sometimes you learn horrible facts about an artist you grew up loving, and it creates a surreal collision of affection and disgust the next time you encounter their work. That’s Chappelle in these new Netflix specials: The music is great, the indiscriminate pissing not so much. So you’re torn.
The other bit that describes these two new specials is Chappelle’s routine on Donald Trump, whom he said should be given a chance when he hosted Saturday Night Live last year. He apologizes point-blank for saying that, chalking it up to a misplaced empathy for the Trump voters he saw looking downtrodden and lost when he voted for Clinton in Ohio. “All these motherfucker’s ideas,” he says of Trump, “sound like high-people ideas. He doesn’t think the things through before he tells us. He tells us what he’s thinking as soon as it occurs to him.” A lot of the stuff in the new Chappelle specials, and the previous two, also sounds like “high-people ideas”: thoughts that should have remained thoughts until Chappelle could shape them into honest-to-God jokes that were abrasive but artful, as opposed to sourly tossed-off.
Chappelle is one of the most important American comedians of the last 20 years, but you can’t see that clearly in the four hours of TV material he released in 2017. He spent many years away from the spotlight, following his decision to pass up $50 million of Comedy Central’s money and walk away from his influential sketch series, Chappelle’s Show, when it was at its zenith, supposedly because he was uncomfortable with how white viewers were adopting catchphrases from the program’s more racially conscious bits of effrontery. (Two months after the show halted production, Chappelle did a Sacramento stand-up date where a white man in the audience kept yelling one of his most famous sketch comedy catchphrases, “I’m Rick James, bitch!” over and over. He said, “You know why my show is good? Because the network officials say you’re not smart enough to get what I’m doing, and every day I fight for you. I tell them how smart you are. Turns out I was wrong. You people are stupid.”) His return to big-time stand-up specials should have been magnificently badass, like something out of one of those old Shaw Brothers kung fu films where a grizzled warrior with a long white beard comes down off the mountain decades after everyone wrote him off as dead and thrashes any young ’un who calls him “old man.”
Unfortunately, the four specials Chappelle has released in the past year make him seem out of touch at best, stubbornly reactionary at worst, and imperiously annoyed at anyone who dares to tell him that a lot of what he says is not worth saying. Netflix apparently gambled that Chappelle was so famous, and his fan base so devoted, that he could appear to just walk onstage and ruminate, even if the sentiments seemed to be punching down for no good reason, and even if the material was self-aggrandizing, poorly paced, and inelegantly shaped. He made appalling jokes about transgender people in his last two specials and framed them as thought experiments and “just kidding” humor. Now, in The Bird Revelation and its streaming mate, Equanimity, rather than pull back, reframe, and rethink, he’s doing all of that again while doubling down and piling on more reasons to be annoyed with him. This is the modus operandi of an intelligent rich guy who isn’t used to being told “no” and lets his irritation at being challenged derail his decent impulses.
In both of the new specials, Chappelle gives the impression of having listened to critics without truly hearing them, using terms like “imperfect ally” to encourage viewers to give him the benefit of every doubt, and implicitly cautioning his detractors that if they keep it up, comedy will be bad and dull. He tells some comedians in the back of the club, “You have a responsibility to talk recklessly, otherwise my kids may never know what reckless talk sounds like.” He says of transgender people, “never had a problem with ’em … just fuckin’ around,” mentions that his mother is half-white (“I bet you didn’t know that!”), and repeatedly reminds us that his wife is Filipino-American, as if all that would magically render him incapable of speaking thoughtlessly of other groups of people. Doesn’t Chappelle know this is not too far removed from a racially insensitive white person telling you he’s a quarter-Jewish and has black friends? Doesn’t he remember doing sketches and stand-up routines that mocked this type of deflection?
Chappelle does Caitlyn Jenner jokes here that are even uglier than the ones he did the last time around in Deep in the Heart of Texas and The Age of Spin. He adds a bit that compares transgender people to Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who decided to identify as black, and another bit that makes it seem as though transgender identification is just a crafty way for wimpy white guys to be more gay, or something — as if there are no transgender people of color. To quote a Human Rights Campaign report on anti-trans violence in 2017, “Fatal violence disproportionately affects transgender women of color, and … the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia conspire to deprive them of employment, housing, healthcare and other necessities, barriers that make them vulnerable.” The more you know.
He also seesaws between taking sexual misconduct and assault accusations seriously, and implicitly telling anyone who reported a casting-couch-type incident to toughen up and just get over it — if they weren’t somehow to blame, and hey, who knows, maybe they were, right? Of one of the Kevin Spacey pedophilia allegations, Chappelle says, “Not to victim-blame, but it seems like the kind of situation that a 14-year-old would get himself into.” He does a bit where he imagines himself taking a meeting with a powerful showbiz figure at a hotel room at three o’clock in the morning and having trouble reading the script by candlelight — the subtext being, “If you went to a place like that, at that hour, you knew what you were getting into, so shut up and deal with it” — as if power dynamics don’t come into play in situations like that, in ways that can impair one’s sense of self-preservation. He practically sneers at a woman who says her career aspirations were shattered after Louis C.K. masturbated while on the phone with her, asking, “Are you that brittle?” and stating that if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King were that weak, there would’ve been no civil-rights movement. As for Chappelle’s assertions that Harvey Weinstein committed rape and sexual assault only because he was ugly, and that a lot of female accusers wouldn’t have said anything if their alleged assailant looked like Brad Pitt, well — what can you say besides, “Dave, were you even listening to yourself when you did that R. Kelly bit?”
I guess you could watch these sorts of routines and say, “Whatever: Dave goes after everyone.” But even if that were true, and I’m not convinced it is, you’d still have to take into account the relative level of cultural visibility, never mind clout — because that’s what determines whether people hear a cutting or confrontational joke and react with a shrug as opposed to a gasp, or tears.
Chappelle’s best material here proves, like the great past masters of provocative stand-up before him, that you can startle and shock audiences, even make them feel momentary anger, without coming off as an oblivious dick. Case in point: Equanimity kicks off with genius-MC-style braggadocio about how Chappelle is so good at what he does that he can write punch lines on little slips of paper not knowing what the jokes are and be confident that he’ll eventually come up with great ones, even if he plucks the punch lines randomly from a fishbowl. And then he proceeds to build a lengthy, early Martin Lawrence–caliber childhood reminiscence around one such fishbowl fragment, the phrase, “And then I kicked her in the pussy.” Chappelle redeems that violently misogynist image by way of an intricately structured verbal short story about being the only black kid in a white community and staying for dinner at a white friend’s house in hopes of being served Stove Top stuffing. The punch line, when it finally arrives, is not misogynistic. It’s totally ridiculous slapstick, like something out of a nonexistent R-rated Laurel and Hardy short. When Chappelle boasts in The Bird Revelation that “… sometimes the funniest thing you can say is mean,” this routine is proof.
Chappelle is also astute when using literary or historical analogies to pick apart flaws in other people’s thinking and reveal society’s inner workings. A section on #MeToo that calls for a sexual equivalent of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (“the system itself must be tried”) is powerful and much-needed, as is his speculation on why fewer famous black men have been accused of misconduct than famous white men (he tracks it all the way back to Jim Crow and slavery: “[Black women] are scared to see us punished”). Ditto his closing routine in The Bird Revelation, which uses Iceberg Slim’s Pimp as a foundational document for understanding capitalism, linking Slim’s phrase “mileage on a ho” (how many sexual encounters a prostitute can endure before having a nervous breakdown) to the standard nine-to-five workday in America (“nine to six might kill a bitch”). Chappelle is at his best here, speaking quietly to the room like a disreputable but beloved professor who always brings the deep knowledge. He even waves a paperback book for emphasis.
That there are vital, hilarious bits in both of these specials makes viewing them all the more depressing. I believe Dave Chappelle has a good heart. I believe he can still fly. But first he has to stop pissing all over the place, or at least remember how to aim.