comedy review

On Broadway, Dave Chappelle Performs for Privilege

Dave Chappelle. Photo: Vivien Killilea/Getty Images

The ticket to see Dave Chappelle on Broadway is expensive, and in the second night of his two-week limited run, he did not want to let anyone in his audience forget it. Even more than the jokes about trans people, and the jokes about how Michael Jackson probably didn’t actually molest boys, and the jokes arguing that what Louis C.K. did was not that bad, the ticket price was the recurring drumbeat of his set, the idea he returned to time and again.

“You paid $765 for that seat!” he told one man sitting in the front row. “That’s fucked up! I did the exact same show in Atlanta for $60!” Not long after, he announced that he was about to say something he probably shouldn’t, before laughing that the audience had paid for these $4,000 tickets, and at that price, he should probably fess up. (The confession that followed was more of a complaint, a story about how the documentary Surviving R. Kelly implicated Chappelle in the broad cultural blindness toward Kelly’s crimes when Chappelle had nothing at all to do with it.) At one point he asked a young guy in the front if he’d gone to college. “Of course you did,” Chappelle said when the guy answered yes. “You paid for this $800 ticket.”

Chappelle’s consciousness about how much the tickets cost, and his insistence on reminding everyone in the room about it, felt like more than just a line he could keep coming back to for a solid laugh. Something about that idea seemed to get at the heart of Chappelle’s set: that he was performing for a room full of people who could afford the price of entry, that no one in the room (most especially Chappelle) would qualify as “broke,” and that the immense price of being there was wildly inflated but everyone was happy to pay it. He was performing, that is, for the privileged.

That positioning — the alignment toward perspectives of power rather than powerlessness — comes up again and again in Chappelle’s set, especially in the first hour, during which he delivers a traditional stand-up set. When he tells a long story about buying a shotgun after moving to a farm in Ohio, he imagines a scenario where he would need to use the shotgun against a “poor heroin-addicted white” who had trespassed into his kitchen. The perspective he takes is not from the point of view of the heroin-addict he imagines breaking in; it’s his own as the prospective shooter. When he delivers a defense of Louis C.K. (“a good friend of mine before he died of a terrible masturbation accident”), it’s from the perspective of the poor man accused of nonconsensual sexual activity, not the women he masturbated in front of without their consent. And when he backpedals briefly, suggesting that he does agree with elements of the #MeToo movement, he then swiftly swings back with a line that sounds like a threat. The fury of the #MeToo response means that “it’s gonna get worse than it was before,” he says, before pointing out that, as if in direct response to women calling out their abusers, eight states have recently passed intensely restrictive abortion laws.

There are moments when he seems to teeter on the edge of some newer, more interesting insight. In a sequence about trans bathroom laws, he walks right up to a line that seems primed for a reversal of his previous transphobic bits, which he was criticized for in earlier specials. After a setup to explain that transness is just inherently funny (an almost identical bit to the one he uses in his Netflix special Equanimity), Chappelle seemed to be setting up a different idea, one about the awful unfairness of trans bathroom restrictions. “Could you imagine having to present your birth certificate to take a shit at a Walmart in North Carolina?” he says. It seems like the beginning of an obvious twist in another direction, where the observed absurdity might be about the regulations rather than about trans people. Instead, the joke doubles back on Chappelle’s own perspective again. He imagines himself in that bathroom, feeling freaked out by a hypothetical woman who might walk in and then “pull out a dick” next to him. In addition to being unfunny (and cruel), it feels frankly unimaginative.

On the same day Chappelle opened, Netflix released Aziz Ansari’s new special Right Now. Although neither of them likely intended it to be that way, it’s hard not to notice that the two male comics, both grappling with their legacies, chose to engage with overlapping material. Both Ansari and Chappelle point to Michael Jackson and R. Kelly as use cases for thinking about what a bad man actually looks like, and both indict their audiences for their roles in bringing down good men. It gets even closer: Both Ansari and Chappelle deliberately single out the youngest-looking audience member they can find, and then joke about that person potentially being a victim of either Jackson or Kelly.

In this case, though, the differences between them are more interesting than the overlap. When Ansari pulls a 10-year-old onstage in his special, he puts himself in the mock position of Michael Jackson, pointing to the kid and yelling “I don’t know him!” The joke is on Jackson (and, implicitly, on Ansari and his own misconduct allegations). In Chappelle’s hands, that line goes, “You’re 15? Sorry to tell you, but you’re squarely in R. Kelly’s range.” The joke, such as it is, lands on the 15-year-old would-be victim.

Far and away the most compelling element of Chappelle’s Broadway show is the stuff that happens after his official set — a more improvisational second hour of crowd Q&A that Chappelle surprised his audience with on the first night of his run and then repeated on the second night. Freed to respond to whatever the audience shouted at him, it’s not as though Chappelle’s underlying stances changed — if anything, his readiness with a transphobic punch line in the second hour only underlined how completely inelastic he is on that topic.

But that hour also demonstrated something that felt in short supply in the first hour. When he walked back onstage to tell the crowd to sit back down, Chappelle pointed to a woman near the front who, he told the audience, was holding a sign that read, “Poor after buying your ticket.” “This is why I came back out,” he said. The ticket-price joke was back, but this time it was with the sense that he wanted to make sure he was creating value for the audience, that he wanted to be generous in return for their generosity. He happily responded to prompts like requests for birthday shout-outs, a question about whether he’d “rather fuck a dude, or watch that dude fuck [his] wife” (a real stumper, for Chappelle), and closed with a lengthy story about the first time he met Obama. At one point, a man in the front row asked the chain-smoking Chappelle if he could bum a cigarette, and rather than the one cigarette the man asked for, Chappelle gave him two — one so he could smoke it now, and the other so he could take it home and tell his friends that Chappelle gave it to him.

Suddenly the crowd was not made up of the “bitch-ass fault-finders” Chappelle had accused them of being earlier in the show. The first hour, he said, was like a “deep-tissue massage,” meant to hurt the audience for their own benefit. In the second, he wanted to make sure they got their money’s worth. “It was worth every dollar!” a man shouted in response, from the balcony.

On Broadway, Dave Chappelle Performs for Privilege