In the middle of the night, Netflix dropped a new Dave Chappelle release. What’s in a Name?, a 40-minute talk Chappelle delivered at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., on June 20, looks and feels like a special. It is being promoted on the Netflix Is a Joke Twitter and Instagram accounts as a special. But it’s not a special. It’s a speech.
The speech took place at a renaming ceremony for the performance theater at Chappelle’s high-school alma mater following a backlash that ensued in November 2021 after the school announced its plans to rename the space in Chappelle’s honor. The comedian held a combative Q&A with its students, in which they expressed their concerns about the transphobic content of Chappelle’s latest special, The Closer. Chappelle responded by saying they “deserve an F for forgiveness” and dismissing their concerns as “immature.” The day after the Q&A, Chappelle said in an Instagram post that renaming the theater after him was not his “idea, aim, or desire” but that, at the request of the school’s founder, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, he accepted. He also issued a challenge: “If you object to my receiving this honor, I urge you to donate to the school noting your objection. If you are in favor of the theater being named ‘Chappelle,’ I urge you to donate to the school, noting your approval. Whichever opinion donated the highest collective dollar amount, wins.”
In the speech released by Netflix on July 7 — which was covered by multiple outlets in June — Chappelle doesn’t reference the results of this donation contest, but he does defer the honor of having the theater named after him. Near the end of the speech, Chappelle reveals the school’s new name, the Theater for Artistic Freedom and Expression, and says, “Rather than give this theater my name, I would like to give these students my message.”
The speech shares some overlaps in content and tone with Chappelle’s 20-minute 2020 Instagram video Unforgiven and the acceptance speech he gave while receiving the 2019 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor (also available to view on Netflix). The stand-up offers a heartfelt tribute to the school and the educators who helped shape his artistic sensibilities, discusses his career arc after the fallout from his decision not to renew his Chappelle’s Show contract with Comedy Central in 2005, and comments on the students who attended November’s Q&A and their reception of The Closer. “These kids said everything about gender and this, that, and the other, but they didn’t say anything about art,” he says. “I know those kids didn’t come up with those words. I’ve heard those words before. The more you say I can’t say something, the more urgent it is for me to say it. It has nothing to do with what you’re saying I can’t say. It has everything to do with my right and my freedom of artistic expression. It’s worth protecting for me, and it’s worth protecting for everyone else who endeavors in our noble professions. These kids didn’t understand that they were instruments of oppression.”
Chappelle also defends The Closer, arguing that artistic nuance was removed from discussions of the special: “It would be like if you were reading a newspaper and it said, ‘Man shot in the face by a six-foot rabbit,’ but then they never tell you it’s a Bugs Bunny cartoon.” He goes on to call the special a “masterpiece” and says, “I challenge all my peers to make its equal. They cannot, I’m sure. It will be decades before you ever see someone in my genre as proficient as me. I am a once-in-a-lifetime talent.”