For Better or Worse
When 'The Bird Revelation' ended and I shut off Netflix, my television defaulted back to the last channel I'd been watching on cable: it was Comedy Central, playing a Chappelle's Show marathon (I promise you this really happened, and I didn't anticipate nor set it up). I'd been dropped straight into the middle of Rick James: True Hollywood Stories, arguably its most famous skit.
Watching Chappelle's Show in 2018 is an odd thing. The comedy is wide open, with more breathing room than we're used to these days—less buildup-buildup-punchline than, say, the way Key & Peele did it years later. More of the fun comes in nostalgic laughs, rather than new ones. Many who played supporting cast are now remembered as all-time comics in their own right, though not all remain with us today. Charlie Murphy passed away last year. Patrice O'Neal—arguably as talented a comic as Chappelle himself—passed in 2011. Rick James, of course, died not long after his skit aired.
Dave was a lot younger, bouncier then. He smokes cigarettes on stage now. He's a lot more muscular, not that scrawny kid anymore. His eyes no longer give off that fun recklessness. They're tired. They've seen things. They see things.
'Equanimity' and 'The Bird Revelation' don't play so much like comedy specials, in the way you're used to. In particular, Bird Revelation—the less funny, highlight of the two—is as close to a sermon as it is stand-up comedy. Both are heavy on sensitive social material—destined to turn off some—though he's entirely apolitical, neither left nor right. When it works it's profound, when it doesn't it's quite dangerous. He takes on #metoo and transgender politics as quickly as he does Donald Trump and racial issues. Those who were looking to Dave as a sage progressive voice in the age of Trump (a la SNL November 13, 2016) will not find what they sought. He is, instead, ceaselessly his own, and unrepentant about it. Perhaps on some level it's reactionary: at one point during Equanimity he laments how simple comedy has become to him—the jokes too easy, the fans too many and too loving. One wonders if his new material is maybe even intended to turn some away.
Dave Chappelle circa 2004 exists no longer. Frankly, if you're looking for hilarity, you might not find all that much of it here. Equanimity and The Bird Revelation may leave equal numbers clutching their chests laughing and clutching their chests cringing. I can't say whether anyone will like them or not, or whether they even really work as comedy specials. I can say, however, that he's a terribly compelling talker. Chappelle has developed a stage presence had only by the greatest of greats—George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce—who move beyond trying to please crowds, when the love and adoration just ceases to fill that hole.
Chappelle's double-special sums up with an allegory that I can't get out of my head. In addressing his mysterious, decade-plus absence from show business, he tells the story of Iceberg Slim: a 1940s pimp who earned his name for his ice-cold, Sisyphean method of keeping those under him not only subjugated, but in love with their subjugation. Without spoiling anything more I'll just say that, for my money, it's one of the most well-crafted ten minutes of oration I've ever witnessed with my own two ears.
I can't tell you how many times I've watched "Rick James, bitch" in my life. I've never seen it before like I did today.
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