Why Dave Chappelle?
I’ve wondered this for awhile. I watched a few episodes of the much-lauded Chappelle’s Show and I wasn’t that impressed. “I’m Rick James, bitch!” So what?
I knew a little about the drama surrounding the cancellation of that show – Chappelle breached his contract and walked away to spend twelve years out of the public eye. (“I was in the Upside Down,” he jokes, eliciting peals of laughter.) It’s considered one of showbiz’ most memorable breakdowns.
“Equanimity”/”The Bird Revelation” is Chappelle’s second stand-up double-header to be released on Netflix after his return to Hollywood. I enjoyed Chappelle’s first two-fer, “The Age of Spin” and “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” I enjoyed them way more than I enjoyed any of Chappelle’s Show. That’s not uncommon for me, though. I like Daniel Tosh as a stand-up comedian way more than I like Tosh.0.
Taken together with “Equanimity” and “The Bird Revelation,” I think I’m starting to see what makes Chappelle special.
These two 1-hour performances the cerebral titles, not a single joke rehashed or repeated, let you into Chappelle’s mind more so than his first outing, and it’s pretty clear that he’s a genius. Not a comic genius (though he definitely has game) but a quirky weirdo hyper-smart with an IQ that probably laps his contemporaries.
It’s not just that he knows the definition of the word “Equanimity” (which I had to look up). He seems to have X-ray vision, seeing the connective tissue of human behavior that links retribution against Colin Kaepernik to the toleration of Harvey Weinstein to the end of Apartheid.
This is particularly on display in “The Bird Revelation.” “Equanimity” is a large theater show, featuring Chappelle being as raunchy and rowdy as you want him to be. Chappelle kicks off the show referencing his own towering and whispered reputation, bragging tongue-in-cheek about how good he is (“I can’t even remember a time when I wasn’t this talented.”) He braggingly sets up a meta-joke where he pre-emptively announces his intention to use the unlikely, off-putting punch line “And then I kicked her in the pussy.” It will be hilarious, he promises. He makes it work – not once, but twice. (The second time is somehow both more expected and less expected.) Clearly this is a master craftsman of jokery. He laughs at most of his own jokes. He’s great off the cuff, too. Smoking a vape-pen instead of the customary cigarette, a bold soul in the audience asks if he or she can hit the vape. Chappelle replies without missing a beat “Sorry, nigga’, I’m trying not to get herpes. My bad.”
“The Bird Revelation,” by contrast, is a more intimate club show. Chappelle sits on a stool smoking a cigarette for most of the show, recalling “Richard Pryor: Live and Smokin'” from 1971 before stand-up really stood up. Chappelle is still funny, but quieter and more pensive in this setting. You can really see the tendrils of his mind digging into every subject he approaches. It gets serious for long stretches. I’m going to quote him verbatim on the connections between Apartheid and the Hollywood sex-abuse scandal, because I can’t do it justice otherwise:
“You can’t make a lasting peace this way. You got all the bad guys scared, and that’s good, but they minute they’re not scared anymore, it will get worse than it was before. Fear does not make lasting peace. Ask black people …. The cure for L.A. is in South Africa. You motherfuckers need truth and reconciliation with one another, because the end of Apartheid should have been a fucking bloodbath by any metric in human history, and it wasn’t. And the only reason it wasn’t was because Desmond Tutu and Mandela and all the other guys figured out that if a system is corrupt, then the people who adhere to the system, and are incentivized by the system are not criminals. They are victims. And the system itself must be tried. But because of how systems work, it’s so compartmentalized as far as information, that the only way we can figure out what the system is, is if everybody says what they did. Tell ’em how you participated. Because men want to help; they’re just scared. Because Ben Affleck tried to help. ‘Hey, what happened to these ladies is disgusting!’ ‘Oh, nigga’, you grabbed a titty in ’95!’ ‘Alright, fellas, I’m out. Fuck that, I ain’t helping.'”
Agree or disagree, it’s thought-provoking and insightful (and funny by the end) but you can see why the guy fled. It’s much easier to gang up and call for the head of one bad guy than it is to be a small group or individual standing up to a brutal and impersonal system; especially when everyone surrounding you doesn’t seem to realize that demanding heads is not the same thing as dismantling a system (pitchfork optional). See “Revolution, The French” and “Bonaparte, Napoleon.”
Chappelle closes “The Bird Revelation” by making this connection directly, albeit metaphorically. He endeavors to explain his retreat from Hollywood, by relating his experience to the book Pimp by Iceberg Slim. A famous (supposedly) true story that brought the life of a street pimp to the public consciousness, Chappelle focuses on an anecdote of how Slim got his “bottom bitch” (top-performing and most valuable prostitute) to trick for him several months longer than she wanted. He did so by orchestrating an elaborate hoax to make her think she was implicated in a murder (which never happened). Implicit in the story is the notion that one can only be a street hooker so long before losing her mind. The point of the story was the morally indefensible lengths the pimp would go to delay this expiration of his human asset, and then manipulate that asset to keep performing past that expiration date.
This is the anecdote Chappelle uses as an allegory for the Hollywood machine that made him a star but threatened to drive him mad. (In it, he is the bottom bitch, and Hollywood is Iceberg Slim.) You only see that analogy if you think too much. Chappelle thinks a lot, and once he made the connection, he probably couldn’t shut it out. So yes … flee, Dave. I don’t blame you.
What do you think of Dave Chappelle in general, and his new specials on Netflix?