Growing up, I was a huge fan of Dave Chappelle. In middle school, I would stay up late tuning into The Chappelle Show and re-watched his stand up specials he recorded at the height of that era well into my senior year of high school. I knew he had stepped away from the show, but like all of us, I didn’t exactly know why. All I knew was that I desperately wanted him back on Television. I heard rumors that he was living in South Africa for a stint or he was actually out on some soul-searching journey in the middle of the Sahara. In “Equanimity,” Chappelle’s second to last Netflix special, he tells the audience that people thought he was smoking crack while he was out of the spotlight for 12 years. Living in a small town, watching Chappelle was my first introduction to a lot of racial issues. The way Chappelle lampooned and made fun of white people made me more self-aware of my upbringing and, in the long run, more cognizant of my own actions. But when Dave came back and talked about why he walked away from doing another season of The Chappelle Show and $50 million dollars, it was because the comedian felt that white audiences were using his comedy as a way to further perpetuate racism. And to be honest, I see that. I think Chappelle’s skits allowed me to safely laugh at black stereotypes without any further reflection on just what exactly I thought was so funny. Chappelle’s “Tyrone Biggum” sketches gave me a chance to laugh at a crack addict, which just so happens to be a prevalent stereotype facing the black community. Watching the show felt like an “in” for me with black culture without any of the real work of self-reflection. While Chappelle was being subversive and unapologetic, this wasn’t how the material was landing for a majority of his audience. So he left and had his “Paul Revere” moment as he puts it in “The Bird Revelation,” in a moment of biting self-awareness according to Jason Zinoman of the New York Times.
So Dave has been back for a little while and the world has changed in the 12 years he hasn’t been in show business. When it came time to watch his new stand up special, I didn’t know what to expect but I felt more uncomfortable than I expected to. As far as comedy specials go and how hilarious Chappelle has been the majority of his career, both “Equanimity” and “Bird Revelation” just aren’t that funny. Instead, what they offer is an examination or perhaps a confession of a mentality of a man who’s just beginning to question things in the wake of #MeToo. Of course, I knew that Dave was approaching middle-age and had been unplugged for a bit but what I wasn’t expecting was the comic to wax poetics about history and the sexual abuse allegations facing Harvey Weinstein and Louis CK. But how Chappelle does this is all the more confusing. During “Bird Revelation,” Chappelle tells women in the audience countless times that they are “right,” and offers anecdotes which are supposed to support the idea he understands what it’s like. In one moment Chappelle delivers painful honesty, admitting his own shortcomings before going on tangents, which make him sound like someone’s out-of-touch but well-intentioned uncle. And that’s pretty much how I felt while I watched his two specials, especially as a fan. This wasn’t the guy that made me laugh anymore, but like someone I had respected falling short of his responsibilities to be a better person.
But even crazier, perhaps that’s what Chappelle is going for here. Maybe he’s going for complete honesty through the guise of comedy even when it’s not funny and it’s certainly not pretty to touch on Zinoman’s quotation of Steve Martin. But it is honest and that might count for something. Good comedy ought to toe the line and make us revaluate societal standards. I would lie if Chappelle didn’t make me think about “trying the system” and “imperfect allies” but he deserves to be wrong too. This isn’t an excuse for men with platforms to say whatever they want and not face criticism. I would agree that Jamie Loftus’ proposal that these two specials can serve as a type of litmus test when it comes to men confronting problematic attitudes in other men. It’s my hope that this conversation can continue and it surely must if things are to change.