If you haven’t seen either of Dave Chappelle’s two new Netflix specials—Equanimity and The Bird Revelation, both released on New Year’s Eve—there’s a brief, funny story in Revelation that feels like a key insight to understanding this stage of Chappelle’s career. At one point early in his set, the comic speaks about running into one of his fans in the wild. This encounter came sometime right after Chappelle’s big, noisy decision to walk away from it all, which, considering the heaps of money Netflix gave him, seems to have panned out well in recent years. Anyway, Devout Fan says, “You’re a hero, Dave Chappelle!” And Chappelle, wearily, says, “I’m not tryna be your hero, nigga. I’m tryna be rich.”
This is doubly funny, on account of the blue, hyper-enunciated way Chappelle spits out that ritch, and also because it’s not as if the comic has a whole lot of say in whether or not he’s deified. Certainly not now—fashioning the first letter of your last name into a logo and stitching it onto your jackets is the sort of thing that works only when you have consistently sold-out crowds to wear those jackets in front of. He’s had 30 years in the game now. He’s wearing suits more often. He is rich. He has the new Porsche. He’s Dave Chappelle, in italics. With that profile comes the conceit that he knows things, that he’s an authority, because, well, he generally does and is. Over his past four recent specials—The Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas were released last year—he’s spent a lot of time exploring how we, as consumers of news and information, order our thinking about things. There’s no way that Chappelle doesn’t know the immensity of the social capital he wields when he addresses these topics on so influential a platform. But whether, or when, exactly, he wants to be taken at his word—that’s been the most difficult question to answer.
Dave Chappelle is still very funny and very good at stand-up comedy—perhaps the best stand-up comedian there has ever been. There are flashes of his trademark canniness and jaded wit in the new specials—reminders of the Chappelle whose brand of observational humor carried us through the Bush years and that we, or at least I, expected might be more useful in the age of Donald Trump and post-Weinstein gender politics than he is here. But flashes are all they are, as venturing anywhere outside of what engages him as a black, cisgender, Muslim man seems to tire him out at best and annoy him at worst.
In one segment of Equanimity, Chappelle talks about a fan letter he received expressing devastation over his very, awfully, extremely boneheaded and out-of-touch transgender jokes. The comic begins by saying that he doesn’t, “as a policy,” feel bad about anything he says onstage. But he does feel bad about making someone else feel bad. He inches right up the edge of contrition, but then it turns out to be a protracted setup for a joke about how gross Caitlyn Jenner posing nude in Sports Illustrated would be, during which he laments, “Sometimes, I just wanna read some stats.” The joke is flat and unimaginative on its own, but then I opened Twitter to see mostly men arguing the joke’s merit on the grounds of some mythical sense of equality—“no one is exempt from the jokes”—with a very pressed air of self-justification. So I rewatched the joke to really search how I felt about it. And on second viewing, I noticed that the camera pans across laughing faces that seemed to be relieved to have been given some sort of permission they’d imagined to have previously been denied. To know that somebody — crucially, Dave Chappelle — was thinking what they believed but wouldn’t dare admit in polite company. Trans people are funny and even Dave Chappelle says, “The only reason everybody is talking about transgenders is because white men want to do it.” Phew.
Chappelle has made a version of this joke before, almost 20 years ago. It was during Killin’ Them Softly, when he also talked about spreading orifices to find surprises inside. He was 26 then; he’s 44 now.
And to say that the notion that one’s gender identity is at odds with their assigned sex “reeks of white privilege” willfully ignores that black transgender people exist—and that they’re disproportionately targeted by violence because of just how widespread views like Chappelle’s are. Of course issues of race and gender should be handled specifically and separately, but that doesn’t mean they’re circles that never touch.
These are subjects he’s not well versed in, and he admits as much. For most of Revelation, Chappelle is slouched on a stool in the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, taking drags off a cigarette, feet away from an audience, working out material with a very deliberate posture of I’m just shooting the shit. You’ve heard by now that he had a little too much nonchalance for one of Louis C.K.’s accusers—“a brittle-ass spirit” is what he said she must have if she allowed C.K. masturbating in front of her to derail her comedic dreams. There are people who would argue that this is true, though they would be the very same who think every problem can be fixed with some combination of elbow grease, duct tape, and stronger resolve. It’s just that I, personally, would’ve hoped for … well, more. More consideration, more understanding of the power dynamic that keeps victims of assault quiet, more of a grasp on the prohibitive size of their burden of proof. A more complex solution than, “Let’s meet in the middle,” which has already gotten him into trouble once.
Not that it’s for comedians to get it square on the nose every time. They try things, and sometimes they can lose. Richard Pryor famously flew off the handle during a disastrous, memorable night at the Hollywood Bowl in 1977, citing, colorfully—as hell, even—what he felt was an overemphasis on gay rights, and women’s rights, at the expense of overall human rights. How those struggles overlap, and occasionally cannibalize each other, was something worth exploring, just not in such a harsh, dismissive tone, at a gay-rights benefit. Wanda Sykes got it right in 2006; remember the “detachable pussy” segment?
There are few better critiques of victim-blaming culture. Imagine you could go for a jog or to the club with “nothing of value.” That might solve it! Of course, she reasons, men would find a way to exploit that as well. Comedy, as Chappelle understands, has stakes, you know. And at its best, comedy finds a way to address those stakes by lampooning the powerful, not by punching down at the marginalized. At one point in Revelation, Chappelle says, very earnestly:
Everybody gets mad because I say these jokes. But you have to understand this is the best time to say them. Now more than ever, I know there’s some comedians in the back — motherfuckers, you have a responsibility to speak recklessly, otherwise my kids might not know what reckless talk sounds like. The joys of being wrong. I didn’t come here to be right, I just came here to fuck around.
It’s tough to buy that he’s just fucking around, especially when everything he says seems so measured and carefully constructed. He’s prone to long, jokeless, self-possessed monologues now.
Those monologues are well delivered, of course. Again, he is very good at stand-up comedy. He’s fully aware of this, as made clear in Equanimity, in this bit where he talks about being so talented, so good, that he writes jokes backward, just to see if he can. There’s an imaginary fishbowl full of punch lines, and out of that fishbowl, he pulls “kick her in the pussy,” which, in escape artistry terms, is at least a straitjacket, if not a straitjacket and a full water tank. He gets out of there twice: once after a story that takes us from backstage with Nas to Chappelle’s hometown of Silver Springs, where he grew up just well-to-do enough to be poor around his white classmates, whose parents made more money and provided Stovetop stuffing for dinner. The second comes at the end of a deeply sober history lesson about the grisly murder of Emmett Till, which probes the idea that a lie, or a tragedy, in the fullness of time could prove to be to all of our benefit.
He’s just as skillful at storytelling as he ever was, be it about the heart-rending catalyst for the civil rights movement, or about finding rolling papers in his 16-year-old son’s sock drawer. He’s also as pointed and hilarious as anyone when raking President Trump over the coals, perhaps more so. He likened life under a Trump presidency to seeing a crack pipe in the front seat next to your Uber driver, and it was a perfect piece of comedy, just about—timely, a clear reflection of the politics and cultural atmosphere of the time in which the joke happened. He was also detailed and scathing in his criticisms, using the power of math: 17 mass shootings in the past year, four perpetrated by Muslims, none of whom hailed from the seven Muslim countries included on the first Muslim ban, and the rest were done by “the Tiki torch whites.” Hell still hath no fury like an engaged Dave Chappelle. It’s just when he’s not so interested that things fall apart.