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Netfilx Specials Have Chappelle Pulled Between Comedy and Commentary
April 26, 2017  | By TVWW Guest Contributor  | 4 comments

by Nic Dobija-Nootens

[Editor’s Note: Guest Contributor Nic Dobija-Nootens lives in New York and writes about arts, culture, and skateboarding. He often finds himself in the dreaded "show hole" between TV binges, and would love if you told him what to watch next. Nic agrees that Arrested Development never should have been cancelled. Online he's known as @noochens]

As part of Netflix’s ethos to outdo traditional TV and movie outlets, the streaming service has been making an impressive run to become the new de facto source for stand-up comedy specials. Like Comedy Central, Netflix has put out exceptional specials from lesser-known comedians, such as Ali Wong and Hannibal Buress, but they’ve also been encroaching on HBO’s territory by putting up the money for specials from elite comedians like Kevin Hart and Louis C.K.

Recently, Netflix signed a $60 million deal with Dave Chappelle. (Yes, you read that right.) The deal, which includes two currently released specials, The Age of Spin (top) and Deep in the Heart of Texas (right), produced independently by Chappelle in 2015 and 2016, plus a third special in the future, should have been the biggest comedy comeback of the century. Yet Chappelle isn’t the same comedian he was at his height of popularly with his sketch comedy show, Chappelle’s Show (2003-2006), and his specials suffer because of it.

Chappelle is at his best when he’s dissecting and inhabiting racial tensions. His most memorable Chappelle’s Show sketches all center on Chappelle’s ability to identify specific ways people treat others within and outside their own races, then take those behaviors to their logical extremes, usually in order to expose how racial prejudices, on one level or another, can affect almost every human interaction.

One particularly brazen piece is the recurring sketch known as “Pixies,” in which people are visited by misguided fairy advisors layered in the most offensive stereotypes possible. When a white guy visits a nightclub with his black friends, a white fairy, in white face makeup, appears to argue that non-white butts are inferior because they contain “superfluous meat.” When a black guy tries to avoid ordering fried chicken from a white flight attendant, a black fairy, dressed in black face and a minstrel outfit, tells him he “can’t beat the fate” of eating fried chicken.

While sketches like “Pixies” were central to Chappelle’s Show, they also led Chappelle to leave the show eventually. In interviews, Chappelle has said he began to feel irresponsible for using his sketch show to highlight but not necessarily challenge racial stereotypes. When Chappelle abruptly left Comedy Central, and a $50 million contract, in 2005, he cited his growing social conscience as a primary reason. Now, more than a decade later, Chappelle is trying, but not exactly succeeding, to work social commentary into his stand-up routines.

In Spin, Chappelle discusses the Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao, who lost his Nike sponsorship in early 2016 after making homophobic remarks during an interview. At first, Chappelle appears to be joking when he says he thought Nike’s sudden reaction to Pacquiao’s remarks was “a little harsh.”

But, turns out, he’s not. Chappelle turns out to be presenting a sincere argument in defense of Pacquiao’s freedom to express his homophobic views.

Chappelle reasons that because the Philippines has a history of Filipino women emigrating to other countries to work and send money back to their families, many Filipino men must feel emasculated for staying at home with their kids instead of going out to be the breadwinners. Chappelle continues saying emasculated Filipino men are likely to overcompensate for their masculinity by condemning homosexuality, as Pacquiao did. Chappelle does condemn Pacquiao’s homophobic statements, but he doesn’t fault Pacquiao for them. Instead, he argues that people should have expected Pacquiao to be homophobic because he came from a country of emasculated men, and if people didn’t want to hear Pacquiao’s offensive beliefs about homosexuality, they should never have asked him about it.

“This is not the guy you’re supposed to ask, ‘What do you think of homosexuals?’” Chappelle says. “He’s not your champ.”

This premise would be more palatable in a stand-up routine if it were used to set up a joke. But for Chappelle, it forms the basis for an argument about who should be blamed when celebrities make offensive remarks.

By that logic, people should, basically, never ask President Trump anything about women, and if they do, they shouldn’t take offense at whatever reprehensible reply he has.

Chappelle has a record at previous stand-up shows of making gay jokes in poor taste, and this was yet another example. But even for fans who are comfortable laughing at bad gay jokes, the Pacquiao line was hard to enjoy because it was wrapped in an ill-fated attempt at social commentary. Chappelle tries to make a point about what happens when celebrities don’t live up to all their fans’ expectations, but he comes off as one celebrity tired of seeing other celebrities punished for saying things that many non-famous people get away with every day. It’s bad enough Chappelle’s argument is unconvincing, but all the worse for being whiny.

Chappelle’s biggest departure from his previous stand-up specials is his focus on personal anecdotes. In both Netflix specials, Chappelle explores true stories of his perils with celebrity, like having an audience member throw a banana peel at him on stage, and being criticized in the tabloids for skipping a charity fundraiser in order to attend the Oscars with Chris Rock. In Spin, he slowly doles out stories from the four times he met O.J. Simpson over his life and uses that chronology to chart changes in himself and his career. He even ventures into stereotypical dad humor about dealing with his wife’s friends and begrudgingly loving his kids’ dog, and despite being new to that territory in his stand-up, he makes it work.

When Chappelle does talk about race, he’s noticeably more careful than in the past. He seems worried about making jokes that could be read as both mocking and enforcing racial stereotypes, so he tries to preempt any confusion by qualifying jokes, either by explaining why he feels compelled to make the joke or separating what he finds funny from what he finds uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, this explication leaves many jokes stilted. The post-Chappelle’s Show Chappelle wants to be both a social critic and a comedian, but he hasn’t figured out how to incorporate his criticism into his comedy. Instead, he switches between comic and critic, with the results just being a distraction.

At the end of Spin, Chappelle talks about how difficult it was for him as both an African-American and a black comedian to process the news of Bill Cosby’s rape allegations. Chappelle goes into an earnest list of some of Cosby’s achievements and contributions: being the first black actor to win an Emmy, presenting positive images of African-Americans on his TV shows, and donating millions of dollars to colleges and scholarships.

Chappelle tops his list with a deed that seems too good to be true. “I heard, that when Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said he had a dream, he was speaking into a PA system that Bill Cosby paid for.”

Of course, this is too good to be true. According to the book Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington, there were actually two labor groups, the United Auto Workers and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, that raised most of the $20,000 to pay for the sound system that Dr. King used to deliver his speech at the March on Washington.

Chappelle tries to not just make fun of the controversies around Cosby, but use them to consider the relative weight of a celebrity’s flaws and achievements. But Chappelle loses credibility when he throws in his final point about Cosby supposedly financing part of one of the most well-known speeches in American and African-American history. When Dr. King gave his speech, Cosby had only been performing comedy for two years. Perhaps he donated some money toward the March on Washington, or even directly toward Dr. King’s PA system, but it's highly unlikely he had $20,000 to spare at that point in his career. Chappelle would have been better off making suggestions about Cosby’s charity in order to bolster a joke, but in an impassioned discourse on the meaning of Cosby’s legacy, that kind of inflation rubs a little deceptive.

Chappelle may not have nailed these two specials. Fans and critics have written widely online to let him know. Hopefully, he can adjust his approach and make his third Netflix special be the triumphant return people have wished for.

If it’s not, we’ll always have Chappelle’s Show clips on YouTube.

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Honest, direct feedback from a fan, and with no disrespect or loss of love for Dave.
Jun 19, 2017   |  Reply
Plasti Grad
I researched everyone of Dave Chappelle's jokes just like you did and I found them to be unfunny. The more research I did the more I found the comedy to be untrue. Apparently, the fairies in the Chappelle's show skit don't exist either. NOT FUNNY! I expected comedians to tell the truth.
May 1, 2017   |  Reply
Mattt Potter
I hear ya. It's like this website, I really had respect for it, but it was too good. After reading that review, I can't enjoy it like I used to. Thanks for the coats of taint.
Apr 28, 2017   |  Reply
Mattt Potter
Chappelle is as funny as he's ever been. See beyond Chappelle show! You don't know what you are talking about you, word that describes you.
Apr 27, 2017   |  Reply
I think Chappelle's Show was too good for me, and now I can't enjoy anything he does more than that show.
Apr 27, 2017
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