Dave Chappelle returns to Netflix: Flashes of genius, but the comic is disappointingly out of touch
Great comedians are like fine wine. They mature and get better with age. That certainly was the case with George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Jonathan Winters, and Paul Mooney. For some, the bright lights of Hollywood are too much to resist: Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy come to mind. Other careers are cut tragically short: The one of a kind Bill Hicks was taken much too early by pancreatic cancer and Mitch Hedberg succumbed to his demons, dying of a drug overdose.
For a while, it seemed that Dave Chappelle was destined to be placed in the pantheon of those whose careers were taken before their time. But unlike Hicks, Chappelle wasn't ravaged by disease. And unlike Hedberg, the only demons Chappelle succumbed to were those that lived in his mind.
In 2005, Dave Chappelle did something unfathomable: He walked away from Chappelle Show, his ground breaking and record breaking show at Comedy Central at the height of his popularity. He reportedly turned down a 50 million dollar contract to do a third season. People were gobsmacked. Rumours that he'd had a nervous breakdown ran rampant. The truth was a lot more complicated: Chappelle had had enough of the limelight. He didn't want the fame. And he didn't need the money.
So, Chappelle went into self-imposed exile. He spent some time in Africa. He settled down in a small town. Got married. Stayed away for 12 long years. And comedy was all poorer for it. So naturally, fans went into a tizzy when Netflix announced they'd signed a $60 million contract to bring Dave Chappelle on board for three stand up specials.
I was excited too. Dave Chappelle's stand up specials were some of the funniest I'd ever seen. And I was eager to see get his perspective on this world of "alternative facts" and "fake news". Even the names of the specials — The Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas — sounded promising. So, I was disappointed to find that Chappelle, although he displayed sparks of that old comic genius, was disappointingly out of touch.
First the good: Chappelle fares best when he makes himself the butt of the joke. He deftly exposes the ugliness and hypocrisy that human beings are capable of when he narrates of how he blew off a benefit organised by prominent African-Americans for the city of Flint, Michigan, which is dealing with a water crisis, just because his good friend Chris Rock invited him to the Oscars.
A bit about being called the N word by a group of young men while he's with his sister who is dressed in Muslim garb and then turning the tables on them ends with a punch line that will leave viewers in equal parts amused and outraged. My favourite bit though, was when Chappelle turned nostalgic: Narrating how the Care Bears left an entire generation disappointed who discovered that life simply wouldn't let them lock arms, stare at the problem and shoot love out of their chests to solve the problem.
Alas, these moments are few and far between. Time seems to have dulled not only his edge, but his instincts as well. There was, implausibly, not a word about the recent US election. And much like Eddie Murphy's stand-up special in the 1980s, Chappelle's act has always been stained with a certain amount of homophobia.
Making things worse, Chappelle has added an unhealthy dose of transphobia as well. Rather than playing to and then exposing the audience's prejudice, he seems to be egging them on. History will not look kindly upon Chappelle's views. His lack of empathy for "the other", coming from a member of a minority community is staggering. These two specials are a rather grievous blow to his image as a canny social satirist.
It makes me sad to say it, but Chappelle has let his fans down and hurt his legacy. Perhaps, he should have just stayed away.
The Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas are streaming on Netflix.