By Prthvir Solanki Aug. 30, 2019
It is honestly baffling to see Dave Chappelle go up on stage and attempt to rekindle what he had back in the early 2000s. The world has changed, people have changed, but he seems to expect all of us to forget that and reset to 2005.
I’ve always tried to be a funny person. To get a laugh from a group of people, friends or otherwise, is an addictive feeling. I have stories in my head that I’ve repeated to unsuspecting innocents over and over again, so much so that I now know which parts of my stories work and which parts don’t. I’ve slowly begun to place emphasis on the parts that do with each retelling, pushing for a laugh, sometimes even turning tragic cues into hilarious monologues (if I may say so myself). And I’ve even shaved off the boring bits, editing and re-editing tales of my life to present A Story.
Everyone has their inspirations. Some like to tell their stories like authors, some like filmmakers, and others, like me, like the way stage performers present their stories. I, particularly, wanted to be like Dave Chappelle.
His self-titled Chappelle’s Show, at one point, was the most intelligent thing to have ever hit television screens. Day in and day out, episode after episode, Chappelle and his crew managed to present a face of their country in a way the world had not seen it. It was brave, bold, it held nothing back, took no prisoners, but also sucked Chappelle absolutely dry. He got angry, disillusioned, dejected, depressed, and walked away from the show with $50 million from Comedy Central and a place to live in South Africa.
That could have been the end of the story of Dave Chappelle. A genius whose legacy would have stretched on forever, that would have shaped and defined culture, and given birth to new languages of thought and expression. We see hints of Chappelle in the sketches on Key and Peele, we see him peppered in the bizarro comedy of Eric Andre, and even in the lyrics of incendiary rappers like Tyler the Creator. Chappelle may have walked away from the public eye, but not without leaving little parts of him everywhere.
The mechanics of a comeback are vague, and vaguer still when you’ve already made your mark. Does a disappointment in the scene prompt it? Is it a burning itch to say something? Is it pure and unadulterated love for the field of work? Could it just be plain boredom? Chappelle staged his return a couple of years ago, randomly and without warning – and since then he’s released four specials now. Four. That’s how much he’d been holding in all these years.
Chappelle was revelatory for me when I stumbled upon him in college. While fellow students worked hard to formulate their own opinions and build their worldviews while they still could, I was the idiot more interested in my manner of articulation. Whatever it was I wanted to say, I wanted to be able to say and present it like Dave Chappelle. Anybody then, I believed, would be convinced of me, regardless of the validity (read: non-validity) of my opinions.
I’d like to believe that between college and now, I’ve grown and learnt things as a human being. Strangely enough, in that same period, I don’t think Chappelle has done either. It is honestly baffling to see him go up on stage and attempt to rekindle what he had back in the early 2000s. The world has changed, people have changed, but he seems to expect all of us to forget that and reset to 2005.
Chappelle has always been fairly problematic: his sexist and transphobic jokes have been under the scanner since the beginning of his career, but he received the “woke pass” before wokeness was even a thing. His biting social critiques (even of the things he was/is accused of perpetuating) of then modern-day America brought to him a reputation of being a genius, bar nobody, a savant of his field, a living legend who literally did nothing wrong. He was young, black, and outspoken in Republican, war-hungry America, and he was on top of the world.
His biting social critiques of then modern-day America brought to him a reputation of being a genius, bar nobody, a savant of his field, a living legend who literally did nothing wrong.
Cut to 2019, and it’s a different time. Those once powerful can now be brought down with a click of a button; an entire generation is having to deal with the effects of climate disaster and archaic politicking; poverty rates are skyrocketing; capitalism has won; and we got through 11 and 12 seasons of The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men, respectively. A lot of us are angry, and rightfully so.
Chappelle returned at a fragile time like this. And while he still is funny and probably far funnier than a lot of modern day comedians, his worldview seems limited, and resistant to any sort of evolution. His new special, Sticks and Stones, is evidence of this.
Apart from defending Louis CK in the strangest way (“What is the threat? Have you ever seen a man who came on his stomach? This is the least threatening motherfucker the Earth has ever seen.”), he rails against Michael Jackson’s accusers, refusing to believe them and belittling their traumas and experiences, tying it to a larger critique of call-out culture and the #MeToo Movement.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, Chappelle is consciously choosing to be provocative. He’s consciously pushing the limits of our own logic and testing to see if we ourselves truly believe in the things we say we do. I do believe that ideally that should be the case. A comedian, or anybody in the arts, should make us question things and force us to rethink our stands.
We say that we shouldn’t punch downwards, and that is true. But I’m willing to wager that Chappelle thinks the same too, seeing how he remains the most efficient critic of white America. The problem lies in the fact that Chappelle does not think that joking about accusers and survivors and anyone really trying their best to adjust and accommodate themselves in this stressful society is punching downwards. He thinks of it as fighting the power.
“It’s difficult being a celebrity now,” he proclaims at some point. To be rich, powerful and influential is a vulnerable place to be, he seems to say. Their fall can be swift and nasty, and the bigger they get, the more vulnerable they are. Chappelle is afraid, so he lays his shit bare. He calls himself a victim-blamer, he critiques his own transphobic jokes, he predicts the backlash to jokes he does in his set, while he is doing his set. He releases special after special so that he gets a chance to speak his word before anybody else does.
Despite hating on this darned modern times, Chappelle does the most millennial thing in all of his sets: he provokes, he turns himself into clickbait and ensures he stays viral. He doesn’t design and curate his sets the way he used to, he now creates content. It’s still funny, and a lot of it is still eye-opening, but there is a rigidity to his material that falls depressingly flat, and alarmingly tone-deaf.
Chappelle may have returned to resurrect his career, but now he just seems to be in the business of constantly trying to keep himself relevant. Thankfully, Chappelle’s Show will live forever.