As a teen in the 1980s my comic sensibilities were flavored mainly by the gradual decline of Richard Pryor’s career and the meteoric rise of Eddie Murphy. Murphy, who came up through the Saturday Night Live talent pipeline, burst on the scene with movies like 48 Hrs. (1982), Trading Places (1983), and Beverly Hills Cop (1984). But it was his stand-up that made Murphy the transcendent comedic talent of the decade. Delirious, released in 1983, represented my generation’s comedy album, kept well-hidden from our parents because of its extremely adult content. Murphy was a direct descendant of Pryor and came so raw that early in his career he would occasionally warn audiences there would be no Buckwheat wigs, a reference to a popular character Murphy played on SNL.
Murphy’s last standup film was Raw (1987). Since then, black male comics such as Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle have carried on the tradition. Chappelle especially, with the narrative around the creation, critical success, and ultimate dramatic self-destruction of Chappelle’s Show—he remained in the national consciousness for more than a decade without doing consistent stand-up or film work like Lawrence and Rock. Murphy famously left stand-up behind and would become the Donkey in Shrek. Recently, Chappelle made a much anticipated return to the stage, captured in a pair of newly released Netflix specials, Age of Spin: Live at the Hollywood Palladium and Deep In The Heart Of Texas: Live At Austin City Limits, for which he received a reported $60 million. Before watching them, I thought of Martin Lawrence's return to stand-up in the Showtime special Martin Lawrence Doin’ Time: Uncut. I hoped Chappelle’s return wouldn’t be as bad as that.
Now, publicity leading up to the specials included comments by Chappelle to the effect of him not feeling appreciated by Chappelle’s Show descendants Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key. In fact, Chappelle says at one point, “I had to watch Key and Peele do my show every night!” Chappelle seemed both a little bitter and at the same time, over all of it. In 2005, while filming the third season of Chappelle’s Show, he abruptly left at the height of its success and with a $50 million contract from Comedy Central on the table. The show that gave us the blind-black-white supremacist and the true Hollywood story of Rick James—some of the greatest comedy television has ever seen—was done. In the aftermath, Chappelle reportedly went to Africa amid rumors he wasn’t well. He later explained that creative tensions led him to leave the show, which had began to lean toward relying on stereotypes instead of challenging racial norms and conventions.
So what to make of the specials?
Chappelle, who looks older and a little heavier, began the first session by describing how he’d recently been booed on-stage by fans who began chanting for a refund that was not coming. “I’m like Evel Knievel,” he responded. “I get paid for the attempt!” Now in his 40s, it seemed clear that this was a man with very few, if any, comedic fucks to give. He was more raw than I remember, and perhaps this appealed to my immature side, which is always hungry for laughter. Perhaps not coincidentally, I have noticed an increase in my use of profanity and the n-word since watching.
But lots of people are not feeling him, and with good reason. For example, GQ writer Damon Young labeled the specials “disappointing,” saying Chappelle’s “focus on the horror of political correctness, instead, felt like something you’d expect to come from a mega rich 43-year-old man from the outskirts of Ohio. Who, instead of evolving with the world, has remained stagnant and believes the world has gone mad while pining for time when things were simpler.”
I can see where he's coming from, as his gay, rape, and transgender jokes were clearly from another time, even a time before Black Lives Matter, a movement that counts black queer women as its leading figures. It was hard to get around this fact. Yes, he is funny; but no, he is not with these new times and ways. Chappelle’s work in the early 2000s was defined by its brilliant use of nuance as it related to issues like race and class. For me, he is definitely still funny, but he now feels much less nuanced.
The direction and language of his current humor brings the in-group/out-group question into play. Although he goes out of his way to identify himself as an ally of gays, as a straight man, Chappelle represents an out-group member making LGBT jokes and using the word "fag," in the same way he is the in-group member when using the term "nigga." To make things more troublesome, this type of comedy, which completely disregards the premise of in-group/out-group dynamics, seems to fit right in with the tone and demeanor that won the most recent presidential election.
Whatever the case, it appears that after more than a decade, Dave Chappelle still has sufficient cultural capital to brush off these types of concerns.
On a side note: Chappelle's refusal to appear onstage in a leather outfit, something Murphy, Lawrence and Rock have all done more than once, was, once again, noticeable. Jeans and blue-on-white Adidas Stan Smiths have been Chappelle’s style choice, an appropriate throwback theme for a comedian trying to recapture that old magic.