“Everything is funny until it happens to you.” This is how Dave Chappelle opens his special The Bird Revelation, to the raucous applause of an audience in 2002, maybe. In late 2017, the applause is scattered, and the post-production graphics move in quickly. It’s not a bad joke, but it doesn’t evoke the experience of a comedian saying “what everyone in the room is thinking.” It’s a comedian saying what he thinks, to the mild amusement of some and the mild annoyance and occasional horror of others. It continues this way for the next forty-five minutes.
Even if you haven’t seen The Bird Revelation, the more informal of Dave Chappelle’s two specials released on Netflix on New Year’s Eve, you’ve probably heard about the point of contention surrounding it: “Dave Chappelle Calls the Victims of Louis CK’s Sexual Misconduct ‘Weak.’” Dave Chappelle tried to tackle the #MeToo movement in what appears to be a pretty off-the-cuff set, and instead discredits and belittles the experience of victims of sexual harassment, particularly the victims of his longtime friend Louis C.K.
Let’s be clear: He’s wrong. He’s being incendiary in a way that is par for the course for Chappelle, but in an area of cultural commentary where he has no experience or right to be speaking with authority. As he puts it, this is his way of exercising his right to “fuck around.” Subtext of “fuck around”: not come prepared to talk about one of the most significant national conversations of the decade but still inexplicably devote your entire set to it. Subtext to “fuck around”: assumes he will be able to riff out a comedic symphony, and does not. Subtext to “fuck around”: fuck around, but it’s not funny or effective enough to deserve a major platform release.
Still, I think you should watch it.
The Bird Revelation isn’t interesting to me for its comedic value, because it’s not insightful, memorable or particularly funny given Chappelle’s bar of excellence. Instead, think of it as a time capsule, a way to capture a very particular system of thinking just as that system of thinking is becoming a massive liability. It’s not funny to watch Chappelle try to sort through these thoughts in what appears to be real time, but it is something.
With The Bird Revelation, we hear uncomfortable, deeply flawed thought patterns of a man in his forties who does not understand a woman’s experience, but would like to believe that he does. Throughout the special, we hear Chappelle try to pull from his own experience (rather weakly) in a misguided attempt to empathize. He tries to apply his experience as a black man in America, reminds us that his wife is Asian (which, like….okay), compares his own battle scars and twelve-year hiatus from show business, says he understands fear but still thinks that the way women are approaching the #MeToo movement is fundamentally wrong. This see-sawing between sometimes wanting to understand and seeming to have arrived with his mind made up that these women are, to use his words, “brittle” and “weak,” is the starting point for a lot of men who are just thinking about these issues for the first time.
Let’s take a look at a smattering of Chappelle’s sound bites from his evening at The Comedy Store, recorded the day the Charlie Rose allegations came out. “Who’s next, Captain Kangaroo?” Chapelle asks, to the uproarious laughter of an audience during the late Clinton administration, maybe. In late 2017, the laughter is brief, because we didn’t know who was next, and we still don’t.
“I know nothing about being a woman, but I do know fear.”
“I just wanna help. I wanna be a good guy.”
“I don’t think you’re wrong, I just don’t think you can make a lasting peace this way.”
“I know you’re right, but come on, baby, it’s me. I was right once. Remember that?”
“Hollywood is no place for moral absolutism.”
These phrases are scattered throughout a special built around jokingly claiming the Louis C.K. victims who did not pursue comedy after their experience with him were too “brittle,” victim-blaming Kevin Spacey’s accuser Anthony Rapp by declaring “that’s the sort of thing that a 14-year-old gay kid would get himself into,” and performing a long act-out of R. Kelly peeing on a teenage girl while singing “I Believe I Can Fly.” The jokes are lame and completely miss the point, yet between them are the repeated “I don’t knows,” the “I don’t think you’re wrong,” the “you’re right,” the “I just wanna help.”
Chappelle knows what he’s saying and is apologizing and acknowledging it’s probably not right to say in real time, and the level of self-awareness he demonstrates before launching into the next half-boiled victim blame is hard to watch. We’re watching a man struggling to let go of convictions he’s clearly held for a long time, and resisting a desire to question what the fuck is happening, and to ask himself as many men have to, “Is my friend a rapist?” Because oftentimes, yes, they are, and you can’t shock jock your way out of that one.
The Bird Revelation is Dave Chappelle’s attempt to shock jock his way out of a larger issue, onstage cigarette and all, and it plays out more like a one-man play than a stand-up comedy special. Part of you wants an audience member to say something, but most of you is just watching Chappelle convince himself that the world is ordered as he decided it was ordered years ago, and finding a funny-adjacent way to dismiss the discomfort around the idea that it probably isn’t.
When you look around at the men in your workplace, your family, and oftentimes your romantic relationships, there will be nuggets of this ugly, flawed thinking that resonates with them, even if they don’t like that it does. Yes, it makes me angry, and no, I don’t think it deserves a platform to normalize it, but Dave Chappelle was given that platform and makes a lot of the same mistakes the men in our lives are making now. They should watch him make those mistakes, and watch him fail to deliver by making them.
If you’re a man reading this article, first of all, lol hi. Second, I recommend you watch The Bird Revelation not to laugh, but as an experiment. What made you uncomfortable, and what made you just think you should be uncomfortable? Watch it with some of your male friends and watch what they react to and where they, like many in the audience, can’t quite get on board with one of the most influential comedians of the century victim blaming Louis C.K.’s victims. Talk to them. The Bird Revelation is not a good special, but it’s a good litmus test.
As Chappelle took note of through his forty-five minute set, we are no longer living in the age of “everything’s funny until it happens to you” whether he agrees with it or not. We’re living in the age where if you don’t learn compassion in your art and quickly, you won’t be making art at the level Dave Chappelle is for very long.
Jamie Loftus is a comedian and writer. You can find her some of the time, most days at @hamburgerphone or jamieloftusisinnocent.com.