Dave Chappelle returns to television next week with two hourlong Netflix specials, the first of three for which he reportedly received $60 million. These two, Deep in the Heart of Texas and The Age of Spin, were recorded in 2015 and 2016, respectively, and in Austin and Los Angeles, respectively. If you are hoping for a new and refreshing take on Donald Trump, you will have to wait until the third, as-yet untaped hour. If you are hoping for a new and refreshing take on Bill Cosby, however, you are in luck. And if you’re in the market for a frustrating jumble of penetrating wit and ignorance disguised as transgression, well, get out the popcorn.
First, the good news. Chappelle is still at the top of his class, wholly at ease onstage and mischievous as ever. His winding stories have the same unscripted, manic feel as his classic material, perfectly crafted without seeming crafted at all. The Age of Spin has something of a framing device, in that he promises early on to describe each of the four times he met OJ Simpson before the hours ends. In between those goalposts are a handful of occasionally linked reflections and ruminations. He recounts a traffic stop in which his friend, a black man acting as his designated driver, was arrested for driving drunk, yet Chappelle was allowed to drive away; the breathalyzer didn’t pick up the pot he’d smoked. (This seemed to be a bookend to one of his most famous routines—“Sorry, Officer, I didn’t know I couldn’t do that”). In another, he recalls bailing on a benefit event for Flint, Michigan to go to the Oscars, where he ended up in a green room reluctantly pitching superhero movies to a gay producer and a straight Texan producer, tailoring each idea to what he perceived as their tastes. In one pitch, the superhero is a gay man who nobody ever recognizes because he constantly changes his clothes; in the other, the hero can only activate his considerable powers by groping women, creating a moral dilemma for all involved. It has the veneer of shock for shock’s sake, but the joke is less about the pitches themselves than the delight Chappelle takes in trolling Hollywood executives, who expect him to have a million movie ideas in his back pocket. He has none; what he does have is an tireless drive to play out his tiniest impulses to their absurdest conclusions.
In both specials Chappelle tends toward whimsy more often than commentary. One of his longest bits, in Deep in the Heart of Texas, is an extended riff on the word “pussy,” in which he essentially acts out several consecutive sketches. When he does turn to social commentary, the results are unsteady. One of the funniest jokes in both specials is an impassioned monologue about the cultural changes of the 60s and 70s that veers sharply into a screed against Bill Cosby, turning introspective as Chappelle recalls his early, misguided attempts to reckon the figure he admired against the monster he turned out to be. But other bits range from sour-tasting to outright appalling. At one point he chides LGBTQ people for pursuing too many civil rights too fast, urging a more measured approach to, you know, securing basic human freedoms. Gay people, he says, are too angry. He wrings his hands over the “Q” in LGBTQ, whining that it denotes people who are only gay when it’s convenient for them, for instance, when they are in prison. (Yeah.) And in a joke that seems to have been transported straight from 90s network television, he admonishes gay couples for wanting to do away with the terms “husband” and “wife,” suggesting that they just talk it out, and whoever is “gayer” is the wife. This was after he said he respects gay people because there’s nothing manlier than anal sex—just in case it seemed like there might be any ideological consistency to his griping beyond naked homophobia.
And then there’s the joke he tells in Deep in the Heart of Texas about the sheer injustice of having to respect another person’s gender identity. As the story goes, he was at a fancy party when he noticed someone who appeared to be a man in a dress—he says he doesn’t know if the right word is “tranny” or “drag queen”—and who appeared to be ill. He asks the woman’s friends if she’s alright—well, he asks if “he” is alright—and gets rebuked for misgendering her. The anecdote spins into a tirade against society’s demands that Chappelle “participate” in someone else’s “self-image,” peppered with all the usual walk-backs that of course he respects everyone’s freedom to choose who they want to be. (Netflix did not provide critics with review copies of the specials, so I’m working from notes jotted in the dark during a screening and I cannot quote everything verbatim; suffice it to say that the idea of choice factors heavily into Chappelle’s understanding of gender identity.) In his eyes, it’s just a matter of convenience: “I’d rather not be at a party where a tranny ODs.”
It’s just one joke in two hourlong specials, yes, yet it casts a dark cloud over the rest. Chappelle’s reputation rests heavily on the notion that he’s smarter and funnier than anyone else in the game. This… is not smart. It’s ignorant. It’s lazy. It’s cruel. We could write it off as the sort of character flaw all our favorite artists have one or two of, but that sort of denial is why famous people get to keep saying hateful things to large paying audiences. If Chappelle indeed made $20 million for each of these specials, then he made $1.7 million to call someone a tranny. I don’t know what’s worse—the market value for a famous man’s intolerance or the joyous laughter his intolerance received. Neither bodes very well at all.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.