In one of two new standup specials, Dave Chappelle conjures a nightmare scenario for fans of the reclusive comedian: An appearance on Dancing with the Stars, where showbiz careers go to die. According to Chappelle, who vanished from the public eye after famously walking away from his Comedy Central series, Chappelle’s Show, in 2005, the reality show’s producers called him up with an offer. His response? “Not yet.”
Their loss is our gain, as Chappelle makes an eagerly anticipated return to TV with his first new standup material since 2004’s Dave Chappelle: For What It’s Worth . The Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas — both streaming on Netflix as of today — were taped in Los Angeles in 2016 and Austin in 2015, respectively; Chappelle’s reported $60 million (!) contract with the streaming giant includes a third, brand-new special that will come out later this year. These first two installments make clear that Chappelle hasn’t mellowed with age. What’s most striking about his performances isn’t how shocking they are, but how they reveal the extent to which the rest of the comedy world has caught up to his brand of provocation in the years since his infamously confrontational sketch show went off the air.
The degree to which these specials reflect a simpler time, when every conversation didn’t eventually circle around to the Trump presidency, is very, very sad. (Come back, 2016! All is forgiven!) There’s not a ton of topical material here, aside from a few references that are a little stale now, like Donald Sterling and Making a Murderer (if the Netflix true crime docuseries centered on a black man, Chappelle quips, it would’ve been called, “Duh.”) But he does mention Bill Cosby multiple times in both sets; the downfall of this onetime hero clearly weighs heavily on Chappelle. In The Age of Spin, Chappelle uses the four times he met O.J. Simpson. as an effective framing device. (“With all due respect, that murderer ran for over 11,000 yards!”)
The material steers clear of presidential politics, but it’s not apolitical. Chappelle talks about being stopped by the police in his small, majority-white Ohio town: “I’m black, but I’m also Dave Chappelle. So I figure shit will be fine.” (Police violence is a topic he’s spoken about in his town’s city council meetings, too.) Chappelle’s years outside the glare of the spotlight have only added to his central charm, namely the lack of fucks he has to give: about living in a “coastal elite” city like New York or L.A.; about his Comedy Central show and the $50 million deal he turned down; and about his low visibility post-Chappelle’s Show, which he happily lampoons throughout both sets.
He’s not ashamed to tell the audience about the time he backed away from a benefit for clean water in Flint, Michigan because Chris Rock invited him to the Oscars at the last minute. Nor is he too embarrassed to discuss a 2015 performance in Detroit during which he was reportedly booed off the stage for showing up drunk. Chappelle clears things up: He wasn’t drunk, he was just very, very high off weed obtained from rappers, which is apparently not for mere mortals. And for the record, “I was booed. I did not leave.”
Chappelle is at his strongest in these new specials when he focuses on his personal and family life (he’s married with two kids) — in other words, the relatively normal life he’s been living while the comedy world kept spinning without him. Some of his material on trans rights and the LGBTQ community feels a bit dated at a time when queer and trans comics are becoming more and more visible in the comedy scene. The Age of Spin in particular sags a little when Chappelle jokes about “LGBTQ” as if it were a newly familiar acronym and makes a few squirm-inducing — and, to be fair, newly ill-timed — comments about the trans rights movement.
The Age of Spin also includes some unfortunately timed pussy jokes that I suspect wouldn’t have played so well to a lot of women even before our pussy-grabber-in-chief took office, and a few rape jokes that aren’t terribly offensive but also aren’t funny enough to warrant the discomfort they’ll cause amongst some women. Tonally, the L.A.-set special feels like it’s aimed at (male) fans who delight in the permission Chappelle gives them to laugh at something taboo. We can chuckle when Dave Chappelle calls a lesbian a “dyke,” right? C’mon, it’s Dave Chappelle! He’s been gone for so long!
Deep in the Heart of Texas, which was filmed during Austin City Limits, is looser and more fun; the tipsy festival crowd helps. Chappelle makes a lot of sex jokes. He says “pussy” a lot. At one point the denim-clad comic requests a cigarette, and someone in the audience tosses up one, which he lights as he leans back on his stool. A sort of calm washes over you. It’s Dave Chappelle! He’s been gone for so long! And he’s back!