I’m not saying I was the first person in New Zealand to watch Chappelle’s Show – the influential sketch comedy show by Dave Chappelle. But I must have been close. The show ran from 2003-2006 and it wasn’t on any network here. The DVDs had to be imported – and I was working in a store that did exactly that. When it couldn’t get cleared for a local rating I took the first season home, devoured it.
Chappelle was known to me because I’d seen his stoner-comedy film Half Baked. (Turns out I’d actually seen him in a heap of things, which I would only work out when I worked back: episodes of Dr. Katz and The Larry Sanders Show and the films The Nutty Professor, Con Air, Joe’s Apartment and Robin Hood: Men In Tights) but his sketch material in the 20-minute episodes of the show that carried his name (and made his name) was utterly brilliant.
I watched season one of Chappelle’s Show in one sitting. Same thing when I got my hands on season two. Then it was to anything that had his name on – other film appearances, the comedy specials, everything. But Chappelle’s Show was something special. It was outrageous. It was hilarious. It was too much for some people. I couldn’t get enough of it.
Chappelle’s satire in the show and his comedy for the stage was hugely influenced by Richard Pryor. Fair enough. He’s often been considered the greatest stand-up comedian of all time. Certainly one of the very best. Chappelle has probably taken that title.
You can now watch Chappelle’s Show on Netflix.
I watched season one right through again last night. The whole thing in one sitting. (I’ll hit up season two again this week no doubt).
The story of Chappelle’s Show is fascinating – Dave walked from the gig, a TV program with his name on it – because the catchphrases were being yelled at him in the street. This smart, savage comedy was being regurgitated in meme-styled soundbites by anyone. There was no YouTube in 2003 so people recited the comedy back at the person that created it; the palest of imitations. There were stories of Chappelle having a breakdown, going to rehab – in fact he turned down $50m for a third season and moved to South Africa. He quit comedy for a time – then returned to the stage on his terms. He’d do club dates, unannounced. And when he was ready he took the big Netflix money to release a bunch of one-hour comedy specials.
By then a whole generation had grown up under the influence of his comedy. The show did the rounds on DVD, then in YouTube bites and of course in syndication in the US.
Late last year there was talk of the show coming to Netflix – Dave rang the network and demanded it be removed, telling them he hadn’t been paid by Comedy Central. They were continuing to make loads of money and not passing it on. He had signed a contract and had buyer’s remorse.
First he told Netflix directly. Then he told anyone that was listening via a 20-minute comedy special that you can watch right there in that link – but was first uploaded to his own Instagram channel.
Since about 2015 – when Chappelle became very visible again – he has been an unfiltered, largely unchallenged force. He was the person SNL chose to open the show the week Trump was elected. His monologue is one of the greatest things I’ve witnessed. The humanity. The depth. And of course – the comedy. Four years later in the best and only correct booking option he was back to comment on Trump not being re-elected. He has pumped out Netflix specials, and has released footage of his own shows via his own channels as and when he feels like it.
His comedy has evolved, his storytelling style now barely even relying on jokes. Sometimes he releases a comedy special on his own and it’s hard to say if it even contains ‘a joke’. He’s a philosopher. A truth-teller. That’s my kind of comedian.
His 2020 special called 8:46 is a half-hour unpacking of feelings in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Only Dave Chappelle could have done that. And it was only his voice that seemed to make some sort of sense – in terms of a person from the entertainment world processing it in real time.
That 20-minute clip I linked to above, called Unforgiven directly resulted in Comedy Central settling the debt and Netflix buying rights to run the show. When Dave Chappelle shits on your brand you fix things up as a face-saving attempt.
In many of the episodes of season one Chappelle asks the audience when he’s going to get cancelled. He is surprised it didn’t happen with his Clayton Bigsby sketch – which closes out the first episode. Clayton Bigsby is a white supremacist who is black. He was born blind. It’s absurdly brilliant. But will its 2003 gratuitous use of the N-word make it more likely to be cancelled in 2021?
There are many legendary Chappelle’s Show skits, most of them a commentary on race, to watch them again now is to see how little has changed, how deep the psychological scarring of an unjust and racist world cuts. In season two there’s a white family with the N-word as a name (it’s spelled ‘* iggar’ rather than ‘er’) and it is something! This is the best social commentary going – as far as I’m concerned. But maybe it just won’t fly today.
One of the other great things about Chappelle’s Show is that it featured Paul Mooney. Mooney is a stand-up comedian and occasional actor, but he’s best known as a comedy writer – he created material with Richard Pryor for the stage and screen. Mooney might only seem like a cameo part but it was an important nod from Chappelle, a chance for one of his comedy heroes to reach a new audience.
Obviously not everything is a slam dunk. There are some skits that stumble. That’s what happens when you’re trying to nail it every time. Sometimes the backboard shatters. Sometimes the ball just slips.
The new Netflix deal doesn’t return this material to the world as such – the clips are still on YouTube, I’ve shared some of them right here. The boxsets are some of the biggest selling DVDs in the history of the medium. But it does put it in front of an audience that might discover it by mistake, by algorithm, without prior knowledge nearly 20 years after it was written. Comedy dates. Particularly comedy that comments on specific events, on social history. I said earlier that I felt the skits were sadly still relevant, many of them as potent as when I first saw them. That’s absolutely true – to me. In my interpretation. But our language has changed. How we view and hear things, how things land has changed as a result.
So I wonder if Chappelle will get his wish – whether he’ll be cancelled, or his show at least?
He’ll brush that off – or wear it as a badge.
But it would be a shame. I think people should study this show. And Chappelle’s career in general. You might not like every word, every joke, you might not like how a joke or a line sounds in 2021. But the motivation behind it, the humanity, the deep understanding of the human psyche…I’m still in awe of that.
Anyone quick to call the show sexist or racist doesn’t realise the angle of the mirror. Chappelle might not be for everyone – by definition the very best at something cannot be for everyone – but there’s no denying he knew how to angle the mirror. He knew what he was holding, how to hold it and what he wanted to reflect. He still does. I imagine there’s a new season of Chappelle’s Show in the works, possibly with a different name, but with the same blunt force and genius-level writing. A similar mirror held up in much the same way.