About halfway through The Bird Revelation, the second of two specials that Dave Chappelle dropped on New Year’s Eve, he pauses a particularly well-turned joke for a moment of gravitas:
Everybody gets mad because I say these jokes… but you gotta understand that this is the best time to say ’em. Now more than ever. I know that there’s some comedians in the back — motherfuckers you have a responsibility to speak recklessly. Otherwise my kids may never know what reckless talk sounds like… the joys of being wrong.
I didn’t come here to be right.
Like it or not, that snippet of philosophical waxing embodies the four specials Chappelle released via Netflix in 2017, and, to a certain degree, the way he’s approached his entire career. Across three decades, the comic has been a habitual reckless speaker, albeit one for whom even the most seemingly careless statements are made with laser-edged precision. Nine times out of ten, he’s Steph Curry on the mic — fast and loose and improvisational, but also dialed in down to the micrometer.
It’s a crazy balancing act, to flirt so closely with losing control, and for years Chappelle has nailed it. But reactions to the comic’s New Year’s Eve specials — and. there. have. been. soooooo. many. — suggest that perhaps his reckless speech has grown miscalibrated.
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The last sentence of The Bird Revelation’s “reckless talk” interlude is worth unpacking. Maybe Chappelle didn’t “come here to be right”, but he damn sure seems to think he is. Have you seen the special? No comic goes into lecture mode so often without being interested in “rightness.” In fact, it’s his capacity for being right that made the man so vital in the first place.
In the ’90s, his edginess when discussing race became crucial to our collective progress — his was a bold new voice for people who felt pushed to the margins. From his first TV appearances, his assessment of white-black relations was loaded with painful truths.
In 2003, Chapelle got mega-famous for his propensity toward rightness. He made a career of taking stereotypes and stealing power from them by confronting them head-on, murdering them with blunt force trauma in sketches like “Frontline — Clayton Bigsby.” Then he quit (for reasons that were once mysterious and are now just murky). Hung around South Africa. Threw some cool block parties. Bought a place in Ohio.
The world moved on, as it always does. Times and sensibilities shifted.
While staging a mainstream comeback in 2017, Chappelle has discovered that, whether he came here to be right or not, he sure does get disagreed with a lot more these days. Suddenly, people find his talk a little too reckless. They cringe at certain punchlines and he snaps back at them for cringing. (In The Bird Revelation he directs multiple clarifications of intent at a woman he catches wincing during his #MeToo material.) Across all four specials, he bristles against recent instances of being called on the carpet by critics, then either reminds us that he’s bulletproof thanks to his bank balance or attempts to placate anyone taking offense with an “I’m on your side, buuuuutttttt…”
Clearly, in Chappelle’s mind, his fans have changed since the good old days. We’ve gone all snowflakey on him and forgotten how to take a joke. We’ve got “brittle spirits” now and “brittle ears” too.
Maybe there’s some truth to this. If it launched in 2018, The Chappelle Show would be in danger of getting thinkpieced out of existence. The few bits that stumbled would be amplified and that noise might make it harder for us to appreciate the many sketches that worked brilliantly. “New York Boobs” would get shredded and the R. Kelly clips (and similarly-themed stand-up bits) would be called out for making light of sexual assault.