Toward the end of his third Netflix special Equanimity — one of two specials released on Netflix this past New Year’s Eve — Dave Chappelle recalls the story of Emmett Till, a young African-American boy who was brutally murdered by a Mississippi lynch mob in 1955. During a subsequent trial, a white woman named Carolyn Bryant defended Till’s lynching by claiming he had sexually assaulted her. Before her death in 2014, however, Bryant admitted her testimony was largely false and that “nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” Chappelle admits he was angered by the revelation, but also thinks of it as an incredibly teachable moment for comedy.
Anger “was my initial reaction,” the comedian explains, “and initial reactions — as we all learn as we get older — are often wrong or incomplete. They call this phenomenon ‘standing too close to an elephant,’ the analogy being that if you stand too close to an elephant, you can’t see the elephant. All you see is its penis-like skin. You gotta step back and give it a better look.” (“Standing too close to an elephant” is undoubtedly a reference to the ancient Buddhist parable “Blind Men and an Elephant.”) When Chappelle steps back in Bryant’s case, he realizes “it must have been very difficult for this woman to tell a truth that heinous about herself.” As a result, he tells his audience, immediately reacting to things might not be the best policy.
This might seem like a precursor to Chappelle’s apparent mission statement in The Bird Revelation, the special released alongside Equanimity and his fourth Netflix special released in 2017. “Sometimes the funniest thing to say is mean,” he warns the small comedy club crowd. “It’s a tough position to be in because I say a lot of mean things. But you guys gotta remember — I’m not saying it to be mean, I’m saying it because it’s funny.” The comic then delivers an array of remarkably mean and unfunny comments about Louis C.K.’s accusers, the #MeToo movement, and recent scandals involving Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. Judging by the negative reactions that have resulted, it would seem — per Chappelle’s logic — viewers aren’t heeding his warnings.
On the other hand, the comedian ignores his own advice by rushing Revelation‘s release. A typical stand-up special marks the culmination of several months’ — if not years’ — worth of work. Comics endeavoring to tape a new concert film will write enough material to fill an hour, or an hour and a half, then try it out in small venues until it’s ready to tour. From there, they will take the new show out on the road and continuously fine-tune it along the way. The result? A comedy show that, while temporally removed from current events, isn’t based solely on the “initial reactions” Chappelle warns against in Equanimity. Like anyone who stands too close to the elephant, most stand-ups take a step back and think about their jokes before recording a new hour.