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.
Equanimity and, judging by their respective timelines, The Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas, operate accordingly. An abandoned HBO special, Texas, was based on a tour Chappelle recorded for HBO in April 2015 before throwing his hat in with Netflix. Meanwhile, Spin was taped in March 2016 and released a year later on the streaming platform. As for Equanimity, that it contains references to the controversial Caitlyn Jenner jokes from Spin marks it as a more recent (and timely) special. Even so, enough time passed between then and its release on New Year’s Day to suggest he had taken a few steps back before continuing that particular discussion.
This is not the case with Revelation. Taped just before Thanksgiving during a small show at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles, Chappelle’s fourth special is so close to the elephant, all anyone can see is the “penis-like skin” Equanimity warns about. He jokes about the firing of CBS anchor Charlie Rose over accusations of sexual misconduct barely a month after it happened, in what amounts to Revelation‘s rush to produce more Chappelle-branded content. To some degree, he recognizes how poorly thought out this material is — especially when he repeatedly says “I shouldn’t say this,” like the chorus to an annoyingly catchy song. But Chappelle presses forward with his admittedly unpleasant jokes that, by and large, are far more nasty than not.
“They took everything from Louis,” Chappelle says of what Louis C.K. lost because of the allegations made against him. “It might be disproportionate. I can’t tell.” Everyone falls silent, waiting for the kind of problematic twist such a setup might inspire in Chappelle’s hands. Instead, he reacts to the original New York Times report, which included an account by Abby Schachner, a young comedian whose encounter with C.K. ultimately “discouraged her from pursuing comedy.” Though Chappelle doesn’t name her, the “joke” that follows appears to target Schachner’s story. “One woman said, ‘Louis C.K. masturbating in front of me ruined my comedy dreams,'” he says. “Well then I daresay, madam, you may have never had a dream. Come on man, that’s a brittle spirit. That is a brittle-ass spirit.”
Chappelle extends this into a much larger bit about J. Edgar Hoover’s file on Martin Luther King Jr. and other tangentially related items. Some of it demonstrates his ability to take a step back from his initial reaction and think about what he wants to say, but the jab at Schachner does not. (Nor do many other instances exactly like this one.) There’s no guarantee Chappelle wouldn’t have made such a bullying statement had he postponed the taping long enough to work out the kinks, of course. However, it’s telling that he chose not follow his own advice and crank out Revelation as quickly as possible. It suggests he cares far less about the process of telling a good joke and more about being the first to say anything at all — no matter how lazy.