After Long Absence, Charismatic Dave Chapelle Is Back, but Out of Touch

The real test for the comedian, who got $60 million for three Netflix specials, will be the new material he comes up with.

Dave Chappelle presenting an award during the Canadian Screen Awards in Toronto, March 12, 2017.
MARK BLINCH/REUTERS

Twelve years after leaving “Chappelle’s Show” at the height of its success, turning down a $50-million contract, abandoning the limelight and departing for South Africa, Dave Chappelle returns with three new recorded shows. Last week, Netflix broadcast the first two shows, “The Age of Spin” and “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” and they prove that Chappelle is still a gifted storyteller.

With the expertise of a crime writer, he plants casual clues in his early jokes that land much later, in a brilliant bluff that generates uncontrollable laughter. Despite some conspicuous blunders and dated jokes, he tackles head-on political and social issues that are not easy to laugh about and nonchalantly creates a sense of intimacy with his audience.

Fans were banned from bringing in photographic equipment, allowing Chappelle to take risks with his joke-telling – and, of course, sell exclusive rights to the shows for an astronomical sum ($20 million per show).

In “The Age of Spin” – the first, far more successful show – Chappelle uses the time he spent far from the public gaze as the basis for a nostalgic riff on the gap between him and the younger generation. He tells a 24-year-old in the audience that he doesn’t know anything about the comedian: “You need to Google the shit I lived through,” he declares, adding that we are all in need a break from technology.

Chappelle explains that in an age when tragedies are happening constantly, indifference is created. He says he is enraged by police violence against black people, but adds that he’s crying about the ISIS terror attack in Paris, “and then Brussels happens.” He adds, “You can’t keep track of everything that happens, so you just give up. That’s what characterizes your generation – and it’s totally screwed up.”

Chappelle has a lot to say about living as a minority in the United States and interracial tensions. He addresses these issues seriously and soberly, which isn’t what you expect from a stand-up comedian. He uses his time on stage to discuss painful matters that are important to him, and almost misleads the audience into thinking it is basically hearing a joke when he finishes a beautiful, refined monologue with a lowbrow punch line. It’s easy to be disappointed at these moments by his tendency to go low – for example, turning a touching monologue about the symbolism of Care Bears shooting love from the chest into a gag about a man coming on his partner’s chest.

Despite Chappelle’s charisma as a comedian and the comic genius on show in the two specials, many of his jokes are past their expiration date. He basically gave Netflix two previously unaired shows from 2015 and 2016, and a promise to record another show in exchange for $60 million.

In contrast to “The Age of Spin,” which deals with topical issues like the allegations against Bill Cosby, “Deep in the Heart of Texas” is much more old-fashioned. Chappelle relies mainly on incidents from 2013, including the racial slurs by Paula Deen and Donald Sterling – jokes that simply don’t work in 2017.

His personal charm and talent as a storyteller counteract the unfunny, dated jokes, but they don’t help him when he tells dumb, even offensive jokes about the LGBT community. He exhibits a baffling obsession with the sexual organs of transgender people, whom he calls men in a dress. He refers to queer people as “confused,” and his “jokes” about gay people are in poor taste. There’s no reason for the LGBT community not to be a subject of his material, just like he jokes about the rest of the world. Still, it’s disappointing to see him choosing homophobic and transphobic jokes, which provoked much anger on the web. He seems to believe that the gains the LGBT community has made in recent years have come at the expense of black Americans.

In the shows, with the beauty and humor in them, and the few moments in poor taste, it seems important for Chappelle that his voice be heard frankly, even if it casts him in a negative light.

Most of the time, he jokes about being black in America. He acknowledges the rift that developed between him and the black community when he opted to attend the 2016 Academy Awards ceremony (the #OscarsSoWhite controversy), and he doesn’t hesitate to admit his difficulty as a black man who saw Cosby as a role model in accepting the testimonies accusing him of rape.

Much of the anticipation surrounding the shows lies in the mysterious aura around him since he fled the limelight (his last recorded stand-up show was in 2004). In both new shows, he shares insights from the perspective he received thanks to the distance he put between himself and the comedy industry, and manages to navigate the minefield of humor about interracial tensions.

His big test will come with the third stand-up show he committed to giving Netflix, which will test his ability to handle current affairs and won’t be shrouded in the same cloud of mystery that has accompanied the comeback.