On New Year’s Eve, Dave Chappelle plopped two new standup comedy specials into your Netflix queue. The first, Equanimity, was filmed in a large theater in Washington, D.C. The second, titled The Bird Revelation, was taped in a more intimate setting: the Belly Room, a small side room in L.A.’s Comedy Store nightclub. In the large venue, Chappelle presents big chunks of solidly constructed new material. In the smaller space, he acts as though he’s talking off the top of his head, working his way through conflicting thoughts about everything from celebrity sexual-harassment scandals to Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest.
Of course, Chappelle is far too skilled a comic to be truly improvising — one of his gifts is to be able to make you think he’s riffing spontaneously. Which is what makes it easy to watch both of these specials, each roughly an hour, back to back: There’s a lively contrast in styles. In Equanimity, Chappelle commences one lengthy section by saying that the “transgender community is mad at me” for jokes he made in a previous Netflix special, and he muses about sexual identity. When he discusses women who’ve been treated horribly by everyone from Harvey Weinstein to Louis C.K., Chappelle has a fundamental bottom line, which is race. He declines to accept that any mistreatment of any group in society could be worse than the systemic racism African-Americans have experienced throughout history. (In general, Chappelle views things through the lens of capitalist economics, not sociology. Indeed, he concludes Revelation with a long, mostly serious analysis of Iceberg Slim’s classic pulp memoir Pimp as an economic parable for the #MeToo movement.) The word Chappelle uses repeatedly as a criticism is brittle: “Our ears are so brittle,” he says in the first show, talking about being overly sensitive, and (in the second) that people with “brittle spirits” are too easily offended. It’s a position that will no doubt spark some debate.
Does all this sound awfully heavy for a couple of comedy specials? You bet, and it just makes things more interesting. Chappelle is also just flat-out funny — he even has a bit about how, if anything, “I’m too goddam good at [standup]!” Like almost every comic, he’s got stuff about growing up — in his case, in a middle-class neighborhood in Silver Springs, Md. (“My parents did just well enough so that I could grow up poor around white people”). He’s got great material about the difference between going to vote for Obama and getting in line to vote against Donald Trump. Chappelle makes his audience gasp with both laughter and shock in jokes about Kevin Spacey, Kaepernick, and Stove Top Stuffing. (Now I’ve got you intrigued, right?)
He feels free to say he was “mad” when he shut down his Comedy Central show and subsequently saw Amy Schumer and Key & Peele doing what he considers rip-offs of The Chappelle Show: “Not doing my show, but they were awfully similar,” he insists. Unafraid to be ornery and argumentative, Chappelle has rung in the new year with a lot of provocative ideas to chew over.
Dave Chappelle: Equanimity and The Bird Revelation are streaming now on Netflix.
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