“I haven’t been working for ten years,” Dave Chappelle muses to an eager crowd during one of this two newly released performances. “I had to watch Key & Peele do my show every night!”
Of course, there is no real substitute for the idiosyncratic Chappelle, whose long absence from the limelight only helped cement his legend status. Now, more than a decade after walking away from his massively popular Comedy Central sketch show, he’s back in a big way with two thrilling Netflix specials slated for a simultaneous release on March 21: The Age of Spin (taped in L.A. in 2016) and Deep in the Heart of Texas (Austin, 2015).
Both sets find Chappelle working through a lot of the same knotty themes: fame, race, police. But he’s notably more frisky in Age of Spin, turning hot-button current events into philosophical quandaries. He rips into his childhood hero Bill Cosby, calling him “the Steph Curry of rape,” but wonders how the positive aspects of Cosby’s legacy should be remembered. “It would be like if you found out that chocolate ice cream itself had raped fifty-four people!” Other subjects Chappelle wraps his head around: O.J. Simpson (nice guy, but guilty), Caitlyn Jenner (“How the f— are transgender people beating black people in the Discrimination Olympics?”), MLK (would he be able to keep a sneaker deal in this day and age?), and Kevin Hart (how did he get more famous than me?).
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Heart of Texas is looser, even whimsical at times. Midway through the set, Chappelle lights a cigarette, sits on a stool, and delivers a surreal and winding story about a vagina in a boxing match. Some of the funniest jokes are about masturbation. He offers personal tales as well, riffing on his marriage, fatherhood, and an extortion attempt. The topic of Bill Cosby does come up again, though, as do other instances of disgraced celebrities — Ray Rice, Paula Deen, and Donald Sterling, to name a few.
Yet all throughout the specials, he always returns to the topic that animates him most. As fans of his sketch show know, Chappelle is fascinated by discrimination, constantly taking stock of who’s up, who’s down, and who’s next. The taxonomy of hate bubbles up frequently in both sets. And he’s more than ready to deal with the fact that he himself, as a successful black celebrity, holds a unique place in all of this. He recounts recent racist encounters of his own — including getting called the N-word by a group of white kids in his own town, and a publicized instance in which an audience member threw a banana peel at him — while acknowledging that fame affords him, say, much smoother interactions with police than others might enjoy.
Throughout the past decade or so, there have been plenty of moments when events in the news would make fans wonder, “What would Dave Chappelle say about this?” His fiery delivery and knack for re-framing social issues couldn’t have returned any sooner. In times like these, there’s a lot of comfort in knowing that one the greatest comedians alive is back to keep a keen eye on things. B+