Comedy is a very subjective art form, and it’ll probably continue to remain so as our values remain in flux. Over the past few years, there’s been a lot of debate on what lines humor should or arguably shouldn’t cross. Thanks to the internet, social media and a more globally connected world as a whole, more diverse voices than ever have been amplified, and as such there have been all sorts of conversations on what direction comedy should head.
Dave Chappelle’s two new exclusive specials for Netflix, The Age of Spin and Deep In The Heart of Texas, are his attempt to navigate his acclaimed stand-up style in this new environment. Both specials feature some talk from him on how some of his jokes have been received by audiences, telling stories about managing hecklers who want refunds that culminate with a twisted prank on the people of Detroit. Dave’s charisma levels are in full overdrive, and so is his sense of self-deprecation. One of the funniest bits from Spin is when he takes his son to a Kevin Hart show, where he seethes in the front row with jealousy while the boy and the rest of the crowd are laughing their heads off.
Some of Dave’s strongest bits come from riffing on O.J. Simpson and Bill Cosby, two iconic Black celebrities who have fallen from grace. These almost feel like eulogies for their legacies, as Dave mentions charitable contributions and boundaries that Cosby broke while holding him accountable for his history of sexual violence. There’s a part where he talks about a friend’s shock at his willingness to shake O.J.’s hand for his achievements on the football field. The way Dave figures, he was acquitted. Chappelle ‘s demeanor is always more playful than it is mean-spirited, and that helps him in his delivery of uncomfortable material.
Aside from celebrity culture, race and various other subjects, Chappelle spends a significant amount of time musing on sexuality and how it’s defined in the modern world. He recalls a discussion with a gay friend on the advancement of queer rights, and argues that the best approach on redefining the terms “husband and wife” is to take one’s chips and “get out of the casino before you crap out”.
At one point, he opines how he feels that transgender people have “the longest mental gap to bridge”, referring to Caitlyn Jenner by her deadname. Deep In The Heart of Texas pushes it further, as Dave recalls a story about a partygoer who had passed out nearby. He misgenders her, using a term I’ve decided not to repeat here.
At no point does Dave degenerate into Andrew Dice Clay style bullying with his jokes, but I’m not going to pretend that people won’t be bothered by these routines, and I can understand why. My life experience is my own, and I can relate to some of Chappelle’s jokes regarding prejudice more than others. I realize that however I may feel about something shouldn’t have any bearing on how others perceive it. My take is that as society gradually becomes more aware of issues that marginalized people continue to face, our attitudes towards how we treat people will evolve alongside it- and with it, what people consider acceptable and tasteful humor. But from what I took from the specials, these bits mainly present Dave as someone who is making the attempt to learn more about something he doesn’t fully understand.
Still, Chappelle has formed his entire brand around risky subjects, in the vein of stand-up icons like Chris Rock, George Carlin and Richard Pryor. There’s not much in the way of overly political comedy, save for his outlook on the state of race relations in America. The peak moment for me was a running gag throughout Deep involving a heckler with a banana, featuring a vicious punchline from Dave when their mother offers to make amends.
As he enters his forties, Chappelle still has a pulse on today’s social hypocrisies for the most part, even if many of his attitudes differ from younger members of his audience. While I enjoyed both specials overall, they have their flaws and parts that will likely be considered problematic. Still, Dave basically avoids turning into a grumpy old man who dad-jokes or is unable to understand “these crazy kids today”. There’s always an effort from him to try and make sense of a constantly changing world, and his natural magnetism enhances the experience.
So based on that, I personally give both specials a strong recommendation- both for continuing the conversation about comedy’s role in these times, or if you just want to laugh yourself silly. Don’t nap on them, they’ve become the most watched in Netflix’s history for good reason.