Wish It Were Special
Standup comedy is either a mirror or a window. When you’re at a comedy club, you get the sense that the comedian onstage is either “one of us” or “one of them.” If they’re one of us, they’re reflecting our behavior back to us. If they’re one of them, they’re sharing a view with which we might not be familiar. Both are valuable.
Dave Chappelle’s genius is that he’s both. His life is unique to the extent that he’s the primary subject of his own act. Not merely a man moving through the world, but actually Dave Chappelle, the comedian, the newsmaker, the avatar.
And Dave Chappelle’s latest special, The Closer, reminded or taught us 7 lessons:
1. It ain’t easy to go out on top.
So much so that I can name only four in entertainment who did it and lived to tell about it: the Beatles, Johnny Carson, and Pete Sampras.
Even Led Zeppelin, which dropped six albums approaching perfection, can’t make this claim. By the time they released Presence and In Through the Out Door, this was a band running low on riffs. Seinfeld might’ve left NBC as a commercial success, but we hard-core Seinheads know full well that the show peaked creatively somewhere in S6/S7. Michael Jordan talked about doing it, repeatedly (three-peatedly?) mentioning he wanted to avoid Jackie Robinson’s fate of hanging around too long, but his last shot in the NBA wasn’t the Game 6 winner in 1998; it was a free throw in a blowout loss to the 76ers in 2003.
And so it goes with Dave Chappelle. In his latest Netflix special, The Closer, the quintessential comedian asked us to go back and watch all of his latest specials. So I did. It was a hilarious romp down memory lane.
I finished The Closer and then returned to view, for at least the third time, the following works, listed by title, recording location, recording year, and my rating:
- The Age of Spin. Los Angeles. 2017. 90%.
- Deep in the Heart of Texas. Austin. 2017. 70%.
- Equanimity. Washington, DC. 2017. 92%.
- The Bird Revelation. Los Angeles. 2017. 97%.
- Sticks & Stones. Atlanta. 2019. 85%.
- The Closer. Detroit. 2021. 65%.
2. To approach greatness, your vision must be lofty.
At the outset, Chappelle fought a frivolous battle. Dave announced his objective is to negotiate a release of rapper DaBaby. It’s obviously an amusing premise, but it placed a ceiling on the cultural importance of the rest of the set. Dave Chappelle is so much bigger than DaBaby. Why make yourself small? And with the world on fire, why is that the goal? If you’re Superman, why are you saving a cat from a tree when there’s a burning building full of people in it right next door?
And make no mistake: Dave is Superman. Though he half-jokes about being the GOAT, he’s undeniably the Greatest of Our Time. (The GOOT?)
All comedians are social commentators. But, as I mentioned in my Sticks & Stones review, there are only four comedians this millennium who consistently live in the Venn Diagram overlap of Funny, Meaningful, and Successful: Chappelle, Chris Rock, Bill Burr, and Louis C.K. (RIP). Every other comic fulfills two of those — at best. Since they normally have at least a year to prepare, I hang on every minute of what these four say — yes, even Louis, even now. I love when they focus on social issues, precisely because they can affect and even improve the national conversation. And if you’ve read any of my stuff, you know that I think the national conversation sucks.
Why? For starters, it’s so damn tough to get the really-really. Not “what everyone thinks of it” but “what happened.” Everything is politicized. A new TV show featuring a Black woman will seemingly automatically receive a fresh rating by the powers-that-be; too many cis-gendered, straight, White males and it’s panned as out-of-touch. As such, I can’t even trust reviews anymore, which is sad, because there’s so much crap out there and we’ve lost this great sorting mechanism. It seems like everything splits into two camps:
In Chappelle’s case, it’s the Joke vs. the Woke.
You’re either a die-hard free-speech asshole or an oversensitive humorless snowflake. It’s nearly impossible to get a nuanced take, especially from comedians, who fear it’ll harm any chance of working with Dave. Luckily, I’ve already done that five times. Ha.
So, here it is: this is a good special but it’s far from his best. As the late, great Mitch Hedberg once said: “I played in a death-metal band. People either loved us or hated us. Or they thought we were OK.”
And as I mentioned, it’s become exceedingly difficult to find the thing that we’re discussing. And each person/organization seems to have their own agenda to the extent that I’m not sure I trust anyone to explain it to me objectively. To give three quick examples:
- Mike Richards lost the Jeopardy! hosting gig because of bigoted comments… but what did he actually say?
- Andrew Cuomo lost his governorship for inappropriate behavior toward women, but what did he actually do?
- And since Chappelle focuses on it: What did J.K. Rowling actually say about trans people?
I’m not defending them. What I’m asking is: Could you tell us what happened so we can make our own decisions and also learn from our fellow humans’ mistakes? We’re so myopic that it takes brilliant comedians to come along and encourage us to zoom out and see the whole picture.
That’s why, when comedians don’t take advantage of their platform, it hurts. Society needs Chappelle. We want comics who are gonna point out the merits of being a TERF, even if we don’t agree. (Does anyone else find it ironic that, within hours, Facebook Whistleblower Frances Haugen was testifying on Capitol Hill about how bad social media has been for teenage girls? Not so much teenage boys. Oh, so there is a difference in gender. So much for liberals’ supposed respect of science.)
Anyway, as such, when Dave fails to live up to his own standard, it isn’t only an off-set for him. It’s a missed opportunity for all of us.
3. It was lacking in “Oh, my God, that’s sooo true” moments.
To expound on the last point, I listen to Chappelle because, according to the introduction where he’s using his stare to generate original material, his comedy is not only hysterical but also insightful. Alas, there were very few new points made in The Closer, one of the exceptions being that White gays are minorities until they need to be White again. That’s the kind of subtle-yet-scathing observation we expect from Chappelle — and that he’s set us up to expect from him.
Some of the criticism he’s received is unfair. But the people defending him are also using inane arguments, saying that Dave is an equal-opportunity offender. BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT DAVE IS. He’s never been a shock jock. He’s not Andrew Dice Clay. Yes, he “punches lines,” as he quotes, but…
Chappelle’s genius lies not in the fact that he can CROSS THE LINE, but rather that he can WALK THE LINE.
Dave has anointed himself a — if not “the” — spokesperson for the Black community. And similar to how millionaires get mired in thinking in terms of companies, while billionaires expand their view and think in terms of industries, a mere mortal like me sees individuals while a badass like Chappelle can express things in terms of communities. So, I was completely disappointed when Chappelle admits he’s a feminist. You gave in to those bitches? Ha. J/K. What I mean is that he confessed he finally learned what a feminist is: a human being who believes in equal rights for women. Um, you’re a bit late to the party, pal. This is something most of us have known for years, if not decades. For a man of Chappelle’s erudition, this is unacceptable. But for a man who made a movie called Half Baked, I guess it tracks?
4. When you have to explain a joke, it’s not funny.
While Chappelle brilliantly calls back many of his earlier bits (Jussie Smollett, brittle spirit, OJ, Bill Cosby, etc.), the entire routine seemed like he’s merely backtracking and justifiying his position. Ironically, though he’s accused of being offensive, he’s being defensive.
Chappelle got more caught up in making a point than making art.
Oh, and the whole thing kinda sorta wasn’t nearly as funny as his earlier work. Above all else, as a comedian, my paramount concern is whether something makes me laugh. And like Nanette, the jokes in this special simply didn’t. I snickered a few times, but I didn’t LOL once… and I’m an easy laugh. The bit about how he’d lead women in the movement if they’d S his D? It’s not even about whether it’s insulting; it’s so un-creative and un-fresh. And I suppose you could maybe make beating up a woman funny… ouch. Funny trumps all. And if you’re funnier than you are wrong, we let it go. Sadly, this didn’t make it.
And that’s a bummer, because now we’re arguing whether Chappelle should do these jokes. This is what I mean by the national conversation sucking. It’s not whether you should do them. As you learn in therapy, there is no Should. It’s whether you can and get away with them.
5. It lacked salient and cohesive points.
I’m a nerd. And what we nerds treasure is facts over feelings, logic over emotion. As per the phrase, “funny ’cause it’s true,” it’s dope when a bit isn’t just funny but is factual. This is a distant second to being funny, but when you’re handling incredibly important discourse, it’s important the bits make sense. In fact, that’s one of his strengths: to find hidden evidence and present it in a real, authentic manner. I’ll continue to refer to Sticks & Stones, but it’s because I’m seeing a pattern. He’d already shown flashes of starting to lose the thread. Chappelle joked about how, if he were a pedophile, he’d hit on Macaulay Culkin. It’s a funny line, but this is where I expect more from Dave: you do realize that the reason Michael Jackson didn’t go after Culkin is that Culkin had the resources to defend himself, right? Predators prey on what they perceive to be the helpless nobodies. And in this one, his Space Jews jokes aren’t historically accurate. Jewish folks didn’t decide on their own to leave their new homes; they were persecuted so much that they returned. So, there’s a reasonable explanation here, which we normally cannot make against his strongest arguments.
6. The closer in The Closer felt a tad exploitive.
As Chappelle instructs us comics to do, I’ve spoken “recklessly.” Long ago, I said standup comedy was the last bastion of free speech. Indeed, through Sticks & Stones, his queer bits all checked out OK to me. I’d be willing to go as far as saying, if you didn’t find them funny, you need to lighten up. There was a weight behind the comedy. And our biggest problem as progressives is that we lost our sense of humor a long time ago. And you might be thinking, “But you’re not Queer or Black.” Yeah, but I’m smart, and smart people get to comment on whatever the hell we want.
A fairer pushback sometimes is, “Yes, but why does he spend so much time on the queer issue?” And a fair answer is, “Because it’s a new hot-button topic.” Again, he’s a social commentator. Most every other topic has been done ad nauseum, which is why I felt he didn’t need to spend so much time discussing guns in Sticks & Stones: he didn’t add much novel to the subject.
His last bit about his transgender friend, Daphne, is touching, but I couldn’t help but think that it really played as “I have a Black friend, so I can’t be racist.” Try replacing “trans” with “Black” and see how that goes over. Daphne felt like a prop, even if her family is defending him. The thing is, you can always find one in every community. Chappelle rightly called out that conservative C*ntbag Candace Owens. And how do you think I feel after seeing four subpoenas for Trump supporters, one of them being Kock$uckin’ Kash Patel?
The Hollywood Laugh Factory is doing the same.
Sorry, guys. You’re my home club here in LA, but I disagree. Just as Chappelle mentions that R. Kelly should’ve given his lawyers something to work with, Dave needs to do the same.
7. Comedy died a little when it went from “I’m laughing” to “I agree.”
Ironically, it felt like clapter comedy. Nearly every comedian with over ten years of experience knows conservatives make for better comedy rooms. Lately, liberals have been taking aim at that by admonishing people, “Are those laughs you’re supposed to be getting?” (See above point about therapy: there is no Supposed.) And so their overwoke bits tend to elicit claps instead of laughs. Well, strangely, Chappelle has fallen victim to that same phenomenon.
That’s the thing about building your own audience: you can start believing your own hype. It’s the reason that performing for a crowd which didn’t buy tickets to come see you is so much more challenging: you need to win them over. In this case, it almost felt like a town hall. We can’t only look at whether the people in the room approved. It’s a self-sorting assembly. Yeah, about 100% of people at a Trump Rally agree with him, too.
In closing, The Closer is a thoroughly unsatisfiying coda to this slate of Chappelle specials, like Coda was for Led Zeppelin. He’d do well to take another several years off before returning to spit some more fire like he did in The Age of Spin. For that reason, among others, I’m glad he’ll be spending more time at the club he’s opening in our home state of Ohio. Hope to see ya there again, Dave.
This was a long way of saying something was mediocre, but I love talking about this stuff. And I hope you enjoyed the ride as much as I did. Or as much as the Gs driving that car.
I guess the whole thing makes me sad. This era has made us all just a little less funny than we used to be. I hope, for his next special, Chappelle can make society feel like “one of us” again.
Rajiv Satyal is a comedian. He was born in Southern Ohio and resides in Southern California.