When Dave Chappelle makes a comeback, he really comes back: Two hour-plus standup specials premiere on Netflix today, and they’re both very good, one better than the other. The first, titled The Age of Spin: Dave Chappelle Live at the Hollywood Palladium, was filmed in Los Angeles in 2016; the second, titled Deep in the Heart of Texas: Live at Austin City Limits, was taped in 2015. The range of subjects discussed in these two performances is dazzling: from O.J. Simpson to the Care Bears; musings on racism, homophobia, rape, and transgender rights; two stories about having things thrown at him (in one, it’s a snowball; in the other, it’s a banana peel — the banana peel story wins).
Chappelle’s style remains familiar to us from his Chappelle Show days and previous comedy specials: deceptively loose and languid, he ambles around the stage talking in a relaxed drawl, his tone tightening up primarily when he’s imitating white voices. The Age of Spin is a brilliantly organized concert that’s structured around O.J. Simpson: Near the top of the show, Chappelle explains that he’s met Simpson four times and that over the course of the performance he will tell you about each meeting. (The final tale serves as his encore.) On Simpson, Chappelle is amazing, never letting the man accused of murder off the hook, while also placing the Juice in a cultural context. He references FX’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, but it’s really the great documentary O.J.: Made in America that contains the complexity of what Chappelle gets at here. He’s a rigorous taskmaster to the audience: After a throwaway punchline about Nicole Simpson elicits hurt groans, he admonishes the crowd quickly: “Man the f*** up, or you’re not gonna make it through the show.”
The Age of Spin’s other remarkable set piece is about Bill Cosby. Again, Chappelle is devastating to the man who has allegedly committed heinous crimes, but Chappelle also insists that we understand just what a force for good Cosby was for so long, to millions of people of Chappelle’s generation. It’s a very delicate comedic needle to thread, and Chappelle does it without stabbing himself.
The Austin special is a little more dated, with material about the Ebola crisis and the infamous Ray Rice tape, and Chappelle seems a little more weighed down by headlines about police shootings: “It’s a tough time for the blacks,” he intones more than once. Nevertheless, the banana peel story — Chappelle says he had one thrown at him during a concert in Santa Fe — is a solid chunk of material that showcases the comedian’s ability to get inside the minds of other people to figure out what motivates them. Even hecklers with banana peels.
There are some viewers of these specials who are going to take offense at Chappelle’s politically incorrect thoughts about society’s current definitions of masculine and feminine, and many probably won’t agree with me about my admiration for his Cosby analysis. But that’s what makes venturesome comedy so exhilarating: You laugh — sometimes at things your conscience says you shouldn’t find funny — but you also have to think through your positions on uncomfortable issues.
Both Dave Chappelle specials are streaming now on Netflix.
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