Dave Chappelle’s Content Needs a Refresh

As an aspiring comedian, I’ve been auditing a lot of comedy as of late — I hit open-mics, local shows, and am watching every special on HBO and Netflix. I even landed myself a gig on #KamauRightNow, a podcast with political comedian W. Kamau Bell.

As a novice, you might find yourself imitating some of your favorite comedians in the beginning until you find your lane. I like the smorgasbord approach of taking something from everyone and whittling it down until my own personal style eventually reveals itself. “Topical,” “black” and “self-deprecating” are currently speaking to me as someone who wants  to harness her naturally bitchy state into something more productive.  

I’m also becoming keenly aware of craft – not just in the crafting of a joke – but in the delivery. From timing and physicality, to blocking and scoring. After watching the first two of three of his highly anticipated Netflix specials: The Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas, I’ve honed in on Chappelle using the mic and himself as a prop; how he smacks it against his leg to punctuate a punchline; his languid nature, methodical voice inflections, and impersonations. All intentional devices allowing him to captivate an audience with nothing but himself and a wireless mic onstage for 60 minutes in Spin (he has a stool onstage in Texas.) He’s truly a consummate performer and storyteller.

I’m that person who still hasn’t watched The Wire. That is to say, I get to stuff late. Years, maybe decades, after their cultural zeitgeist. I was a junior in college without cable when “Chappelle’s Show” debuted, and still without cable by the time it ended three years later. I only really honed in on Chappelle’s work in the past few years, so I can’t even say “I miss the old Kanye” in regards to his work now. Despite this, I’m very familiar with his 2000 comedy special “Killing Them Softly,” and 2005’s “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” (which might be the best thing Dave’s ever done.)

While he’s no doubt one of the best standup comedians of our time, a decade in seclusion can leave a person somewhat out of touch. “Tranny” jokes, and that moniker in particular, which he pretends to question in Texas, “What are they called? Trannies? Drag queens?” You know what these people are called, Dave. That might’ve been funny when he left the public arena and a $50 million dollar deal on the table in 2005, but not in 2017. We are woke now. Add rape jokes, gay jokes, four cases of meeting O.J., and an absurdist comedic defense of Bill Cosby – albeit, still a defense – and Dave starts veering into “your Problematic Black Uncle who still thinks O.J. didn’t do it” territory. I am hoping in the third Netflix installment, which he’s currently filming, that he takes a more prescient, rather than anachronistic turn.

However, if you can stomach those triggering topics, you’ll be rewarded with Chappelle’s astute take on other topical events and anecdotes. Among them are a racially motivated snowball attack and the only man who died of Ebola in the U.S. What may be his funniest bit is a story about taking his young son to see Kevin Hart, where he grapples with his own feelings of inadequacy relative to Hart’s notorious fame. He also does a smart takedown of white feminism in a story about a woman in the audience at one of his shows. She repeatedly yelled “women suffer,” comparing her own to his, a black man’s. He retorts, “I know! But not like us.”

From what I’ve seen, Chappelle hasn’t ever shied away from ”problematic” comedy with uncomfortable premises. I caught him live late last year in San Francisco where he chain-smoked, drank tequila and made us laugh about bestiality on a Tuesday night at 2 a.m. To this day, I still find myself chuckling at the punchline, “he might look back at it,” in a tale about sex with a goat.

I tweeted recently that my comedic goals were somewhere between Tig Notaro – who has a 12-minute joke about meeting Taylor Dayne – and Ali Wong, who did a Netflix special seven-months pregnant, catapulting her to stardom. Now, if I can just harness Chappelle’s delivery, I might have found my niche.

Maia Jannele tells people she’s a writer, thinker and funny lady, in no particular order. A “retired” arts blogger, she now prefers Twitter for live commentary on everything from operas to Insecure. She’s currently easing into standup comedy. Twitter