If you asked me a few years ago who my favorite comedian was I’d probably say Dave Chappelle. Even to this day I think that his first two specials and his sketch show “Chappelle’s Show” hold up. I was super excited when he announced a new stand up special in 2017 after not releasing one since 2004 – and not making any recorded appearances since 2006. Unfortunately, the same magic he had back then just isn’t around anymore. I did think his first few specials upon returning were solid, not great, but solid. But each one has just been worse and worse, and his latest, and as he announced, final, special follows the trend.
The main issue with his latest specials is an unfortunate issue with time. His new delivery style just isn’t even close to as funny as his original one, but unfortunately that can’t be helped. He’s not the young man he used to be and is just not capable of that bright springy energy his old material used to have. So instead, he tries to take a more slow, deliberate and dignified approach, and this also reflects in his attitude when delivering the material. Chappelle has done what many older comedians have unfortunately done: bought into his own bullshit.
Throughout Chappelle’s career, the idea that comedians are modern day philosophers has been brought up a lot by people. This was likely due to the poignant social commentary that could often be found in the works of some starting with Lenny Bruce and followed by other acts such as Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Bill Hicks. It got to a point where people wouldn’t even watch the comedians for comedy but rather to hear them talk. This accelerated considerably in the 2010s with the works of Mike Birbiglia, who essentially blended his stand-up act with elements from spoken word and one-man stage shows. Chappelle, like many other greats in comedy, decided to adopt this new style of spoken word blended with stand-up into his act. While it was initially interesting to just hear Chappelle’s thoughts about stuff, especially after such a long absence, by the time of “The Closer’s” release, it’s just not interesting anymore. This is the sixth special since his return, and it is by far the one with the fewest jokes and the least amount to say.
Chapelle’s earlier specials since his return still had quite a large number of jokes. They were told in a different style as compared to his previous stand-up work, specifically being a lot slower and deliberate when his early work was far more energetic and loose, but they were still jokes that were quite funny. Whenever he does tell jokes in “The Closer,” they are funny. The problem is there’s hardly any jokes. It’s mostly just him whining. I’ve seen people jokingly call specials like this and Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette” ‘Ted Talks’ but quite frankly, actual Ted Talks tend to have more jokes. These specials are more like sermons. Speaking of “Nanette,” I feel this special is essentially “Nanette” but meant to appeal to people who hated “Nanette”.
For those unfamiliar with “Nanette,” it was a special done by Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby that received critical acclaim for deconstructing the art of stand-up comedy. Personally, I didn’t get this interpretation. It was an interesting watch, but it was far from revolutionary as it just followed along in the trend 2010s comedy had taken starting with the aforementioned Mike Birbiglia. Nanette is in the format of a one woman show, and one woman shows have existed for decades, it was just marketed and labeled as stand-up and thus treated as something different. Its message ultimately rang hollow when its success led to Gadsby continuing her career, despite ending the special saying she’s leaving comedy. That was the thesis statement — the entire thing was essentially saying comedy had no place nowadays and deconstructing the very nature and role comedy has in modern times, but she walked back on that theme immediately.
I feel Chappelle is likely to do the same thing. As mentioned before, he said “The Closer” was going to be his final statement and that this was his final special. However, shortly after the release of this special, he released more clips of him at shows responding to the criticism. It’s just puffing up your chest and trying to sound important but without ever committing to the actual point expressed. In the special he claims “Twitter ain’t real” and that he’s unaffected by the criticisms, but then proceeded to demonstrate almost as soon as the special dropped the contrary with his responses to the critique.
I think a big problem with almost every discussion of popular modern stand-up specials is that whenever you ask the question “but was it funny?” Nobody ever gives a clear answer. They talk about how important the message is but not whether it was an effective piece of comedic entertainment. Quite frankly, deconstruction is an incredibly shallow lens to view art. That’s positioning the art relative to its space in a medium rather than viewing it on its own terms. A good deconstruction should have value outside of its role in comedy. Due to the Chappelle special taking on a more edgy, non-politically-correct angle people are praising him purely because of those optics and how it’s different relative to other specials, but that’s not a statement on the actual quality. That’s just another cog in a never-ending culture war
That’s not even getting into where the controversy of the special began: his comments on the trans community. Every single special since he returned has mentioned the trans community, and each time he increasingly drops pretenses and stops cracking jokes. In this special he just makes long statements and not a single member of the audience laughs, because he doesn’t even bother to be comedic. His bravado that the criticism doesn’t bother him also rings hollow as this has been an ongoing thing across six specials. He has been criticized before without addressing anything in his specials, but now he feels the need to respond to the critique. It comes off as him being jealous of the strides the LGBTQA+ community has made over the decade and a bitterness over the lack of progress in race relations. What’s truly bizarre is how he fails to recognize what people’s criticisms of him are, considering one of the reasons he left comedy in the first place was because he didn’t like how people reacted to a racial sketch. He felt they were laughing for the wrong reasons. More specifically, he felt they were laughing at him and not with him. Well, he’s back and making those same jokes he made before, just about the trans community instead of race.
You can’t say that Chappelle’s comments are just jokes, because not even the comedian himself believes that. If he did, then he would’ve never left all those years ago. His constant prodding of the news and media also feels like a desperate ploy to drum up attention, something entirely unnecessary due to his existing clout, which again reeks of insecurity. It’s sad seeing a comedian that was so sharp and nuanced essentially relying on cheap shock. It’s like watching someone rip off Chappelle rather than actually being him — like a cheap adult cartoon that’s imitating South Park without even getting a fraction of what made that show successful.
The most disappointing part is that he is still funny. Whenever he cracks a joke it’s funny, but he hardly ever makes a joke in this special. It’s just the ramblings of a boomer comedian upset that the world is no longer serving him like it used to, despite him having a massive platform and being paid eight figures.
It’s also interesting seeing how his return was well-received for the first few specials, but the second he got negative press for “Sticks and Stones” the following specials began feeling a lot more defensive and a lot less playful. He didn’t even come off bigoted in his previous specials but in this one he does. When he talks about his own trans friend it wavers between feeling sincere and feeling like he’s using the name of a dead trans woman to protect his own image
Insincerity just reeks from ”The Closer”, and it’s because Chappelle relied on sarcasm instead of telling actual jokes. Conversation surrounding the special has also been a mess, as there seems to be multiple different ones that are all arguing different things. The most common one is the one that surrounds everything controversial in comedy: arguing what can and can’t be said and the nature of punching up and down. I feel, however, that this conversation does not apply because as stated before, he wasn’t even making jokes about the trans community. He was making a statement. He wasn’t trying to make anyone laugh. At best he would sprinkle in light conversational sarcasm, but that hardly constitutes a joke. It’s like he’s still trying to make his lectures comedic, but he doesn’t commit to actually telling jokes, so it just comes off as a sarcastic dismissive asshole. This also unfortunately leads to another side effect because some of his comments are at least interesting but because of this half joking, noncommittal delivery. it just undercuts any value that can be pulled from it.
There’s this paradox going on where Chappelle clearly understands and has a few astute observations, but there is a bitterness over the traction the movement has gotten. He’s comparing the oppressions of race and gender like they’re rival sports teams
I’m not sure if I’d say he’s transphobic and I’m not sure I should or can even make that judgement; he clearly cares and has a deeper understanding than I think people are giving him credit for, but his sloppy delivery, lack of interest in tackling it seriously or comically and underlying bitterness completely muddies any message that could’ve been said.
I want to end this review with a statement said by the late great Norm MacDonald that stand-ups should hunt for laughter, not applause. Unfortunately, it seems that Chappelle has forgotten to hunt for laughter and is instead gunning for applause, and unfortunately from the very same audience that he seemingly abandoned comedy because of.
It’s not good entertainment and it’s not a particularly effective or profound spoken word. It’s just a muddy mess.