The two Netflix stand-up specials, The Age of Spin: Dave Chappelle Live at the Hollywood Palladium and Deep in the Heart of Texas: Dave Chappelle Live at Austin City Limits, which premiered last night, are proof that Netflix has placed a high premium on audacity. The streaming service reportedly offered Chappelle a $60 million for three specials in total (these two, which he’d filmed prior to the deal, and an additional one filmed for Netflix), a sure sign of its faith in Chappelle’s bankability and its allegiance to his freedom of expression. But Chappelle’s Show had its iconic three-year run on Comedy Central over a decade ago. Whether or not Chappelle will pay the cost for speaking so freely in a time that is at least more outwardly sensitive and engaged with the spectrum of identities than it was back then remains to be seen.
These specials will be refreshing to those who bristle at the impositions of modern liberal mores and who consider “PC culture” a hinderance. At times, Chappelle himself espouses such philosophy. At one point in Deep in the Heart of Texas, he ponders how much he owes trans people: “To what degree to I have to participate in your self-image? Is it fair that I have to change my whole pronoun game up for this motherfucker? That doesn’t make sense.” Multiple bits in The Age of Spin—one, in fact, from which the special derives its title—are focused on kids-these-days grousing from a man whose affect is crabby and soured, in general. Dave Chappelle says “fags” and “dykes” casually in conversations, but comes off more like a world-weary uncle than flat-out hateful. That’s just how Uncle Dave is. He’s from a different time. He’s the kind of guy refers to “prison fags” (locked-up guys sucking dick to pass time) and notes that AIDS affects “niggers, fags, and junkies” before landing on what could be considered a compliment, I guess: “Either God is white or the government hid that shit in disco balls. Only fun people get AIDS.”
He means well! Or well enough that he can get away with commenting on identities he has nothing to do with because of his comedic pragmatism. He sees the absurdity in everything and is on a perpetual mission to find the humor in common-sense responses to contemporary culture’s concerns. Take his thoughts on advances in gay rights in The Age of Spin:
I understand why gay people are mad and I empathize. I’m just telling you this as a black dude: I support your movement. But if you want to take some advice from a negro, pace yourself. These things take a while. Just ‘cause they passed the law doesn’t mean they’re gonna like it. Brown v. Board of Education was in 1955 [sic], somebody called me a nigger in traffic last Wednesday.
Less charming is his observation on trans rights, again from Spin, which is supposed to be funny because it’s true but just smacks of ignorance:
I was like how the fuck are transgender people beating black people in the discrimination Olympics? If the police shot have as many transgenders as they did niggas last year, it’d be a fucking war in L.A. I know black dudes in Brooklyn—hard street motherfuckers—that wear high heels just to feel safe.
The fact of the matter is that 2016 was the deadliest year on record for trans people (with 25-27 killed, depending on the sources), and 2015 held the previous record. What made Chappelle confident in crafting a joke to expose the absurdity of “discrimination Olympics” was underreporting and general public apathy toward trans lives. His equivalency is certifiably false—at least, no war has broken out yet over all these trans deaths. And perhaps most flagrantly ignored is the intersectionality of the issue, as the vast majority of murdered trans people are those of color. Chappelle’s isn’t just a bad joke, it’s sloppy social commentary. It’s demonstrably incorrect. It perpetuates the idea that trans people are doing fine because some outspoken liberals have taken up the cause. It is here that Chappelle comes off not just as from a different time, but seriously out of touch.
But Chappelle’s brand depends on his willingness to go there, and so he always goes there, whether discussing Paula Deen, diarrhea, his own foot fetish, ebola, Care Bears, or Michael Sam (whom he refers to Michael Sams and wonders what would happen if the first out gay man in the NFL were to brutalize his “wife” as Ray Rice did: “Is that domestic violence or is that just two niggas working shit out in an elevator, you know what I mean?”).
Chappelle reserves his most in depth, complicated analysis for one of his heroes, Bill Cosby, who’s been accused of rape and/or other sexual misconduct by over 60 women at this point. Chappelle has caused controversy in the past for his discussion about this very subject, and attracted at least one heckler at a Syracuse show in 2015.
Chappelle recalls the incident in the almost 20 minutes he devotes to Cosby in Spin, a show otherwise organized around sharing accounts of the four times Chappelle has met O.J. Simpson throughout his life (a brilliant framing device). I’ve transcribed Chappelle’s thoughts on Cosby and am pasting them below with minimal commentary:
The ‘70s were a wild era and while all this was going on, Bill Cosby raped 54 people. Holy shit, that’s a lot of rapes, man. This guy’s putting up real numbers. He’s like the Steph Curry of rape. Man, that’s a lot of rapes! Fifty-four! If he had raped 30 less people, that’s still two dozen rapes! Don’t forget, each one of these rapes has eight hours of sleep in it. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s over 400 hours of rape. It only takes 65 hours to get a pilot’s license. If rapes were aircrafts, this nigga is Top Gun for sure.
Yeah, that’s a tough one. And I was onstage not too long ago. I was in Syracuse, New York… the show didn’t go so good, all because I was talking about Bill Cosby a little bit. Not a little bit. I’ll be honest. I talked about him for like maybe 25 minutes. And a woman stood up in the back of the room and she screamed out, “You are a fucking asshole for saying these things!”
Instantly I felt bad. Not bad about what I was saying. I just felt bad like, “Oh, that’s too bad she doesn’t like the show.” I didn’t realize it at first but not only did she say that, she was rushing the stage. By the time I saw her, I just saw this shadowy figure fucking charging up the aisle towards me in full fight mode. I was horrified. I said, “Oh my god! I’mma kick this bitch in the face.” Lucky for me, I didn’t have to. Security tackled her. But it was a really fucking horrifying scene. A scuffle ensued. And then, finally, she screamed out to me, “Women suffer.” I said, “I know.”
And ladies, I need you to know that I know. I need you to know. Seriously, there’s a lot of men in this room that identify themselves as feminists. I would include myself in that. Don’t ever forget, we all have mothers and daughters and sisters and wives, and we want to see all these women do well and not be held back by their gender. There’s a lot of men like that in this room. There’s a lot of men like that in the world. Or as we are known on the streets, bitch-ass niggas.
But as this woman was wrestling and screaming at me, I started to take offense. And I’ll be honest, race was involved. She was a young white woman. Well-intentioned but just not thinking it all the way through. “Bitch, how the fuck are you going to yell at a black man about discrimination?” She didn’t get it. She just kept going.
And this is when she went too far: “We suffer just like you.”
“Slow your roll, bitch. You suffer, yes, but not like me. Not like us.”
She goes, “Suffering is suffering. What’s the difference?”
I said, “Come on, white woman, you know what it is. You was in on the heist. You just don’t like your cut.”
You suffer, I suffer. You suffer, I suffer. That’s how it works. Can’t do comparative suffering. If you’re hungry and your friend said, “You know, people are starving in Africa,” “So what, nigga? I still want lunch.” Black people know about comparative suffering, and you know that it’s a fucking dead-end game. Blacks and Jews do that shit to each other all the time. You ever played Who Suffered More with a Jewish person? It’s a tough game. Whenever you think you’ve got the Jewish guy on the ropes, that motherfucker will be like, “Well don’t forget about Egypt.” “Egypt? Goddamn, nigga, I didn’t know we was going all the way back to Egypt.”
What the fuck is wrong with her? What does she think? Does she think that I don’t know that rape is wrong? Does she think that maybe I don’t have empathy for Bill Cosby’s alleged victims? And I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you that technically these are all still allegations. Although, I admit it looks very bad. Perhaps if she looked at it correctly, she would have empathy for me, the man she was attacking, a 42-year-old black comedian.
Note that Chappelle made similar comments about how Cosby’s rapes affected him in a New York Times interview that ran last week. On one hand, this really isn’t about you, man! On the other, what does Dave Chappelle have regarding any of his subjects except for his point of view?
Obviously, Bill Cosby was a hero to me. And she doesn’t know what it feels like to think that your hero might’ve done something so heinous, my God, you can’t imagine. It’d be as if you heard that chocolate ice cream itself had raped 54 people. You’d say to yourself, “Oh man, but I like chocolate ice cream. I don’t want it to rape.”
Didn’t want to believe it. At first, I didn’t believe it. I was like, “Man, these people are obviously trying to destroy Dr. Cosby’s rich legacy.” Even 34 allegations into it, I was still like, “Man…he probably only raped 10 or 11 of those people.”
I know, I know. But it’s really tough. You guys are young. Imagine if you found out 40 years from now that Kevin Hart raped 54 people. You’d be like, “Oh my God.” The only one that would believe that would be Katt Williams. He’d be like, “I knew that motherfucker was up to something! I knew Kevin raped those people!”
Chappelle then went into an anecdote about taking his kid to see Kevin Hart’s show, only to return to Cosby a few minutes later to close out his set:
I’ve never met Bill Cosby, so I’m not defending him. Let’s just remember that he has a valuable legacy that I can’t just throw away. I remember that he’s the first black man to ever win an Emmy in television. I also remember that he’s the first guy to make a cartoon with black characters where their lips and noses were drawn proportionately. I remember that he had a television show that got numbers equivalent to the Super Bowl every Thursday night. And I remember that he partnered up with a clinical psychologist to make sure that there was not one negative image of African Americans on his show. I’m telling you, that’s no small thing. I’ve had a television show. I wouldn’t have done that shit.
He gave tens of millions of dollars to African American institutions of higher learning, and is directly responsible for thousands of black kids going to college. Not just the ones he raped.
Here comes the kicker, you ready? Here’s the fact that I heard, but haven’t confirmed. I heard that when Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said he had a dream, he was speaking into a P.A. system that Bill Cosby paid for. So, you understand what I’m saying? The point is this: He rapes, but he saves. And he saves more than he rapes. But he probably does rape.
The all-out waffling at the end of Chappelle’s argument—Cosby was a great man, and allegedly a horrible monster, who did more good things than the bad ones he’s accused of, but still, but still—is mired in simultaneity that is utterly modern. Cosby is offered the most robust of Chappelle’s nuance. And sure, life is complicated, more than one thing can be true at the same time. Chappelle’s heart is where it is, but the consideration he affords an accused serial rapist is far more careful than that which he extends to virtually any other lightning-rod subject matter that he touches.