Dave Chappelle’s Comedy of Bitterness

Dave Chappelle often describes stand-up comedy in liberating terms. In his 2018 appearance on Comedians in cars getting coffee, Jerry Seinfeld’s talk show about the craft of comedy, Chappelle cast stand-up as a vehicle for unbridled self-expression: “The man on stage, that’s the real man. The guy who’s not on the stage, he’s the one who lies to people, or doesn’t say what he really thinks, and all that other shit just so that man can exist uninterrupted.” The stage, in this parable, authorizes a freedom that limits the world.

Chappelle embellished this idea in his 2020 performance piece 8:46, which was filmed and released during the nationwide protests against police brutality last summer. Named after the length of time Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck, Chappelle’s formless series of haunted outbursts, sermons, and casual jokes represented a sort of alliance between comic book and audience. “The only reason people want to hear from people like me is because you trust me. You don’t expect me to be perfect. And I don’t lie to you. I’m just a man… Any institution we trust lies to us,” he said. In this version of the parable, the stage becomes a sanctuary. It not only enables freedom, it secures it and marks the boundary between insiders and outsiders.

In recent years, this conflicting us-versus-them attitude has shifted from an element in Chappelle’s work to its core. In his latest special The closer, he becomes more combative and angry, his insults more bitter than insightful. The abrasive, defensive set, though funny at times, presents a bizarre permutation of identity politics in which influential comedians and celebrities sitting on top of mounds of money are underdog victims of draconian swear words who can’t stand a joke. The false inversion distorts the skewed power dynamics between comics and their critics and denies opponents the license Chappelle demands for comedians. In the same breath, he preaches freedom and rejects feedback.

CHappelle presents The closer as the culmination of its series of Netflix specials, which the platform began releasing in 2017. “I came here tonight because this body of work that I’ve done on Netflix I’m going to complete,” Chappelle says early in the set. He follows up on that promise with an hour of incensed hand-wringing over his reception by the media, feminists and transgender groups, which he says are overreacting to his kind of comedy. While his previous specials have made headlines, this one pulls them off the shelf, reiterating old grievances and fixations at length.

Many of the jokes here take the form of corrections rather than musings, as if Chappelle is checking his report card. Everyone except him and his fans is seen as hysterical and uptight, unable to appreciate art that doesn’t satisfy them. This grudging, combative outlook is reflected not only in the content of his diatribes, but also in his stage presence. Chappelle sets are usually slapstick and visual, the comic doubling down on its own jokes, pantomimizing absurd actions and pulling its face in overblown confusion. He remains a physical performer here, but there has been a notable rise in the fetch, grimaces, screams and sighs.

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