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Approximately midway through one of his new Netflix comedy specials (the one he taped last year in L.A. — I’ve yet to see the one taped in Austin), Dave Chappelle made a shocking allusion to his age. I forgot exactly what he said and how he said it, but I remember being reminded of exactly how young he is, and how surprised I was by that. He’s been in the public consciousness for over two decades now; long enough to have several popular stand-up performances, 26 (!) credited film and movie roles, an iconic sketch show, perhaps the best block party ever, and a decade-long sabbatical from the public eye. I assumed that he was nearing or perhaps even past 50. But he’s 43 years old; just five years older than me.
Undoubtedly, my assumptions were also influenced by Chappelle’s signature laconicness. Even when younger, he carried himself, moved, and spoke with the slyness of someone who’s been here before. Who’s seen everything there is to be seen, and mines his humor from the absurdity and the silliness of the human condition. If Chris Rock was the fiery and profane academic, Chappelle was the perpetually bemused and occasionally inappropriate homeboy.
And perhaps this juxtaposition of his actual age and his decades-long celebrity status is why, after watching his special, Chappelle today feels like such an anachronism. This, by the way, doesn’t mean that his special wasn’t funny. Because it was. But I couldn’t help but wonder why, when releasing his first concert special in 12 years — and releasing said special during a time rife with an ever-growing morass of racial and political context to lend his signature insights to — he’d devote the longest and most ambitious bits of his act to rape, O.J. Simpson, Bill Cosby, and trans people. Perhaps he intended to tackle those subjects as a challenge; attempting to find the humor in content most other comedians would consider radioactive. But maybe he recognizes himself as someone whose time has passed while other, younger comedians have taken his place. And perhaps he’s aware he might be regarded that way, and is pissed about it, and choosing to delve into those topics is a middle finger to 2017. Maybe the world has moved on, but he hasn’t.
If this is true, his bizarre and one-sided feud with Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele makes more sense. But it being (somewhat) understandable doesn’t make it right. The source of his acrimony seems to stem from Key & Peele debuting on Comedy Central seven years after The Chappelle Show ended. As Chappelle recently stated in an interview with CBS This Morning, he (rightly) believes he helped pave the way for their success. And this bothers him.
“When I watch ‘Key & Peele’ and I see they’re doing a format that I created, and at the end of the show, it says, ‘Created by Key & Peele,’ that hurts my feelings.”
He also alludes to this during his comedy special, joking that he’s forced to (paraphrasing) “fucking watch Key & Peele do my show every week.” Of course, there are several obvious parallels between the two. Particularly in regard to the focus on race and racism. But how they treat and tackle race is where they’re most divergent.
Like his stand-up, Chappelle’s race humor came from a preternaturally confident understanding of how the world really works and his place in it. He tells it like it is, even if its uncomfortable to hear. Especially if it’s uncomfortable to hear. His infamous weed habit, in this context, is a self-medicating way of dealing with the humor and the harshness of reality. Key & Peele, however, mine much of their race humor from the insecurity of questioning their place in the world. It’s not a shame of Blackness; it’s a perpetual wondering if their backgrounds and personalities cultivate doubts of their authenticity, and finding the humor in their attempts to quell that (mostly) non-existent intra-racial cynicism. The Chappelle Show dealt with what was happening in the world. Key & Peele dealt with what was happening in their own heads.
No skit better exemplifies this internal pressure to perform Blackness than “Soul Food” — which also happened to be the first Key & Peele bit I’d ever seen. Chappelle would never, ever, ever do something like this, because it just wasn’t and isn’t a part of his relationship with the world and with being Black. (This, btw, doesn’t make Key & Peele or their comedy any less Black than Chappelle’s. It’s just covering the same cavernous and limitless topic from a different perspective.)
But even if we go back to the similarities between the shows, Dave Chappelle’s gripes still don’t hold much water. Yes, he definitely came before them and presumably made their path much easier. Just as The Chris Rock Show came before Chappelle. And Robert Townsend and His Partners in Crime came before The Chris Rock Show. And In Living Color came before Robert Townsend and His Partners in Crime. And The Richard Pryor Show came before In Living Color. And while I’m sure Chappelle appreciated each of his forebearers, I don’t recall any of them receiving executive producer credits for his show.
Ultimately, it seems like what Dave Chappelle wants is for it to be 2005 again. But he didn’t even want it to be 2005 when it was 2005 — choosing to walk away at the peak of his fame — so why should we?