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Why Dave Chappelle doesn’t want you to stream Chappelle’s Show

Dave Chappelle called Chappelle’s Show “stolen goods.” Netflix and HBO listened.

Dave Chappelle
Dave Chappelle on January 30 in North Charleston, South Carolina. The comedian has called for a boycott of platforms streaming his Comedy Central hit Chappelle’s Show.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Dave Chappelle has a lot of feelings about how networks have exploited his comedy over the years. And as 2020 winds down, he’s turning his emotion into action.

HBO announced on December 15 that it would soon pull the beloved comedy series Chappelle’s Show off HBO Max, in response to Chappelle’s own public request last month that fans boycott any streaming platforms hosting the show. All three seasons of the beloved comedy series, which originally ran from 2003–2006 on Comedy Central, will become unavailable on the platform after December 31st.

In an appearance at Variety’s FYCFest, HBO’s chief content officer Casey Bloys described Chappelle’s request that the platform remove the show as “a very unique and specific and emotional issue.”

“We had a conversation with Dave,” Bloys said. “So at the end of the year, at the end of this year, December 31st, we’re going to honor his request and take the show down.”

HBO is the second network after Netflix to pull Chappelle’s Show from streaming as a favor to Chappelle, who claims that due to signing an unfair contract when the show first aired, he now receives no royalties from streams of it. (Those go to the rights holder, Viacom, which owns Comedy Central.)

The subject seems to have been on Chappelle’s mind frequently as of late; he first brought it up during his post-election hosting gig on Saturday Night Live, when he noted “I didn’t get paid for any of it” — referring to HBO Max and Netflix recently adding the show to their catalogs — and joked that he’d “got bought and sold” more than his enslaved ancestors.

On November 24, not long after the SNL monologue, Chappelle elaborated at length on the decision in an 18-minute-long standup monologue. In the Instagram TV clip, titled “Unforgiven” and captioned, “This is why,” Chappelle describes his lifelong history of having his comedy stolen and exploited by others. Viacom’s exploitative contract, he argues, is one such part of that.

“Taking a man’s livelihood away from him is akin to killing him,” Chappelle said. Essentially, he argues, Viacom won’t pay him royalties for online streams of the show because his original contract didn’t make allowances for streaming media — unsurprising, since Chappelle’s Show debuted before YouTube even existed, let alone Netflix and HBO Max. (Vox has reached out to Comedy Central for comment.)

“I found out that these people were streaming my work and they never had to ask me or they never have to tell me,” Chappelle said in the video. He also describes being “furious” at Netflix when he learned the platform had streaming rights to the show, and called on his fans to boycott that and any other platform that streamed it.

“If you are fucking streaming that show, you’re fencing stolen goods,” he told his audience in the Instagram video. For now, clips of the show are still available on Comedy Central’s YouTube channel, and full seasons are available on CBS All Access and Comedy Central’s website with subscriptions or cable logins.

Chappelle is by no means the first creative to take umbrage with streaming platforms and royalties. Comedian Mo’Nique, for instance, is pursuing a lawsuit against Netflix over claims that they drastically underpaid her for her standup specials relative to white comedians of similar stature. Chappelle is also not alone in feeling frustrated by an entertainment company’s handling of an older contract. The hashtag #DisneyMustPay has gained traction on social media recently, spread by Star Wars fans angered by Disney’s reported refusal to honor the terms of decades-old contracts originally made between Star Wars tie-in writers and LucasFilm, which Disney now owns.

But while many similar complaints may boil down to business, with HBO, Chappelle asserts that the streaming issue is personal. HBO executives once heard — and mockingly rejected — his initial pitch for Chappelle’s Show, according to the comedian. Comedy Central picked it up, and it went on to garner three Emmy nominations and deliver many iconic comedy moments, like the famous ”I’m Rick James, bitch” sketch.

Yet Chappelle won’t forget that HBO executives had asked him, “What do we need you for?”

“And here we are, all these years later, and they’re streaming the very show that I was pitching to them,” he said. “So I’m asking them: What do you need me for?”

Perhaps the irony in this is that Chappelle has released several successful comedy specials for Netflix over the past few years. The most recent of these, 2019’s Sticks and Stones, won a Grammy for best comedy album — despite a negative critical reception, due to Chappelle’s flippancy toward cancel culture and other progressive cultural codes. Still, he remains a comedy mainstay, and he hinted in the Instagram clip that he might bring back a new version of his old sketch show.

If he does, we can probably guess where it won’t be streaming.