As Netflix tells it, Dave Chappelle “charges straight into the fire” with his two newly released, “blistering” and “searing” standup specials.
As Chappelle himself tells it, he’s a 42-year-old dad who’s more confused than infuriated with the world these days.
The Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas are the first comedy specials the comedian has released in more than a decade. After abruptly leaving his sketch series Chappelle’s Show in 2005 — and shrugging at the $50 million contract Comedy Central offered him to keep making it — Chappelle spent the next several years traveling to South Africa, avoiding press, settling down in a tiny town in Ohio, and performing occasional, scattered standup sets around the country, to mixed success. In the process, he earned a reputation for being a difficult recluse — a reputation that, whether fair or not, Chappelle doesn’t avoid talking about in these new specials.
The shaggier, more explicit Deep in the Heart of Texas was recorded in a haze of cigarette smoke at a dark Austin theater in 2015; The Age of Spin debuted to huge fanfare and a voiceover introduction from Morgan Freeman on a neon-framed Hollywood stage in 2016. (Netflix reportedly paid millions for the exclusive rights to stream the two sets as well as a new 2017 special to be released later this year.)
Therefore, neither hour is current enough to tackle the political elephant in the room. But Chappelle is still a comic who thrives on dissecting the dirty little secrets of American culture, the better to get them all out into the open. Both hours are full of sharp material on subjects ranging from Bill Cosby (it’s complicated) to Chappelle meeting O.J. Simpson (four times!) to why he once ditched a fundraiser in Flint, Michigan, to attend the Oscars (short answer: Chris Rock).
Still, after a decade away from churning out content for the masses, Chappelle doesn’t seem very sure of what those masses want or expect from him anymore — and those are the moments when his specials are at their hilarious best and questionable worst.
Dave Chappelle is still one of the best comics out there at tackling hot-button issues — or most of them, anyway
Watching Deep in the Heart of Texas and Age of Spin back to back feels a little like going back in time just far enough for it to be truly disorienting, given that the news cycle is currently moving at the speed of a bullet train. For example: Some of the hottest topics Chappelle covers in Age of Spin feel plucked from a lifetime ago, including former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racist comments in the spring of 2014, the disturbing video of NFL star Ray Rice abusing his wife that surfaced that same year, Caitlyn Jenner coming out as transgender in the summer of 2015, and boxer Manny Pacquiao being dropped by Nike after making homophobic comments in early 2016.
So the material isn’t exactly fresh. And neither are all the jokes, especially when Chappelle gets into how the Filipino Pacquiao’s physical strength is a godsend because "we bombed the masculinity out of an entire continent," or how “transgender [people are] beating black people in the discrimination Olympics” (never mind that transgender people of color exist and are killed at disproportionately high rates).
But part of the point of both Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas is Chappelle musing on how he is, at 42 years old, officially part of an older generation that has no fucking idea what’s going on with the kids, including his own. He’s skeptical of a lot of things, but at the end of the day, he’s willing to listen and try to figure stuff out.
At one particularly solid point in Age of Spin, Chappelle recalls the day in school when his teacher wheeled in a TV so the class could see the Challenger space shuttle take off, only to have the horrified kids watch it explode in midair. “[But] in your generation,” he said, looking out at his LA audience in bewilderment, “it's like the space shuttle blows up every fucking day. How can you care about anything when you know about every goddamn thing?!"
At other times, Chappelle chastises people for being too sensitive nowadays, even (kinda sorta) defending Paula Deen in Deep in the Heart of Texas for having used racial slurs on the grounds that “name-calling doesn’t break the modern black man.”
But some of the best material in either special addresses the fact that more than 50 women have brought rape accusations against Bill Cosby, a man Chappelle himself, and many others, once idolized.
When it comes to Bill Cosby, Chappelle’s got jokes and unflinching insight in equal measure
Chappelle’s material on grappling with Cosby’s forever-tainted reputation manages to combine his confusion with how society currently tends to deal with controversial issues and his perspective as a 42-year-old black man who’s seen some shit.
Tellingly, his mentions of Cosby are pretty limited in 2015’s Deep in the Heart of Texas; he mostly uses the topic as a throwaway laugh line on the way to other, more substantial bits. (Chappelle on Donald Sterling: “He’s been fucking since 40 years before Cosby's first rape. A very old man.")
But by the following year, in Age of Spin, Chappelle has figured out what he wants to say about Cosby, a man he says “has a legacy I can't just throw away." He mourns the loss of Cosby as someone to be heralded as an entertainment pioneer and an icon who paved the way for black men to follow in his comedic footsteps (though Chappelle’s comedy is, uh, a little more explicit than Cosby’s ever was). He marvels at the sheer amount of time Cosby must have devoted to assaulting women, estimating that his “400 hours of rape” makes the 65 hours you need to get a pilot’s license look like nothing.
One of the best moments in either special comes when Chappelle dissects a confrontation that happened during one of his own shows, when a young white woman kept interrupting him as he tried to talk about Cosby. She apparently started shouting, “Women suffer!” while Chappelle kept trying to say, “I know!”
But he describes drawing the line when she tried to insist that her suffering was the same as Chappelle’s. “She had no idea,” he says, shaking his head. “Bill Cosby was a hero to me.” What Chappelle wishes she would’ve understood — and what he keeps telling his audiences in Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas, as he has throughout his career — is that a lot of this stuff is more complicated than many might want to admit.
Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas are currently streaming on Netflix.