Chappelle on Chappelle

Why the “lost” episodes are genius.

Dave Chappelle

I am of several minds about Comedy Central’s request that we refer to the final three episodes of Chappelle’s Show (Sundays at 9 p.m. ET) as “The Lost Episodes.” It’s a widely known fact that their creator—Dave Chappelle, essentially the anointed heir of Richard Pryor—walked away from the network shortly after shooting the skits therein last year. You could argue that the episodes aren’t so much lost as abandoned, maybe even renounced.

And yet the elements that give this coming Sunday’s bitterly funny episode its punch all derive from its delirious lost-in-the-funhouse quality. Pardon my French, but this is a high-postmodern masterpiece that finds the comedian at the top of his game. Like Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson—the famous novelist’s famous novels about the creative and emotional problems of a famous novelist—it’s self-reflective and self-rueful. Like Don DeLillo’s White Noise—and like the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money Mo Problems,” for that matter—it makes playful entertainment out of paranoia. Like Spike Lee’s Girl 6 and the sorely underrated Bamboozled—it makes savage jokes about race and showbiz in America, humor that exists in the daring sweet spot where good conscience overlaps with bad taste and vice versa.

As it happens, Lee even shows up in one skit: The premise is that Chappelle, the newly minted zillionaire, has motivations identical to those of The Bride, Uma Thurman’s Kill Bill vixen. He’s getting even with those who dissed him before he made it big—comedy-club owners, chesty exes, etc. When it’s time for Chappelle to avenge himself on a female casting agent, he buys commercial time on the Super Bowl so that Spike can tell America about the time she called him a “nigga on the set of Jungle Fever.” Part of Chappelle’s charm is that he makes all this dangerous material look effortless. That’s also part of the reason why all the dark comedy is so haunting: This is a guy who can turn a bit of stoner-comedy absurdism into a commentary on the posthumous exploitation of Tupac Shakur and then turn around and do a bit of jujitsu with anyone who would joke about the fact that his wife is Asian.

Of course, you could also argue that the episodes are a document of Chappelle himself having been lost—adrift and conflicted, burnt out by hype and guilt-struck by success, and wondering very sincerely about whether, when it comes to the way his charged racial humor is received, he’s part of the problem. We should have seen this coming. These skits share their points of view with the logo of the comedian’s production company, Pilot Boy: Every episode of Chappelle’s Show ends with an image of its host wearing heavy shackles on his wrists, holding many green bills in his hands, and arching his eyebrows in a way you can’t quite read. It’s rich.