Dave Chappelle begins both of his new Netflix specials under attack. He opens The Age of Spin, which was recorded last March in Los Angeles, by disputing reports that he was booed off the stage during his Detroit “comeback show” in April of 2015. At the beginning of Deep in the Heart of Texas, taped in Austin that same April, the assaults he recounts are physical. First, the story of the man threw a banana peel at him in the middle of a set.* Then, the less-veiled racism of a carload of young white men who he says heaved a snowball at him in his small-town Ohio neighborhood, then paused at a stop sign to shout the N-word.
In both cases, Chappelle is more philosophical than bruised. He musters some indignation at the tabloid reports of his by-all-accounts disastrous Detroit show, but the correction turns out to be a minor one: “I was booed,” he admits, but, he says, “I did not leave.” And as for the snowball drive-by, he practically licks his lips at the memory of the teenagers who, he deduces, inadvertently elevated their misdemeanor assault to a felony hate crime. He can’t stop random teenagers from yelling racial slurs at him, but he has the power to make them pay for it. After the latter incident, his small-town neighbors—all white, based on the voices he gives them—rush to his side and offer to bear witness, and later, as he’s deciding whether to press charges, one of the teenagers’ mothers breaks down in tears in front of him. “I didn’t raise him this way,” she sobs. “We love your comedy.”
One of the first, and arguably the greatest, sketches from Chappelle’s Comedy Central show featured him as a blind white supremacist who doesn’t realize he’s black, but success has taken Chappelle in the opposite direction. In The Age of Spin, he describes the eternally fraught situation of being pulled over by the police, while a friend, also a black man, was driving. “There was fear in the car,” he admits, but “not my fear. I’m black, but I’m also Dave Chappelle.” He conjures a fanciful scenario of stopping at a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise staffed entirely by hooded KKK members, who drawl racial epithets at him but still have to serve their paying customer. “I’ll sort through the ethics of this later,” he says. But first, chicken and biscuits.
The two specials, which will both premiere on Netflix on Tuesday, aren’t particularly distinct in tone, and the fact that Netflix’s default running order presents them in reverse chronology doesn’t disrupt the flow from one to the next. Unlike Chappelle’s blistering opening monologue from Saturday Night Live, there’s little in the way of topical material, unless you count talking about the Paula Deen and Donald Sterling controversies several years after the fact. He alludes briefly to the police killing of black men, but concedes that it’s not really his wheel house. “I’m not going to say nothing about the police,” he says. “I leave that to Chris Rock.”
Chappelle spends more time discussing his relationship with O.J. Simpson. The stories of the four times they met form the spine of The Age of Spin. (Chappelle doesn’t draw a direct line from Simpson’s infamous “I’m not black; I’m O.J.” to his “I’m black, but I’m also Dave Chappelle,” but the comparison is there, waiting to be made.) Bill Cosby is another frequent presence, both as provocation and as another tarnished paragon of black success. Chappelle makes no bones about whether Simpson or Cosby are guilty, but he complicates their stories by listing their achievements. With Simpson he’s merely mock-indignant: Excuse me, he protests, but “that ‘murderer’ rushed for over 11,000 yards.” But Cosby, whose long history of uplift overlaps with his long history of sexual assault, is a more complex matter. Even as he was allegedly drugging women and assaulting them, Cosby was donating millions to send black children to college and even, according to one rumor Chappelle cites, paying for the PA system through which Martin Luther King spoke at the March on Washington. “He rapes,” Chappelle says, “but he saves.”
The pressures of success don’t seem to weigh too heavily on Chappelle—certainly not the way they did when he abruptly walked away from Chappelle’s Show midseason. But he’s wary of the way extravagant lifestyles and corporate ties can bind one’s hands. “If Martin Luther King had a sneaker deal,” he says, “we’d still be sitting in the back of the bus.” It’s noteworthy that the Netflix specials were entirely financed by Chappelle himself, and sold, presumably as-is, only after they’d been completed. Chappelle, who’s been criticized in the past for making homophobic jokes, wades into the same territory here, and the jokes aren’t only lazy but convictionless, as if their main point is to prove he won’t stop making them just because people took offense. Although he’s costumed for The Age of Spin in the same quasi-military garb he wore on SNL, he’s not going to war with anyone—not even himself.
The best material in either special is when Chappelle is at his most relaxed. He’s dressed down for Deep in the Heart of Texas, in jeans and a denim shirt, and at one point he bums a cigarette from the audience and leans sideways on a stool as he smokes. Riffing on lyrics by 50 Cent and Lil Wayne, he dives into an absurdist one-man sketch in which he plays the part of a talking vagina doing a postcoital TV interview in the manner of a battered prizefighter. It’s an inspired bit, not least because it feels like Chappelle diverted into it on a whim and is inventing large chunks of it on the spot. (At the end, he says he has 40 jokes that build to the same punchline, and does one more to prove it.) The specials were shot in front of thousands, but Chappelle seems most on his game when he’s playing to himself rather than the crowd; he’s his own best audience. As engaging as it is to see him perform, it’s even more electrifying to watch him think.
Correction, March 17, 2017: Due to an editing error, this article originally misstated that Chappelle had a banana peel thrown at him on stage in Austin, Texas, in April of 2015. The incident took place in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in March of 2015.