Image B|B|B+ Sound B+|B+|B+ Extras C|B|B-
by Ian Pugh Dave Chappelle's greatest asset and greatest liability both lie in his desire to be underestimated, which handily encapsulates the brilliance of Comedy Central's "Chappelle's Show" and why it lasted a scant two seasons. The series' wraparound segments consist of stand-up from Chappelle that's almost painful in its modesty--so much so that you never fail to be ambushed by his boisterous impersonations and trenchant observations. The same joke of "A Moment in the Life of Lil' Jon" (2.6) improbably works every time it's subsequently recycled, while Charlie Murphy's "true Hollywood stories" about Rick James add up to one of the greatest half-hours to have ever aired on television thanks to Murphy's dynamic storytelling and Chappelle's volcanic impression of James. But however unintentional it may have been, Chappelle's infectious enthusiasm, his ability to subtly burrow into your brain, also tends to manifest itself as a collection of catchphrases, ultimately distracting from the deceptive simplicity of his social commentary.
I don't know if I ever really considered the depth of his work until I noticed the sadness and defeat in his voice as he described the perils of celebrity in Dave Chappelle's Block Party. It was an expression of fatigue from a man who had used up a large portion of his fifteen minutes fighting false, media-driven concepts: recognizing how black stereotypes have "evolved" from harmless buffoons to dangerous rappers and hypersensitive snobs quick to play the race card, "Chappelle's Show"'s most successful scenarios seek to expose Middle America's racist nostalgia for the innocuousness of Stepin Fetchit. There's brilliant, latent rage to be found in the fake hygiene commercials starring rap moguls but targeted at a hip-to-be-square white audience ("I'll get the brown out!" Redman says in a too-cheerful ad for toilet-bowl cleanser), as well as in an examination of Hollywood's "noble savage" roles (1.5). The self-conscious irreverence of supposed bloopers from "Roots" (1.3), meanwhile, suggests a response to the reductive argument that blacks need to "get over" slavery.
With so many ideas in its head and a voice that hasn't quite developed yet, the first season of "Chappelle's Show" has the tendency to be a little clumsy ("It's a Wonderful Chest" (1.3), starring a pair of D-cups in the role of George Bailey, begins as a treatise on gender politics but ends up just being needlessly sexist) or lazy (goofs on R. Kelly, Godzilla movies, and "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" (1.9) are way too easy). The series hits its stride in season two, striking a balance between its desire for laughs and general distaste for hypocrisy. Beyond Rick James and Lil' Jon, you've got "The Racial Draft" (2.1), in which various ethnic representatives fight to claim Tiger Woods and Lenny Kravitz as one of their own (a screed against using knee-jerk labels as a means of defining people); a violent refutation of the perception of Wayne Brady as an Uncle Tom (2.12); and "I Know Black People" (2.8), an impromptu quiz that seeks to deflate those who are too quick/unqualified to wag a finger at African-Americans. Chappelle is a fierce critic of black culture in his own right, though, as exemplified by his turn as a clearly-biased potential juror in several celebrity trials (2.9), a casual cautioning not to allow righteous anger or sectarian attitudes to result in a miscarriage of justice. ("He made 'Thriller'" is his Q.E.D. on the topic of Michael Jackson.)
These myriad ideas achieve perfect harmony in "The Niggar Family" (2.2), a send-up of '50s sitcoms that uses its titular white characters as surrogates for some abstract concept of "acceptable" behaviour in African-Americans ("These are the Niggars that we like," goes the theme song)--only to introduce Chappelle as a lawdy-lawd! milkman who revels in the opportunity to say the N-word at will, thus forcing us to contemplate whether or not using the word as a casual greeting constitutes bigotry. "Oh, Lord, this racism is killin' me inside," he says during one of the long peals of laughter that punctuate verbal misunderstandings in the sketch, and in that little interjection find the worry-filled heart and soul that drives the best of "Chappelle's Show". Even a few of Chappelle's more transparently hilarious bits become multifaceted social critiques: as shrill crack addict Tyrone Biggums, for instance, he points to the possibilities of drug addiction as a form of racial subservience, what with the character's white, excessively-chapped lips giving him a hint of blackface. Alas, Tyrone borders on straightforward minstrelsy when Chappelle starts using him as a recurring character/comedic crutch; one wonders if Chappelle's attempts at progress are sometimes too subtle--if his cultural jabs will end up spinning their wheels or, worse, sending things in the wrong direction.
After spending so much time in these dark, controversial areas, it's no surprise that Chappelle would eventually question his own methods enough to quit the show altogether--nor that he would walk away the lone hero for the palpable reluctance he exudes in the sketches left in his wake. Cobbling these skits together to form a truncated third season (titled "The Lost Episodes"), erstwhile cast members Murphy and Donnell Rawlings fill in as co-hosts. Their strident antics already make one pine for Chappelle's presence, but they add another layer of awkwardness in their excessive comfort with the situation, possessing too cavalier an attitude to fully comprehend their predecessor's reasons for jumping ship. In his limited capacity, however, Chappelle has the chutzpah to spread his discomfort on thick, his third-season $50M+ paycheck serving as a springboard for confessional critique: he gets habitually robbed once friends around the neighbourhood learn of his salary; utilizes his newfound money to attain petty revenge against those who wronged him in years past; and struggles to maintain his individuality in the fantastical, Wizard of Oz-ian landscape of Hollywood.
It's that willingness to put himself on the spit that gives credence to the questionable material found herein, including the now-infamous bit where imaginary pixies tell their real-life counterparts to act stereotypically--often cited as the sketch that touched off Chappelle's decision to leave. The segments with Hispanic, Asian, and white pixies seem merely unkind, but it's Chappelle's sad-eyed battle against himself--dressed as a lawn jockey, screaming for fried chicken as an in-flight meal--that sells the idea, acting as a casual metaphor for his professional misgivings and making them much more understandable. To their credit, the remaining participants of "Chappelle's Show" allow the live audience to chime in on how they feel about the sketch, but almost everyone (audience and creators alike) is perfectly comfortable in letting dude it's a comedy show stand as the final word here. It's a simplistic conclusion that, I fear, helped pave the way for the oblivious acceptance of Norbit (co-written by Murphy) and Chappelle's prime-time "replacement," Carlos Mencia. Each of these bastard children exercises a scorched-earth policy on ethnicity itself, using musty stereotypes as their unironic ammunition and pretending that a few salvos fired at their own races distract from the unequivocal hatred they lob at a select few. (Asians are the target for Murphy and his jackass brother; the entire Middle East for Mencia.) It's easy enough to blast Don Imus and Michael Richards for their flagrant stupidity, yet the public ire that should be aimed at Mencia and the Murphys is often misdirected at actual critics and satirists like Bill Cosby and Bomani Armah--further indication of an ever-increasing disdain for subtext and an unwillingness to examine one's own motives. Although Chappelle may have cautiously resurfaced in comedy clubs, he's sorely missed from the popular conversation.
"Chappelle's Show: The Series Collection" bundles all three of Paramount/Comedy Central's previously-released DVD sets in one convenient package. The 1.33:1 full-frame image is a little soft and noisy on the first two sets (particularly noticeable during Chappelle's hosting segments)--things sharpen up a bit on "The Lost Episodes"; the DD 2.0 stereo audio, however, is clear (if unremarkable) across the board. Note that several episodes omit the musical performances from their original broadcast counterparts, hence running times range anywhere from 17 to 22 minutes. Commentary from Chappelle and co-creator/writing partner Neal Brennan adorns five episodes on the "Season One" set from 2003. Though they openly discuss where certain jokes and ideas stemmed from, at this early stage, they seem a bit too blindsided by the show's success to know where to start. (They're occasionally mean, too--a few potshots at cast member Yoshio Mita's struggle with the English language are just kind of prickish.)
A light helping of "Bonus Material" on Disc Two begins with an unwise consolidation of "Bloopers & Deleted Scenes" into a single half-hour (accompanied by optional commentary from Chappelle and Brennan), although it at least demonstrates the creators' ability to weed out unfunny material prior to broadcast. "Ask a Black Dude with Paul Mooney" (12 mins.) is an uncut version of the same-named segment from the series that's worth sampling for writer/comedian Mooney's broad-smiling laughter between his sharp, stone-faced condemnations of casual racism from random interviewees--as well as his incredulous reaction upon learning that the questions were not scripted. "Comedy Central Quickies," i.e., short scenes from "Crank Yankers" (Chappelle calls a bed-and-breakfast to reserve twelve rooms for the Wu-Tang Clan) and "Reno 911!" (the deputies accidentally stumble onto a pot smuggler), put a cap on the "Season One" discs.
2004's "Season 2" set contains another five commentaries from Chappelle and Brennan, who are perhaps a little more active and confident than they were previously but still pretty quiet on the whole. "Bonus Material" on Disc Three begins with "Dave's Extra Stand-Up" (17 mins.), wherein Chappelle takes the stage pre-show to warm up the crowd--in the process reaffirming the socially-conscious, self-effacing personality that makes him such an engaging, ingratiating presence. "Bloopers & Deleted Scenes" (72 mins.(!)) are separated by chapters this time around but retain their repetitiveness; they're slightly aided by characteristically quiet though occasionally informative commentary from Brennan and Chappelle. "Charlie Murphy's Rick James Memories" (15 mins.) presents unaired material from Murphy's Rick James anecdotes that reveals the man to be a fantastic storyteller even without the aid of re-enactments; he's occasionally unpleasant, but he's also energetic and unpolished in precisely the right way.
"The Rick James Extended Interview" (20 mins.) is an altogether different matter, with the late hitmaker refuting Charlie's side of the story and stumbling through with a sometimes commanding but usually disinterested tone of voice. ("Cocaine's a hell of a drug.") Wrapping up this season's set, Murphy expounds on his adventures in "I Want More" (19 mins.) and "That's My Brother" (10 mins.), recounting tales of the Murphy entourage and his stint as Eddie's short-tempered head of security, respectively. "Comedy Central Quickies" for "Reno 911!" (Dangle and Wiegel visit a brain-damage victim in the hospital) and "South Park" (a wayward porno prompts an emergency explanation of the birds and the bees) can be found on Disc One along with self-cuing "DVD Previews" for "South Park: The Complete Fifth Season", Richard Pryor: I Ain't Dead Yet, #*%$#@!!, "Crank Yankers - Uncensored: Season One", and "Reno 911!: The Complete First Season".
Rawlings and Murphy replace Chappelle on stage and off for the "Lost Episodes" platter: goofing around with Brennan on commentaries for all three episodes, they still take the strictly-for-laughs perspective and express their frustration with having to keep explaining why the show ended. "Deleted Sketches" and "Deleted Scenes" (7 mins.) are finally separated from the "Bloopers" (25 mins.) and primarily demonstrate that there weren't many terribly funny sketches to include in the series' send-off. "The Fabulous Making of Chappelle's Show Season 3ish" (20 mins.) is a lame making-of that chronicles the struggle to fill the gaping hole left by Chappelle's absence--something this piece suffers from as well, as Rawlings, Murphy, and Brennan mug for the camera in the editing room and in front of the audience. Unused "Musical Performances" from John Legend ("Ordinary People," featuring Chappelle as a quarrelling boyfriend) and Dead Prez ("Hip Hop") finish off the special features. The DVD and box set proper end on a batch of "Comedy Central Quickies" for "South Park" (Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan teaches Cartman's mother the fine art of raising a child), "Reno 911!" (the deputies confront flamboyant gigolo Terry), "Mind of Mencia" (Mencia bellows an unfunny song about dildos and cunnilingus), and "The Colbert Report" (The Word is "truthiness"), along with a block of "DVD Previews"--for "South Park: The Complete Eighth Season", "Reno 911!: The Complete Third Season (Uncensored!)", "Mind of Mencia: Uncensored Season 1", "Strangers with Candy: The Complete Series", and Totally Awesome (yet another hostile John Hughes parody, directed by Brennan)--that also cues up on startup. Originally published: February 11, 2008.