Dave Chappelle has still got the juice, and boy, America sure missed him over the past two years.
Chappelle has been one of comedy’s most elusive figures ever since he walked away from millions of dollars and his wildly popular Comedy Central series in 2005. During two seasons of “Chappelle’s Show,” the stand-up made a name for himself as a comedic genius unafraid to cull humor from the most tragic aspects of racism in America (see: Clayton Bigsby, his black, blind, white-supremacist character).
This weekend, Chappelle once again did what made him so famous: provide hilarious, biting commentary on race from a point of view not often treated as the default, mainstream perspective.
The comic returned to television to host “Saturday Night Live” just days after America elected Donald Trump as its next president, the conclusion to one of the most contentious election cycles in recent memory and one now met with anti-Trump protests and reports of biased-based attacks.
Chappelle has been out of the sketch-comedy game for awhile, and in an episode that felt nostalgic and cathartic to disappointed Americans, he mostly performed with an easygoing manner with a few outlandish characters thrown in between. No matter; America wanted to hear from Chappelle. The episode brought season-high ratings in preliminary overnight numbers, and early reports indicate it may match or surpass ratings from a controversial 2015 episode when Trump hosted.
Trump’s victory last week took most media by surprise, and it’s a safe bet that SNL’s writers were no different.
Just last month, Hillary Clinton, played by Kate McKinnon, confidently said “I think I’m going to be president” with a smirk. The studio audience laughed — with her, not at her. This weekend, McKinnon re-upped her Clinton role for an entirely serious, teary-eyed cold open.
The election results may have thrown off a lesser stand-up; most comics who host SNL test out their monologue jokes for weeks. But Chappelle came armed with Trump-winning material just days later, showing his mastery of the art.
“You know, I didn’t know that Donald Trump was going to win the election. I did suspect it,” Chappelle began his monologue. “It seemed like Hillary was doing well in the polls and yet — I know the whites. You guys aren’t as full of surprises as you used to be.”
Chappelle also lampooned Trump’s first meeting with Obama, two days before.
“Oh God. Got to tell you,” Chappelle-as-Trump said, “this job looks like it’s going to be a lot harder than I thought.”
Chappelle-as-Obama replied: “Really? It’s not that hard. I mean, at least you get to be white while you’re doing it.”
In another election-themed sketch, Chappelle provided his trademark dry insight on race. As a group of white liberals watched the election returns and their optimism turned to despair, one remarked: “Oh my God. I think America is racist.”
“Oh my God,” Chappelle’s character said, with fake shock. “You know, I remember my great-great grandfather told me something like that. But you know he was like a slave or something, I don’t know.”
Chappelle also offered a treat for his longtime fans, bringing back well-known “Chappelle’s Show” characters in a prerecorded short spoofing a recent scene from “The Walking Dead” that killed off a beloved character.
The popularity of those “Chappelle’s Show” bits have, in the past, derailed his stand-up performances. For years, Chappelle has dealt with hecklers at shows and in day-to-day life, who shout lines from his most iconic characters. On Saturday, the comedian didn’t shy away from those roles, but did metaphorically end them.
It wasn’t all jokes from Chappelle, though. He wrapped up his monologue by recounting a recent visit to the White House for a BET-sponsored party (“everybody in there was black — except for Bradley Cooper, for some reason”).
Chappelle described seeing pictures of past presidents, how black Americans were not welcomed in the White House for so long, and how on that particular evening, he looked around in a room full of black people “and saw all those black faces” and how “happy everybody was. These people who had been historically disenfranchised.”
“In that spirit, I’m wishing Donald Trump luck. And I’m going to give him a chance,” Chappelle said. “And we, the historically disenfranchised, demand that he give us one, too.”
The SNL broadcast likewise felt unapologetically black. A Tribe Called Quest made a triumphant, bittersweet return with tracks off their newly released farewell album while paying tribute to member Phife Dawg, who died earlier this year. Consequence and Busta Rhymes also joined.
“All you black folks, you must go,” Tribe rapped during a particularly political song. “All you Mexicans, you must go /And all you poor folks, you must go /Muslims and gays / Boy, we hate your ways / So all you bad folks, you must go.”
As the credits rolled at the end of the episode, Chappelle said, “I gotta tell you, making a comeback is scary as hell.”
“I wouldn’t even call it a comeback,” he continued. “But whatever it is, it’s so much better than not coming at all.”