The criminal justice system has long been comedic fodder for Dave Chappelle.
But with his new pair of Netflix specials released Tuesday, we get to hear how Chappelle discusses policing and race as the nation fiercely debates the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they police.
Chappelle has gone on tours since he walked away from a $50 million deal with Comedy Central in 2005 and his show went off the airwaves, but it’s been more than a decade since he’s presented so much instantaneously accessible new material to a massive, global audience.
In “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” filmed in 2015, he defers on delving too deeply into police brutality. “I’m not going to say nothing about the police. I’ll leave that for Chris Rock.”
But he had plenty to say about the criminal justice system in his second special, filmed a year later in Los Angeles. Chappelle structures the special around four stories about running into O.J. Simpson over the years, starting with one when the comic was just 18.
Chappelle’s fame also provides him a perspective about interacting with police that’s different from what we’ve heard before. He tells the story of stumbling outside of a Los Angeles club when a friend offered to drive. The pair was then pulled over by police.
“I should tell you the friend that was driving me was black, which doesn’t really have anything to do with the story other than to let you know that there was fear in the car,” Chappelle quips. “Not my fear. I’m black. But I’m also Dave Chappelle. So I figured, you know, s— will probably be fine.”
The cop recognizes Chappelle, and calmly asks the driver to get out. Chappelle starts messing with the radio. “You know a traffic stop’s going good if you’re listening to the radio when someone else’s outside of the car.”
The joke contrasts with a classic bit from Chappelle’s 2000 special “Killin’ Them Softly” about his white friend Chip, drunk behind the wheel, deciding to race a cop: “I was scared. Chip was not even scared at all,” Chappelle said then. “It was weird, he didn’t even turn his radio down. Isn’t that weird a little bit? I mean if you get pulled over, wouldn’t you turn your radio down? Nobody wants to get their a– beat to a soundtrack.”
In the Austin special, Chappelle tells the story of filing a police report in his Ohio town after white teens in a car throw snowballs at him and yell a racial epithet. White townsfolk who witnessed the incident were disgusted and filed police reports, and the cops ask Chappelle if he wants to press charges. “Huh? Sorry about that officer, I’m a little flustered,” Chappelle says. “I’ve never been in a position before where I can decide the fate of white children.”
Later in the “The Age of Spin,” Chappelle cites the Netflix series “Making a Murderer” about Steven Avery — a white Wisconsin man convicted of sexual assault, exonerated, and then convicted of murder — and declares “everybody’s mad at police now.”
“The justice system designed for [Avery] to thrive, he’s failed miserably twice. I can’t even wrap my mind around it,” Chappelle says. “If ‘Making a Murderer’ was about a black dude” he says the show would be called “‘Duh.’ Of course it would all go wrong.”
“All [Avery] needed to get off, that he didn’t have, was a single black juror. That’s all it would have took, ’cause only a black dude in the United States can look at 11 other dudes and be like, ‘I think the police did this s—.'”
Past Chappelle specials contain now-iconic riffs about being a black man who feared police. In 2000, he joked about being too scared to call 911 after his home was burglarized (“House is too nice. It ain’t a real nice house, but they’ll never believe I live in it.”); about white people’s skepticism of police brutality claims (“Then Newsweek printed it, and then they knew it was true”); and allegations of police framing and misconduct (“Don’t you think it was little suspicious, that every dead black person the police finds has crack sprinkled on them?”).
In his 2004 special “For What It’s Worth,” he tells jokes about racial profiling (“Some people say all black people look alike. We don’t get bent out of shape. We normally just call those people ‘police,’ okay?) and how black and white teens are treated differently (“They always try our 15-year-olds as adults”).
Such older material about the criminal justice system could be affirming for audience members who could personally relate, and illuminating for those who didn’t. But we’re now living in an age when anyone with a cellphone can record and broadcast police interactions, and such footage is drawing national attention in a way it hasn’t before.
In “The Age of Spin,” he refers to this deluge of news stories about police brutality and how, especially for a younger generation, it can lead to apathy: “How can you care about everything when you know every goddamn thing? I’m getting over one cop shooting and then another one happens and then another one happens and another one happens.” After such a steady stream of tragedy, you just give up, Chappelle says.
Still, Chappelle continues to turn to such tragedy as a vehicle for humor, and he still doesn’t shy away from drawing shocking parallels in the process. In “The Age of Spin,” he tells the story of law enforcement filmed beating a black woman on the side of a California road (he’s likely referring to a 2014 incident involving California Highway Patrol).
It was so bad, he says, she received a $1.5 million settlement. “Not bad,” Chappelle says, who compares it to the payout from boxing Floyd Mayweather.
“And this woman obviously hasn’t trained a day in her life,” Chappelle says. “You can see it on the tape. Her guards were low. She was taking a lot of shots.”