That is, until this week. While Chappelle hosted “Saturday Night Live” in November, the highly-anticipated release of his two Netflix specials marks his full-fledged re-entry into the spotlight as fans across the globe get to instantly watch and re-watch two hours of material.
This is his biggest splash since 2005, when he left his Comedy Central series — and the $50 million deal attached to it. He was arguably comedy’s biggest name at the time, but he no longer felt “Chappelle’s Show” was socially responsible, and he walked away at the pinnacle of his career.
All those experiences make for unique perspectives on celebrity, politics and associated moral dilemmas, themes he began exploring in his last special, 2004’s “For What It’s Worth,” and on display even more in the new specials, 2015’s “Deep in the Heart of Texas” and 2016’s “The Age of Spin.” At a time when entertainers come under fire for years-old tweets, we see Chappelle utterly at ease and unapologetic — the result of working for three decades as a comic and grappling with dizzying fame.
More than a decade after walking away from Comedy Central, Chappelle inked a $60 million deal with Netflix to release a trio of specials, the third of which will be recorded this year.
Chappelle’s latest musings come as the comedy landscape is much more crowded, as technology has flattened the bar-to-entry with endless platforms. Entertainment, like nearly every aspect of American public life, has become intensely politicized. Celebrity culture has taken on new dimensions — we now have a president whose path to the White House was paved by reality TV, who uses the same language to criticize political adversaries as he does Meryl Streep.
The comedian structures “The Age of Spin” around four encounters with another celebrity who’s reemerged in pop-culture, O.J. Simpson, starting when Chappelle was a relatively unknown 18-year-old comic receiving encouragement from “The Juice,” and ending just after he left Comedy Central, when Simpson was a washed-up pariah. Chappelle closes out the special with a complex attempt to reconcile with the positive legacy of a personal hero — Bill Cosby — and the heinous crimes he’s been accused of committing.
Chappelle also addresses the gossip that’s followed him, including the TMZ reports that he was booed off a Detroit stage. He was booed, sure, but he stayed.
His new material shows ways celebrity has changed him. He jokes about being pulled over by the cops in Los Angeles. “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.”
He’s had plenty of time to reflect on what happens when you become uber-famous. “Fame is a horrifying concept when it’s aimed at you,” Chappelle told CBS’s Gayle King this week. “You see people project all these different things onto you — some good, some not so good. Fame is not a very trustworthy idea. I feel like they blow you up as a balloon animal and at the end of the day, you don’t have that much control over it.”
He’s clearly not putting out new material to boost his star power. “I mean, I go to the same Starbucks every day, and last week, they ask me for pictures,” he told King. “The perception of you changes because they saw you on that thing, which is fine. I just don’t want to go too far in that realm.”
In the new specials, Chappelle gets into his Kevin Hart envy, petty anger he takes out on the homeless and why he blew off a Flint fundraiser to go to the Oscars. “What am I gonna do about that water?” he asks. “I’m not a superhero.”
Far from it. In “The Age of Spin,” along with “Deep in the Heart of Texas” — which feels more like a comedy club act than a polished, theater performance — Chappelle comes off as not giving a damn whether you like him or not.
Plenty of people won’t. His jokes about the LGBT community and in particular transgender folks have already disappointed some fans who find the material offensive, out-of-touch and/or just plainly not funny. During a secret show Monday in Los Angeles, Chappelle indicated that he knew that reaction was coming. As the Los Angeles Times wrote, Chappelle said that those jokes were “not malicious” but may upset some. “None of that exchange is printable here, and yes, it was quite brazen in its lack of political correctness,” the newspaper described.
Like any comic, Chappelle has every right to tell the joke he wants to tell. And audiences have every right to hate it. That’s the beauty of stand-up comedy, and something Chappelle couldn’t get from his wildly-popular sketch comedy show: He both bears responsibility over the material and has total control over it.
Stand-up allows him to return to the spotlight on his own terms. As Chappelle told CBS’s King, “I’m nervous about being on the big stage again, but the special is done. You put something out, and people are, ‘You’re great! You’re terrible!’ I don’t care about that kind of stuff.”
Why should he? He’s Dave Chappelle, remember?