Entertainment

Dave Chapelle Defends Louis C.K. and Courts Controversy in New Netflix Special

Dave Chapelle Netflix
Mathieu Bitton/Netflix

When his first pair of new comedy specials, Deep in the Heart of Texas and The Age of Spin, debuted on Netflix in March of last year, Dave Chappelle was still shaking off the cobwebs. One was filmed in 2015 and the other more contemporary special was filmed in 2016, so there were plenty of jokes about not-exactly-evergreen topics like Donald Sterling, Manny Pacquiao, and Ray Rice. By comparison, his two newest specials that dropped right at the end of the year -- Equanimity, which was filmed in his hometown of Washington D.C., and the more intimate The Bird Revelation, which was shot on November 20 at L.A.'s Comedy Store -- are almost as timely as your Twitter feed.

In addition to commenting on criticism of his own work, particularly his jokes about the trans community, and the current political climate, Chapelle also opens up about the recent allegations against figures like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and fellow comedian Louis C.K.

"Louis's was the only -- I shouldn't say this but fuck it -- his allegation was the only one that made me, like, laugh," says Chappelle in The Bird Revelation. "Because all his friends are reading it and he's jerking off and he's surprising people. He's surprising them, he's jerking off. I just picture all the comics in comedy just reading that like 'What?'"

Unsurprisingly to anyone familiar with Chappelle's no-holds-barred sensibility, he doesn't stop there. While analyzing the "Pulitzer Prize winning style that the New York Times has," Chappelle also speaks at length about one of the specific stories in the paper's expose about C.K.'s alleged behavior. In the Times story, Abby Schachner describes Louis C.K. masturbating while on the phone with her in 2003. C.K. apologized to her and she accepted, but according to the Times the experience left Schachner feeling "deeply dispirited" and "was one of the things that discouraged her from pursuing comedy."

Without mentioning Schachner by name, Chappelle goes on to question both those quotes and more broadly the sentiments expressed by C.K.'s victims. He also suggests that the response to C.K.'s behavior -- he was dropped by both FX and Netflix in the fallout of the allegations -- may have been disproportionate.

"Jesus Christ they took everything from Louis," he says. "That was like... I don't know, it might be disproportionate. I can't tell. I can't tell. This is like where it's hard to be a man. One lady said, 'Louis C.K. masturbated in front of me, ruined my comedy dreams.' Word? Well then I dare say, madam, you may have never had a dream. Come on man, that's a brittle spirit. That is a brittle ass spirit. That shit is too much. This is is a grown ass woman."

"I hate to say, y'all, they sounded weak," he says at one point. "I know it sounds fucked up. I'm not supposed to say that, but one of these ladies was like, 'Louis C.K. was masturbating while I was on the phone with him.' Bitch, you don't know how to hang up a phone?"

The comments have already generatedheadlines, which feels like something Chappelle was more prepared for this time around. If the first two specials in Chappelle's highly lucrative Netflix deal felt like swaggering, if somewhat dusty comeback parties after over a decade out of the public eye, these two find the famously provocative comedian coming from a more defensive position. They feel modern in ways that the first two didn't.

Dave Chappelle Netflix
Mathieu Bitton

Throughout both specials, the 44-year-old comedian isn't exactly guarded, but he is tentative about making certain points and keenly aware that his work will be closely scrutinized. During Equanimity, he talks about reading a letter from a trans fan offended by his comments about Caitlyn Jenner in a previous special, breaks down the reaction to his SNL monologue following the election, and even cites a New York Observer article about one of his stand-up sets. Chappelle hasn't necessarily changed his views -- he launches right into a groan-worthy Jenner bit after describing the fan's letter -- but he is listening to some of the dialogue surrounding his work. ("I know I'm terrible, I'm terrible," he repeats at one point, like he's hearing the feedback in his head. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry.")

Though the specials are filled with harsh pot-shots and cruel gags, Chappelle also speaks about the possibility of healing. “What this city really needs, without irony, I’ll say this: the cure for L.A. is in South Africa," he says towards the end of The Bird Revelation, describing how Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela fixed a broken, corrupt system. "You motherfuckers need truth and reconciliation with one another." It's followed by a patiently-delivered section describing a passage from Iceberg Slim's 1967 memoir Pimp, which Chappelle offers up as an explanation for why he left Comedy Central behind. It's a discursive ending to a discursive special. 

More than anything, these two hours display Chappelle's interest in speaking "recklessly" and dealing with the consequences that come with that. "I empathize, man, you know," he says at one point in The Bird Revelation. "Everybody gets mad because I say these jokes, but you gotta understand that this is the best time to say them. More now than ever, and I know there's some comedians in the back. Motherfucker, you have a responsibility to speak recklessly. Otherwise my kids may never know what reckless talk sounds like. The joys of being wrong. I didn't come here to be right, I just came here to fuck around."

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.