When the laughter stopped

I finally figured out what had been bothering me about rewatching Chappelle’s Show on Netflix.

It was the laughter.

Dave ChappelleChappelle’s Show always had a strange format. Dave and his partners would write and perform prerecorded sketches, then Dave would show them to a live audience. A few shows, like Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show, do this for a handful of sketches. On Chappelle’s Show, that was the entire show.

When it worked, it was fantastic. Sketches on Chappelle’s Show were downright cartoonish—Dave could get punched so hard that he’d flip end over end like Daffy Duck, or crap so hard that he would launch off the toilet bowl like a rocket ship. (An understated allusion to a legendary lost Marvin the Martian short.) They were surprising and cinematic, and the live audience would register that. And when Dave’s sense of humor was shocking or childish or startlingly truthful, the audience would register that, too.

It turns out, though, that recording a live audience freezes a show in time. If you’re watching a movie, let’s say an older but still-contemporary-feeling comedy, like Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, you can laugh at whatever you like; the clichés that might have killed in 1977 just wash over you. The same is true of animated shows like The Simpsons, Futurama, or King of the Hill.

The live audience is really an artifact of the live, three-camera sitcom—think I Love Lucy, The Cosby Show, or Seinfeld. When sitcoms went single-camera and were edited together like movies—think Malcolm in the Middle, The Bernie Mac Show, Arrested Development, The Office, or 30 Rock— they gave up on the live audience AND the laugh track.

So Chappelle’s Show is a strange hybrid. The cinematic clips uproot it from that live experience, but the recorded audience pulls it back down again. The big laughs are all things that a 2004 audience found funny or shocking. And some of them just aren’t that funny or shocking six years after the fact.

On top of this, so many of Chappelle’s sketches have become comedy classics that it’s hard to genuinely find them surprising. “I’m Rick James, bitch!” was hilarious. Then your mom’s skeezy brother said it ten times at one holiday party a year after the show aired, and it didn’t feel so funny.

Chappelle’s Show also gets bound up with what we know about Dave Chappelle’s history afterward. Dave famously quit the show because he felt that he was creatively tapped and was increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that jokes he’d intended as racial satire were getting laughed at for their silly, minstrelsy qualities. He even felt that his co-creators were complicit in this—he no longer felt comfortable working with them, so after recording several sketches for a much-anticipated third season, he briefly disappeared. There were rumors about his mental health and the possibility of drug abuse. Nobody could seem to grasp that somebody so successful didn’t like what he was doing anymore.

They should have seen the signs. An unusual number of sketches—even some whole episodes—are devoted to Dave’s fantasy of quitting his successful show. In one long riff, Dave finds out he’s impregnated Oprah Winfrey, so he spectacularly quits his show, punching out Comedy Central staffers and pulling down cubicles. Of course, it turns out Dave isn’t really the father, so he’s stuck without a job OR Oprah’s money.

Wayne BradyIn another episode, Comedy Central gets fed up with Dave’s uncooperative behavior and replaces him with Wayne Brady. This episode along with the Charlie Murphy/Rick James episode were probably the most famous from the second season, so I feel pretty comfortable spoiling its conceit for you. Wayne Brady, despite his smiling, singing exterior, turns out to be a gun-toting, drug-dealing pimp and murderer.

I watched the episode for about twenty minutes before I remembered that it was a parody of the Denzel Washington movie Training Day. Do you remember Denzel in Training Day? I kinda do… but I know I remember Wayne Brady spoofing Denzel’s performance more. And even Wayne Brady isn’t the same guy he used to be. Between Chappelle’s Show and appearances on 30 Rock, Girlfriends, and elsewhere, he’s more than just the singing guy from Whose Line Is It Anyway? But he’s also hosting Let’s Make A Deal. It’s weird.

The things I found the funniest were jokes that nobody laughed at—little inside references that you have to pick up by watching the show several episodes in a clip, or strange, timeless jokes. For instance, in the Rick James episode, Charlie Murphy relates how he and his brother beat Rick after he’d dragged mud-stained boots over Eddie’s couch. Charlie remembers Eddie saying, “Wow, Rick really needs help…” Only for Charlie to come back, “Yo, we just GAVE him some help!” There’s nothing topical about it; it’s a joke that I’m sure was funny when Charlie told it in 1984, and it’s funny today.

It doesn’t help that Comedy Central drove Chappelle’s formula into the ground, first with blatantly offensive ethnic comedians with infinitely less talent (I’m looking at you, Carlos Mencia) and then with the sometimes-funny, frequently-embarassing “Lost Episodes” from what would have been Chappelle’s Show Season 3. If the live-presentation formula is cumbersome with Dave presenting sketches, it’s positively uncomfortable when Charlie Murphy and Donnell Rawlings try to stand in Dave’s place. They make awkward jokes, usually at Dave’s expense, give an excessively literal and thoroughly clumsy summary of the sketch we’re about to see, then throw it up on the screen.

That’s not to say there aren’t good moments in these third-season sketches. My favorite is, in a weird way, a kind of self-commentary on the postmortem nature of the show—an extended joke about Tupac Shakur’s posthumous records.

Dave is in the club, dancing with a crowd, listening to one of these unreleased Tupac recordings, when Tupac starts making references to events after his death, like George W. Bush’s election, then covering it over with lines like “when I say George W, I mean a George W. Smith, for city council here in Oakland… you probably didn’t hear about it.” The chorus for the song turns out to be:

I wrote this song a long time ago
A real long time ago
Feel me!
I wrote this song a long time ago
It was the dopest song I ever wrote
In ’94

Everyone in the club starts exchanging strange looks, until Tupac’s lyrics begin to start commenting on the appearance and behavior of everyone there. “Go home!” Tupac tells Dave. “I’m not alive!”

Dave ChappelleTo me, that says so much about what’s still funny, but also a little creepy, about watching Chappelle’s Show in 2010. A joke about Tupac being alive? Didn’t that get old when I was still in high school?

But Dave Chappelle is our comedy Tupac. He wasn’t shot (except by Wayne Brady in that sketch), but he vanished just as quickly. He did so much, so fast, that we forgive him for the times that he wasn’t so great, and are willing to accept the dribs and drabs, the poorly-edited outtakes, because it’s all we have left. And we’re still waiting for word that he just might still be around, under the radar, without an audience, working on something great.

The audience’s laughter bothers me. It was what bothered Dave, too, so much that he left it all behind when he was still on top.

3 Responses to “When the laughter stopped”
  1. ana says:

    dave’s a comic genius. anyone who hasn’t seen his inside the actors studio appearance is missing out.

    so glad i got to see him at msu…so sad that a good deal of the audience didn’t realize they were laughing at him, not with him.

    • AVGW says:

      chapelle is less comedic and more satiric — i think it would be infuriating, after so long, to be seen as chris rock instead of as a cultural critic. “killing ’em softly” is still, for me, the zenith of chapelle’s catalog, because he was free to talk about what HE wanted to talk about, without the pressure to be “funny.”

      tho the black, blind KKK member sketch from season 1 was still pretty close to chapelle’s best critical work.

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