Though most people will be familiar with Dave Chappelle’s recent stand-up acts from his two Netflix specials released earlier this year — “The Age of Spin” and “Deep in the Heart of Texas” — they’re actually inaccurate representations of his distinct approach to the form.
I’ve seen Chappelle twice in 2017, once at New York City’s Gramercy Theatre where he tested some of the material that ultimately appeared in his televised streaming spectaculars, and again at Radio City Music Hall for his current multi-show residency. Chris Rock was his guest at the latter, whose act bears a classic comedic structure like a notoriously-precise script. Chappelle, on the other hand, goes with a more laid-back approach, allowing his seemingly-random musings — sometimes hysterical, sometimes totally serious — to lead the way. As opposed to a performance, Chappelle’s stand-up feels like a guy just talking out his thoughts, casually sharing keenly-intellectual observations mixed with exceedingly-witty (and often indulgently and gloriously offensive) jokes. This unconventional style often results in pacing issues that other comedians rehearse away, but the novelty more than compensates for this minor drawback.
Yet the Netflix recordings largely cut out these endearing digressions — as evidenced by the jarring editing throughout (look for the egregious jump-cut in the middle of the Academy Awards story) — leaving behind a far more straightforward 60-minutes comprised of the expected humorous stories leading to punchlines. Granted, they’re still well-worth watching because very few other comedians can match Chappelle’s mind. But this anti-tangent conformity robs his acts of their engaging depth, basically removing any of the personal traces that reveal the inner-workings of his one-of-a-kind brain (the most lamentable loss: the palpable in-person indicators that he’s still fundamentally unsure about his tenuous spot in the limelight).
When not in his organic element, Chappelle pales in comparison to structural masters like Chris Rock and some of the countless others given Netflix specials practically every week nowadays, which is not a fitting reflection of his otherworldly talent; as that adjective suggests, he’s just more comfortable in another world of comedy, which is very on-brand for Mr. 50-million-dollar-less Chappelle.