Comedy moves quickly in 2017. There’s a small timeframe to make joke work, and Dave Chappelle’s two new Netflix originals missed it. Perhaps it’s because he is unaware of how quickly, within minutes, social media reacts to news with crisp one-liners, gifs, and new memes. Then somewhere between a week and a month, the joke is exhausted and we move on to whatever is next. We know when the joke is dead when it gets to the point where the popular, mainstream Twitter comedy accounts copy and paste the joke from the original writer (think @tbhjuststop, @SoDamnTrue, Common White Girl, @Dory, basically any account with a cartoon character for the icon with tweets lacking original substance), and Chappelle’s two specials feel like those recycled tweets that remind us to unfollow whoever retweeted it to your timeline.
Social media outlets like Twitter, YouTube, and Tumblr have changed the comedy game. No longer can stand-up comedians rely on sharp one-liners anymore, that’s for Twitter and short comedy skits. The stand-up comedy of today depends on the art of story telling, because anyone can come up with a quick joke, but no one can share the same story. Neal Brennan, former co-writer with Chappelle, does this well with his fresh balance between story-telling and one-liners in his new Netflix original Three Mics on his struggle with depression and abusive father. It’s the same with the other recent Netflix originals by Trevor Noah, Ali Wong, and Mike Birbigila. It can also be done with older comedians too, proven by Dana Carvey in Straight, White, Male, 60. Good comedians can adapt to new comedy standards instead of leaning on what worked for them a decade ago, but that doesn’t mean they have to completely abandon it. Carvey exemplifies this by delivering relevant impressions in Straight, White, Male, 60, while allowing Church Lady to make a short appearance to please his fans. His bit on Wayne’s World gives the audience humorous nostalgia while carefully not exhausting the twenty-five-year-old topic.
Chappelle’s comeback of a decade began strongly when he hosted SNL this past November, post-election, a touchy time for comedy. Yes, his line “We’ve actually elected an internet troll as our president” during his monologue reminded us any Facebook share or retweet from a suburban mom that month, but he did dig deeper as the show went on. You’ve got to hand it to SNL, providing a funny episode following a controversial election hosted by a famous comedian coming out of a decade-long retirement is tricky. Hearing Chappelle as Lil’ Jon again was a satisfying reminder of how good Chappelle’s Show was, and it raised our expectations of his comeback.
The comeback finally fell flat March 21. The specials weren’t filmed too long ago, 2015 and 2016, but because of its reliance on then popular topics, it makes the viewer wonder why Netflix released it in March of 2017; it feels dated. The jokes at the expense of O.J. Simpson, Ray Rice, Bill Cosby, Caitlyn Jenner, and “trannies,” seem sloppy and out of place because we’ve already heard them all. It seems as if either Chappelle’s jokes haven’t aged well, or we’re just flat out tired of hearing about them. Sadly, there’s not even much substance to critique, because those topics have already been critiqued to the point of exhaustion.
Comedians who work best with new pop-culture references are the writers for short YouTube skits or comedy sketches who can quickly spit them out, a big reason why Chappelle’s Show worked, because if a bit didn’t work, there was always another one to go on to. Whereas comedians who use their own stories age well and hold on to our short attention spans of 2017 for a little while longer. This is why most of the few memorable moments in Chappelle’s two one-hour specials are the ones where he tells us about dipping out of a Flint, Michigan benefit to go to the Oscars or when he and his son went to a Kevin Hart show. Dave Chappelle, your audience is interested in you. We’ve heard every joke there is to tell about O.J. because the trial was in 1995. People who were born that year are already older than old enough to drink.
Chappelle’s two specials can work with an older audience, but fail to capture the attention of the generation of new and upcoming comedians. However, what makes Dave Chappelle work is that he doesn’t care if you laugh at his joke or not; his honesty isn’t the same type of bluntness comedians today use that simply relies on crude humor. Regardless if his punchlines are relevant, he gets paid. He did say “I have no problem with gay people, but I fucking hate bloggers,” so who am I to judge?