‘Chappelle’ Still Shocks

Chappelle’s Show (2003-2006)– known for, among other things, its unflinching look at race in America – made Dave Chappelle a household name. The comedian’s willingness to walk away from that show — and a $50 million Comedy Central contract – made him a legend.

The series and its star recently grabbed headlines again when Chappelle cried foul over Netflix’s licensing agreement with Comedy Central ‘s owner ViacomCBS – an agreement that included no new royalties for the man who made it all possible. In response, Netflix pulled the show from its library, although it’s still available on other streaming services (see options at the end of this article).

Chappelle has always liked to shock – but not simply for shock’s sake. There’s always an ironical point to be made. Sometimes the point cuts deep, sometimes people fail to get the point altogether.

If Chappelle’s recent SNL monologue is any indication, he’s lost none of his edge:

Perhaps most discomfiting is Chappelle’s frequent use of the English language’s most radioactive word.

According to the AAREG (African American Registry), “‘n*****’ was “firmly established as a derogative name by the early 1800s. It remains a principal term of White racism, regardless of who is using it.”

Returning from a trip to Africa in 1979, Richard Pryor proclaimed he would never again use the word on stage, despite having produced stand-up vinyl albums whose titles put it front-and-center. 

Paul Mooney, a regular Black comedy cast member of Chappelle’s Show, swore off using the epithet in 2006.

But as host, primary performer and writer, Chappelle’s ground-breaking sketch series did not shy away from the ‘n’ word. In fact, it seemed to have a mission of its own. 

Never censored, even on the more restrained Comedy Central, Chappelle peppered his recorded sketches with the racial slur. 

Chappelle's Show
(Above source: YouTube video)

SPOILER ALERT: The vignettes below (the show typically presented two to five of them within a 23-minute episode) are not for everyone.

Chappelle typically opened the show by speaking to a live, mostly Black studio audience. His charming and affable hosting style slyly set us up for what was about to come: jaw-dropping, highly offensive and heavy-handed racial satire. 

And let’s not forget Dave’s delight in wince-worthy bad taste.   

In Chappelle’s Show’s first episode, Clayton Bigsby, a blind Black man adopted by white parents, spouts the ‘n’ word in hate-filled rants. Why? Clayton, convinced he is white, has become an infamous white supremacist. 

A spellbinding orator, Clayton is frequently called upon to don his KKK robe and hood to exhort his listeners to the manifest destiny of White Power.  But things go awry when his adoring, racist congregation insist on seeing his face:

Season two’s “Niggar Family” sketch is a variation on this theme. “Niggars” is the family name of a middle class, white suburban family, lampooned here as a black-and-white 1960s sitcom. The bit is unrelentlessly offensive. “I know when not to get between a Niggar and their pork,” says Chappelle’s milkman character, declining a breakfast invitation from the Niggar family.    

Chappelle not only wants us to laugh and/or squirm; he wants us to understand the brutal reality beyond the comedy.

Where to Stream Chappelle’s Show

You can still stream all three seasons (29 episodes) of Chappelle’s Show with subscriptions to CBS All Access or HBO Max, and via the free library streamer Hoopla. You can also rent episodes for $1.99 each from Google Play, Vudu or other providers.

And select videos are available free on YouTube’s Comedy Central Channel.

(Top image: Dave Chappelle as Clayton Bigsby. Source: YouTube video)

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Charlie Greenberg is a NY-based theater and instrumental composer.

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