It was probably inevitable that Dave Chappelle would do the most provocative comedy on Bill Cosby.
After all, no comic has done more button-pushing jokes about the crime and punishment of famous black men. Chappelle waded into the sex scandals of Michael Jackson and R. Kelly (“How old is 15, really?”), and last year I saw him quiet an uncomfortable crowd as he mused on a rape case in the news. Yet in his terrific new special, “The Age of Spin” — available on Netflix along with an uneven but still riveting second hour, “Deep in the Heart of Texas” — the tension rose when Chappelle brought up fan reaction to his jokes about the Cosby rape accusations.
Is Chappelle about to be the first major comic to defend Cosby? He is not, but what he does do is passionately articulate what a devastating loss it is that Cosby’s cultural legacy is being wiped away from popular memory. As a comic who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, Chappelle explains how much Cosby meant to him, without playing down the accusations. Still, it takes guts to close a show, as he does, with an argument for complexity in our assessment of Cosby, and Chappelle’s daring, his eagerness to challenge his audience, is what makes the arrival of these specials such an invigorating, and possibly polarizing, event.
When Chappelle abruptly left his show on Comedy Central in 2005, it didn’t just take him off television. It radically changed his image and career. In the previous seven years, he produced three stand-up specials for television. He hasn’t done any more until now, but he has toured constantly, becoming a performer you need to see live.
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The two specials lean heavily on giddily funny stories, self-referential bits about previous shows going wrong and some explosively silly sex jokes. There’s no mention of President Donald Trump, but an imagined movie pitch about a superhero who fights Mexicans might be an allusion. Chappelle also compares himself to his peers, flashing jealousy over the success of Kevin Hart and throwing a jab at Key and Peele for “doing my show,” as well as performing a fantastic impression of Katt Williams.
In “Spin,” Chappelle builds sweeping historical premises that position him as an elder statesman. “I’m from a different time,” he says, before describing how jarring it was to watch the 1986 Challenger space shuttle explode live on television while in school. Sharing that disaster was a touchstone for many of his generation. Singling out a kid in the audience, he says: “For your generation, the space shuttle blows up every day.”
His point seemed to be that communal tragedy and anger have become part of a steady diet in our social-media feeds. The result is that people stop caring, retreating to their phones. Chappelle may criticize the younger generation, but he stops short of anything approaching a lecture, always far more comfortable skewering his own insecurities and irresponsibility.
The special is cleverly organized around stories of the four times he met O.J. Simpson, first when he was a teenage comic and Simpson was a beloved sports star, and finally after he left his show and Simpson was the protagonist of the trial of the century. Whereas the brilliant documentary “O.J.: Made in America” traces a history of race relations through that football player’s life, Chappelle locates his own fears through those mundane encounters with Simpson.
“Spin” was shot in Los Angeles and has a Hollywood vibe, with a Morgan Freeman voice-over in the opening scene, then a helicopter shot and an entrance filled with smoke and loud music. Dressed in white sneakers and a jacket with his name on the front, Chappelle looks like a star. “Deep in the Heart,” shot in Austin, Texas, has a slightly more down-to-earth style, with Chappelle, in denim, spending a large part of the show seated near the stage.
That material is older, with references to the Ray Rice, Paula Deen and Donald Sterling scandals. Some of his provocations, like a paranoid riff on vaccinations, seem less than fully formed, and the show loses its comic zest in some of his umbrage over sensitivity to transgender people. But he does throw out some bar-stool arguments that work nicely as jokes. “I don’t think men should be gynecologists,” he said, calling it “a conflict of interest.”
The special’s backbone is about Chappelle’s home life, weaving together a story about friction with his wife and one about dealing with a son who has been in a fight at school. In these long, splendidly preposterous set pieces, you might notice why Cosby means so much to Chappelle.
While they are very different comics — it’s hard to imagine Cosby doing jokes about foot sex and masturbation — they share a meticulously patient storytelling style and a crusty, slightly impatient attitude toward the younger generation. And now 43, after nearly three decades in show business (he was 14 when he first went onstage), Chappelle not only has a new kind of gravitas, but he has also embraced his status as an older comic with mature worries, like schools for his kids and growing old with his wife.
Chappelle does not, however, pose as a responsible paternal figure in the chaos of domestic life. In his stories about small-town Ohio family life, he remains the immature mischief-maker, a well-meaning dad with the instincts of a reckless kid. Chappelle is an authority figure for a world that doesn’t believe in them anymore.
“The Age of Spin” and “Deep in the Heart of Texas” are available on Netflix.