esquire | In 2014, before the sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby went mainstream, a standup routine from Hannibal Burress went viral. "Bill Cosby has the fucking smuggest old black man public persona that I hate," Burress said during a set in Philadelphia. "'Pull your pants up, black people, I was on TV in the '80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom.' Yeah, but you raped women, Bill Cosby. So, brings you down a couple notches." Buress's bit made headlines, prompting a procession of women to come forward with new allegations, which ultimately led to the undoing of Cosby the comedian—and Cosby the man.
Now skip forward two years.
"The '70s were a wild era, and while all this was going on, Bill Cosby raped 54 people. Holy shit, that's a lot of rapes, man! This guy's putting up real numbers. He's like the Steph Curry of rape." That's Dave Chappelle in 2017, likening Cosby's "400 hours of rape" to a Top Gun pilot. His first specials in 13 years—Netflix paid $60 million for three, the first two of which premiered last month on the streaming service—were considered his big comeback. Instead, they feel more like a throwback. In Age of Spin, Chappelle mimics flamboyant Hollywood producers, fears trans women cutting off their genitalia, and is in creases over a hypothetical superhero who rapes women to activate his powers.
No longer wiry like he once was, Chappelle is not only physically less nimble—he has also seemingly lost his nuance as a storyteller. His delivery is preachy, his punchlines banal. For Vice, Australian comic Patrick Marlborough writes that Chappelle's stand-up in the early '00s "had a sublime mastery of taking a taboo, reiterating it, guiding it to a point, flipping the meaning, and shooting it in the back of the head." As he watched the Netflix specials, however, he was forced to wait for the twist that never came. In its place stood a man who performed ignorance rather than questioning it, who had become trapped in the bubble of his own privilege—a world where the last 10 years of identity politics haven't really made much of a difference. ("The jokes were mean, they were lazy," Marlborough writes. "They were something I never thought I'd see: Dave Chappelle punching down.") Unfortunately that puts him out of touch with the cultural conversation at large, which has itself progressed and in turn shifted the way comedians tackle loaded topics like race, class, gender, and sexuality. In short, Dave Chappelle may not have progressed, but many of us have.