It’s not that the first season of Chappelle’s Show is bad by any stretch of the imagination. But those of you going through the show along with us for the first time will learn something many of those that have already experienced the program already know: The second season is where things start getting very, very, very good. Transcendent, even. Yet even in these first two episodes of the season, one can see hints of the troubles that would eventually cut this show’s run short. We’ll address those roadblocks as they come. But let me ask you a question as we start this leg of the journey: Is anybody thirsty?
“Episode 2-1” (season 2, episode 1; originally aired 1/21/2004)
“Samuel Jackson Beer”: “You’ll be fucking fat girls in no time!” promises Jackson, who constantly screams at the Caucasian men enjoying their alcoholic beverages over lunch. Why? Because that’s how he talks in movies, long before he signed on to play Nick Fury in approximately 400 Marvel films. (“Juice! That was a good one!” he exclaims, noting a now largely forgotten picture in his overall oeuvre.) This sketch is almost over before it begins, but it’s a confident idea that signals the starts of a fantastic season of sketch comedy.
“Genetic Dissenter”: Chappelle opens up his monologue to a thunderous ovation, which the show milks. Why not? Chappelle’s Show had been off the air for about eight months when the second season premièred, and it seems like the crowd is anxious for new material. Chappelle is smoking onstage, as a protest to recent laws enacted by Mayor Bloomberg which greatly changed the rules around cigarette smoking. Calling himself a “genetic dissenter,” we see brief clips of Chappelle calling bullshit on various aspects of society, all the way back to his time in 17th-century Africa. Is Chappelle just a complainer, unwilling to do anything about it? Heck no, which leads directly into…
“Campaign Advertisements”: While the sketches of the first season are generally funny, they are often unrelated to one another. That’s not really a problem, but it’s worthwhile to note that this is one of the first times in which back-to-back sketches have a thematic link—which is further cemented by the monologue itself. Key & Peele made this a staple in its recent first season, but it’s nice to see Chappelle’s Show think about ways to have more unified content. The sketch itself is brief—and oddly timely given the current political debates in our country. Chappelle, looking dapper and professional in a three-piece suit, notes the skyrocketing costs of healthcare in the United States, and juxtaposes those costs with the free health care offered to our neighbors to the north in Canada. Dave’s solution? “Fake Canadian ID cards for all Americans!” Given how many people threatened to move to Canada after the recent Supreme Court decision, apparently Chappelle’s Show was onto something. (Another campaign ad later in the show calls for a radical new method to ensure teen abstinence. I’d type it out, but I’d rather not throw up in my mouth again.)
“Better In Slow Motion”: The title explains the premise. Chappelle runs through three scenarios in real time, then subsequently in slow motion. A normal interaction in a laundromat turns into a sexy romp (albeit with premature detergent ejaculation). A rough time navigating a crowded club turns into a triumphant walk replete with high fives and lesbians making out. But despite the sketch’s premise, not everything works out better for the person moving in slow motion, however. Chappelle’s act of defecation turns downright deadly, as he’s projected into the air as if shot from a cannon. (Chappelle’s Show absolutely loved doing wire stunts in its second season. Whatever budget increases it may have gotten between seasons must have gone straight into getting a stunt team.) Despite this segment’s long running time, all three iterations work well. I’m not terrifically into the toilet humor this show loves to explore, but having that final example last only a few seconds justifies its presence.
“Racial Draft 2004”: Part of Chappelle’s Show’s legacy is how much it both reflects and celebrates the differences between racial cultures. It’s “anything goes” approach aims a comedic and satirical eye at all demographics equally, and many of those demographics get their fair share of shots in this sketch. In the sketch, various cultures gather together in order to “clarify” the ethnic identity of various celebrities from mixed backgrounds. The black delegation selects Tiger Woods as the first pick, overjoying the renowned golfer who apparently had suffered an identity crisis before this moment. As one of the announcers, Chappelle seems unsurprised by the pick. “You gotta think about it: He’s been discriminated against in his time, has had death threats, and he dates a white girl. Sounds like a black guy to me!”
Further picks: The Jewish community selects Lenny Kravitz, the Latin community preemptively takes Elian Gonzalez off the board, and the white community selects… Colin Powell. Powell isn’t of mixed descent, but the black community agrees to let him go under the condition that Condoleezza Rice goes as well. The black community (represented by Mos Def) then tries to steal Eminem as part of the negotiations, but manages to only snag O.J. Simpson as recompense. (Much to the delight of the two white announcers alongside Chappelle.) Finally, the Asian community selects every member of The Wu-Tang Clan, who are overjoyed to have their love of Asian culture rewarded in this fashion.It’s a top-to-bottom classic sketch, with a strong premise and material to match the potent concept. It marks the end of an incredibly solid première of this second season.
“Episode 2-2” (season 2, episode 2; originally aired 1/28/2004)
“WacArnold’s”: Plenty of fast-food commercials target lower-income demographics. This parody deals with a series of McDonald’s commercials in the early part of this century that sought to promote not food, but employment opportunities, as a source of upward socioeconomic mobility. These commercials weren’t directed entirely at African-American communities, but plenty of African-Americans were featured in said commercials. “WacArnold’s” looks at a potential cause-and-effect when a young man named Calvin takes a job and slowly turns from a source of pride in his community to a scourge upon it. The sketch checks in on Calvin during his first, third, and eighth weeks on the job. During that time, he goes from strutting proudly past proud neighbors to quickly hurrying home to avoid being mugged for his paycheck.
It’s not just his attitude that sours, but his health and the health of those around him. A friendly neighbor, inspired by his employment, ends up dying of high cholesterol due to too many visits to WacArnold’s. Conversely, Calvin’s wife scolds him for only bringing home fast food as dinner for the family. Recent documentaries such as HBO’s The Weight Of The Nation spell out in sober fashion what this sketch does comedically, but both are powerful indictments of the ways in which cheap, mass-produced food ends up perpetuating certain class structures rather than offer a way to offset them. This sketch is funny, but there’s a real edge to the humor here, an edge that stays with the rest of the episode.
“Negrodamus”: “Ask A Black Dude” was a staple in season one, but Paul Mooney wanted to try something else in the show’s second year. Enter Negrodamus, a man purporting to be a psychic but who really only answers questions about the pop culture of the day. It’s a strange shift, one augmented by the fact that on-the-street questions were discarded for scripted questions inside a studio. It’s not a catastrophic shift, but the dated jokes don’t really do this segment any favors upon rewatching. A David Guest punchline? Barbs about weapons of mass destruction? “Ask A Black Dude” contained insights that are still applicable. “Negrodamus” is sadly stuck in time.
“Black Gallagher”: I’m sure this sounded funny in the writers’ room, and indeed Chappelle plays the titular character with zeal. But whereas someone like Norm MacDonald can kill by underplaying corny humor, going over-the-top as Chappelle does here doesn’t yield as successful a result. The corny jokes have some topicality (“The queer guys came by and had an eye for me!” he says, in reference to his outfit), but not as much as Negrodamus did. Still, just like the real Gallagher’s act, the jokes themselves are prelude to the smashing of fruit onstage. Here, Black Gallagher (né Earl Wallingford) decides the usual ways simply won’t work. “Black Gallagher don’t go out like no punk bitch with a mallet!” he screams, before pumping three rounds into a watermelon… and a man in the front row. Had this sketch lasted as long as “WacArnold’s,” this would have been tortuous. As it stands, it’s fine, albeit not nearly as memorable as the sketches that bookend this episode.
“The Niggar Family”: “You start to realize these sketches, in the wrong hands, are dangerous,” Chappelle tells the audience in his introduction to this segment, in reference to Caucasian fans of the show coming up to him in between seasons and not understanding the subtly of his sketches. The N-word in particular served as a bothersome point for Chappelle, and he discusses his confusion over the true source of the word’s hateful connotations. “Is it because black people actually identify themselves as the N-word? No. I don’t know. Maybe.” What follows is a sketch that attempts to wretch the word from conventional meanings, re-appropriate it, and see if the source of the problem lies in those particular letters arranged in that particular order or, in fact, in the meaning behind that specific etymological iteration.
Enter “The Niggar Family,” in which a white family of that last name goes through life in idyllic, 1950s-era suburbia. The spelling change is subtle, albeit notable: This isn’t a world in which the N-word doesn’t exist, but rather coincides with the last name of this family. On a basic level, the humor in the sketch is based around those two homophones. Many jokes revolve around the family invoking their last name, suddenly free of the associations assigned to the N-word. The dissonance that stems from Chappelle’s milkman joyfully announcing that he’s at his favorite house and the Leave It To Beaver-esque family that bears the name produces uncontrollable laughter from the in-show audience—and for many watching at home.
But it’s laughter that rides right up to the point of extreme discomfort, and it’s a tribute to Chappelle’s Show that the sketch walks right up to the line of potential alienation, isolation, and the type of cultural misunderstanding that inspired this sketch in the first place. The key to the entire endeavor lies in a scene inside a restaurant, in which the host calls out, “Niggar, party of two.” He’s referring to the family’s son and his date, but Chappelle’s milkman, also there, takes umbrage at the name spoken by the host. The problem is resolved as everyone laughs over the misunderstanding, but then Chappelle says, “Oh Lord, this racism is killing me inside!”
It’s said directly to camera, essentially breaking the fourth wall, and it’s an important moment in both the sketch and the program as a whole. We’re still a few episodes away from the famous Rick James sketch, which inspired a legion of idiots to scream, “I’m Rick James, bitch!” without a sense of cultural, racial, or gendered context. “The Niggars” is another sketch that is imminently quotable, but the motivation for such quotations often turned suspect. Just because Chappelle was making a play on words (albeit in an incredibly powerful way) didn’t automatically give others license to repeat it free of any incrimination. This isn’t to say the sketch can’t, and shouldn’t, be quoted as example of how powerful satire can reflect and inspire cultural change. But there’s an extremely fine line that Chappelle’s Show walks here, and it’s incredible to see just how deftly the show manages to stick the landing. The aside to the audience grounds the piece, asking them how far we’ve truly come since the time portrayed within the sketch. The answer, as Chappelle soon discovered, was, “Not nearly far enough.”
- Comedian Bill Burr—who also appeared in season four of Breaking Bad as a man hired by Saul to help Skyler obtain the car wash from Bogdan—appears in multiple sketches in the première.
- The dancing dude is back! He appeared in season one’s “AND1” sketch, and he appears in both the slow motion sketch as well as in “The Racial Draft.”
- The laundromat segment of “Better in Slow Motion” features Enigma’s “Sadeness (Part 1),” a song I haven’t thought about since… well, probably since this sketch initially aired in 2004.
- According to the DVD commentary, “The Racial Draft” was shot across the street from Madison Square Garden on the same day Jay Z filmed the concert seen in Fade To Black.
- The closing credits to the second episode contain more excerpts from the “Black Gallagher” sketch. None of them are missed inside the segment itself.
- Next week: John Mayer, ?uestlove, and Rick James.