Near the beginning of The Age of Spin, one of two new Netflix specials from beloved US comic Dave Chappelle, he launches into a story about the first time he met OJ Simpson. He recounts meeting ‘juice’ and his ‘soon-to-be-slain wife’, and there’s a sharp intake of breath. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, man the fuck up or you’re not going to make it through the end of this show’, is the slick comeback, sparking a roar from the audience.
But not everyone is laughing. Chappelle’s return to comedy comes after living for over a decade as a semi-recluse and minor legend. He walked away from his phenomenally successful Chappelle’s Show in 2005 due to a mix of exhaustion, battles over creative control and a creeping suspicion that his often racially charged humour was becoming ‘irresponsible’. Now he’s back and more provocative than ever. And accusations of various forms of bigotry have flown.
The series of increasingly absurd OJ stories which form the crux of the first special isn’t even the half of it. The Age of Spin also revolves around another disgraced black star, Bill Cosby, whose tattered legacy Chappelle dwells on throughout. He offers sober reflections on whether it’s possible to separate Cosby the comic and the philanthropist from Cosby the monster, intermingled with outrageous punchlines. Even after 30 or 40 allegations, he says, he still refused to believe Cosby raped any more than ‘10 or 11 of those people’.
It’s a bit that’s right on the edge, hitting on the guilty ambivalence that strikes us when our heroes’ darkest sides are exposed. But this subtlety was apparently lost on the more right-on sections of the internet. ‘Every joke minimising sexual assault contributes to a culture in which rape remains heavily underreported’, thundered one writer-cum-activist. Meanwhile, Chappelle’s riffs on transgenderism led one alleged comedian in Vice to conclude: ‘The jokes were mean, they were lazy. They were something I never thought I’d see: Dave Chappelle punching down.’
Humourless PC types have been lining up against Chappelle for months. At an NYC show in November, as Chappelle was warming up for his spot hosting the post-election episode of Saturday Night Live, he said the Hillary camp’s blatant leaking of the ‘grab ‘em by the pussy’ tape was as gross as Trump’s comments on it, and called Trump ‘the Terminator’ for withstanding the fallout. ‘Move over, Dr Ben Carson. The right wing has a new Token Black Friend’, read a write up on BET.