Here we are at the end of the first season of Chappelle’s Show. While the penultimate episode features two all-time classic sketches, the season finale itself is more of a muted affair. Most of the material in that final half-hour is good, but little of it is transcendent comedy. Is that a problem? Not especially. There’s still plenty of good material to discuss this week: hearing-impaired rappers, mystical camcorders, puerile choral singing, and an ahead-of-its-time reality show parody are all on tap as we say goodbye to season one and get ready for season two.
“Episode 1-11” (season 1, episode 11; originally aired 4/2/2003)
Fisticuffs: Owing to the recent success of 50 Cent, Dave Chappelle tells the studio audience that the mix-tape culture from which the rapper ascended has grown out of control. As an example, he airs the promotional DVD for rapper Fisticuffs, introduced by legendary DJ/radio personality Funkmaster Flex. (There’s some confusion over the name of this fictional artist, as everyone in-sketch seems to call him “Fisticuff,” but the onscreen name at the end reads “Fisticuffs.” I’m going with the onscreen name, as seen above in the screencap.) In any case, the actual name is less important than the central joke on display: Fisticuffs’ inability to actually launch into any verse of his supposedly awesome song.
The problem stems from his inability to hear correctly out of his studio headphones, thus giving rise to the epic joint “Turn My Headphones Up.” While Chappelle’s Show often gets high marks for its writing and performances, this sketch really boils down to the superb editing on display. Everything funny about Fisticuffs’ continual mess-up comes down to the skill with which this entire segment was assembled in post-production. Everything onscreen is funny in and of itself, but a sloppy job behind-the-scenes would have destroyed the truly hilarious material. The inventive ways Fisticuffs keeps flubbing his takes are matched by the inventive ways in which the music (itself pretty damn catchy) keeps modulating and thus perplexing the hearing-impaired rapper. Flex eventually explains that Fisticuffs was shot in the ear eight times one night, but that almost seems less like an actual explanation and more of a way to cover up Fisticuff’s ineptitude behind the mic. Either way, this is one of my all-time favorite sketches the show ever did: It’s simple in concept, and fairly breathtaking in execution.
Make A Wish: This sketch walks such a fine line that it’s impressive that the show actually tip-toed across it start to finish. I can understand why Comedy Central agreed to air it in its final form, but I can’t even imagine the flop sweat executives must have produced upon hearing that Chappelle’s Show would do a sketch in which Chappelle taunts a child with cancer. The old adage that nothing is comedically off-limits is true. But too few people know how to avoid the problems inherent in certain serious situations. But by making the sketch all about Chappelle’s arrogance, “Make A Wish” works like gangbusters.
Chappelle visits Billy, a Half Baked fan who can’t believe his luck at meeting one of his idols. Dave notes a Playstation controller on Billy’s desk, and the two start playing the game Street Hoops. What starts off as a friendly game turns soon bitter as Chappelle’s competitive streak kicks in, causing him to kick Billy’s ass in-game and verbally taunt him inside the hospital room. “You can’t deny me! It’s too real for you!” Chappelle screams, among other things. Billy soon grows tired and weak, but Chappelle keeps up the intensity until Billy begs for a nurse to come. Chappelle calls in the nurse, only to ask her to serve as witness to the Street Hoops massacre in progress.
Eventually, Billy appears to die mid-game, which prompts Chappelle to call for help and then use defibrillators to bring Billy back to life. At this point, you expect Chappelle to learn his lesson. Nope. He puts the controller right back in Billy’s hands so Chappelle can win the game. Even the “one to grow on” speech gets a vicious twist, as Chappelle tells Billy he’s too weak-willed to actually beat his disease. Chappelle’s actions in this sketch are morally reprehensible, but they go so over-the-top that our sympathies effortlessly side with Billy. This might be Chappelle’s Show, but Dave Chappelle was never afraid to make himself look awful in order to produce laughter. It doesn’t get much more awful than what he does to Billy, and that’s why it’s such a standout sketch.
Crazy Camera: Whereas the last two sketches work because of content as well as relative brevity, here’s one that overstays its welcome and thus gets weighed down by the end. It’s a concept-heavy sketch that works well on paper, but the final product flops.
Chappelle wanders into a store to answer an ad for a camera that he saw in the paper. It’s not just any camera, however: It’s a magic camera that can reveal a person’s true self, record their inner thoughts, reveal the last person they had sex with, and also show where they end up in 10 years. It’s the stuff of philosophical sci-fi, and had this sketch eschewed laughs for some more introspective analysis, maybe the laborious setup in this first scene would pay off by the end. As such, it just feels like a lot of heavy lifting to get at what is a series of standalone jokes loosely held together by Dave’s long day’s journey into night.
The initial camera joke, involving an overweight, frustrated Carson Daly, is perhaps the best of the bunch. Daly was at the height of his TRL popularity, five years into his run on one of the signature pop-culture show of that time. Having him mock his own squeaky-clean persona isn’t as shocking as Wayne Brady’s deconstruction in the second season, but it’s pretty great all the same. Sadly, Dave’s trip to a friend’s birthday party that night falls flat. Each in-camera joke takes too long to establish, and thus there’s little momentum to the proceedings. Rather than build up to a crescendo of reveals, the pace feels stop-and-start, reflecting the way that the story serves the gags rather than the other way around.
After viewing others all night, Chappelle turns the gaze upon himself in the mirror. While his inner self is a straight-up stud, we also learn that he last slept with a woman old enough to be his grandmother. Worse than that, he learns that he’ll be in the TRL crowd alongside Daly in 10 years, desperately trying to get Justin Timberlake’s attention. In this show’s version of the future, Chappelle is a has-been. The real-life 10-year anniversary won’t show that to be true. Chappelle’s potency hasn’t diminished in the last decade, even if his presence had. It’s hard to imagine Dave having to scrape for publicity should he choose to return to the spotlight. As it turns out, he left pop culture, not the other way around.
“Episode 1-12” (season 1, episode 12; originally aired 4/9/2003)
O’Dweeds: “It’s like O’Doul’s… but for weed!” That’s how Chappelle’s in-sketch wife explains the subject of this commercial parody, and it pretty much sounds like the pitch that undoubtedly landed this on-air in the first place. Chappelle blows smoke from this “non-intoxicating” brand of THC-free marijuana into his new infant’s face, elderly ladies fight over it in the nursing home, and a Rastafarian escapes jail time by pulling a bait-and-switch on a local cop. It’s a trifling opening for the show, but it gets out before overstaying it’s welcome.
“AND1 Videos”: Maybe Chappelle would have been best served by mentioning, not showing, the real-deal clips from the AND1 Mixtape Tour. While the show is definitely parodying that stunt-based iteration of sport, the stunts on display during the first few clips are seriously impressive. Or, maybe, it’s just that the “stunts” that Chappelle performs in the realms of baseball, tennis, and bowling simply aren’t funny in the first place. It’s a great concept for a sketch, but fails in actual execution. Its two funny parts are Donnell Rawlings’ reactions to the less-than-inspiring actions and the appearance of a random dancer who will get more screen time in season two’s John Mayer sketch. (He’s the one seemingly having a seizure in front of the boisterous crowd.) Chappelle’s certainly having a ton of fun in these parodies, but the energy on location never really translates through the screen.
“NBA Players”: In the studio, Chappelle notes how he’s one of many that enjoys calling out the name of his favorite basketball player when he does something cool in a pick-up game. Even in the pre-Twitter, pre-TMZ days, fans knew a lot about their favorite stars, which leads to a series of people attributing their actions to their favorite pro athletes. For example: The guy having sex with multiple partners screams out, “Wilt Chamberlain!” while the man in drag amongst his conquests shouts, “Dennis Rodman!” The sketch reminded me of the Paul Pierce stabbing incident, which occurred in 2000 and I’d apparently blocked from my memory. Or maybe it’s because I hung out with “RASHEED… WALLACE!” Lord, Charlie Murphy’s reading of that name is always fall down funny. I won’t get into every iteration on display here, but this is a rapid-fire sketch in which the hits greatly outweigh the misses.
“Diarrhea Choir”: Answering a critic from People who called his show “sub-sophomoric,” Chappelle once again invokes classically trained singers to help out with his comedy musings. After having on a young woman in the second episode to sing out his thoughts, here he employs an entire chorus of female singers to warble about… diarrhea. Closed-captioning helpfully provides the lyrics, with the bouncing ball leading us down the path of an increasingly elaborate ways to describe how the song’s topic might come up in everyday life. Selling the whole piece is Chappelle’s “fuck you” conducting dance, which can barely contain the glee he’s experiencing onstage. So far, we’ve had four sketches, and we’re not even halfway through the show. Pretty impressive output thus far, even if the results have been hit or miss.
“Chappelle’s Show Trading Spouses”: So here we are, at the final sketch of the first season. It’s definitely one that’s ahead of its time. Literally. While this sketch is going above and beyond the boundaries of reality television at that time, the “real” Trading Spouses would debut on Fox a year later, as an answer to ABC’s Wife Swap. (Recent internetwork sniping about stolen reality show concepts isn’t a new thing by a long stretch.) While Chappelle’s Show pushed the limits of good taste with its Real World parody earlier this season, this foray into fake reality television is solid but somewhat safer.
However, “safe” doesn’t seem like an appropriate word for a sketch about two couples swapping husbands between a Caucasian family and a black one. But the differences drawn between the two families aren’t exactly drawn with a lethal pen. The Washingtons’ patriarch, Leonard, has a more forceful personality and is less likely to do work around the house. Todd, the father in the Jacobson household, is more likely to enforce “time out” then dropping his kid off in the ghetto after his son claimed to be part of 50 Cent’s G-Unit. Neither wife makes a particular impact, as both serve Chappelle’s dual role as the dad in both families.
What really makes this sketch stand out above the show’s more middling fare is Chappelle’s performance as Leonard. It stands in the shadow of his Silky Johnson, but Leonard’s laid-back masculine aura really lifts scenes with him to a higher level. There’s almost a Paul Mooney-esque vibe to the character, a man who never feels the need to raise his voice to make his meaning felt. And yet, Leonard still thinks that his new wife’s vibrator is a light saber. Still, can you blame this woman for having a marital aide? She is married to Todd, who apparently likes to have sex with his pajama bottoms still on. That lack of sexual adventurousness doesn’t stop him from stealing underwear from his temporary wife, however.
It’s a good sketch, if not a standout one. While Chappelle managed to predict a future subset of reality television, the actual shows managed to make this fake production seem tame by comparison. It’s lengthy running time feels appropriate, unlike the overlong “Crazy Camera” sketch from last episode. But it marks a solid note upon which the season can end. When next we meet in this space, we’ll embark on our journey through one of the seminal seasons of televised comedy in this century.
- According to the informational screen at the end of the sketch, pictured atop this review, you can buy the Fisticuffs’ record on CD for $29.99… or the CD for $29.99. I don’t know what’s more amusing: that this costs nearly $30, or that they have “CD” listed redundantly.
- Street Hoops was a real game, albeit one I never played. I do remember playing a lot of Dr. J And Larry Bird Go One On One and Double Dribble back in my youth. Which, as you can tell, was a long time ago.
- Leonard Washington telling his son, “Anybody try and touch your mother, punch him in his dick!” is somehow oddly romantic.
- Next week: Samuel Jackson debuts his new beer, The Racial Draft is held, and we meet a family with an unusual last name.