“Episode 1-5” (season 1, episode 5; originally aired 2/19/2003)
The Clayton Bigsby sketch in the first episode of Chappelle’s Show is a masterwork, one that gains power in part due to its lengthy running time. What makes it such a lasting piece of work isn’t just the subject matter at hand, but the way in which the program explores the concept in rich sociological depths through its running time. Bigsby alone is memorable. But Bigsby in context is downright revolutionary. I say all this because while the amount of time spent on Bigsby helped land that sketch in the pantheon of 21st-century comedy, “more” didn’t always equal “better” in the early stages of this program. The fifth installment suggests the show had a higher success ratio early on with premises that that didn’t overstay their welcome.
The best case for brevity being the soul of Chappelle’s Show early wit? A sketch consisting of a single, continuous shot that features a series of different ethnic groups on a single plane, each fearful of the group in the row before them. And yet, the locus of the fear—the Arab gentlemen sitting in the front row—is shown to be ridiculous. Are these two men talking about anything nefarious? No, unless you count Justin Guarini’s defeat on the inaugural season of American Idol as nefarious. Things get more absurd as the camera moves back toward the rear of the plane. While two Native American men in full regalia worry about leaving their seats lest the Caucasian man in front of them steal them, the pair of bison behind the Native Americans long for their share of casino profits. The sketch ends with Dave Chappelle asleep in the rear of the plane, holding a paper that says “America United.” It’s a bit too anvilicious of an ending, but still sells the point of the sketch effectively.
The theme of disunity flows into the first edition of “Ask A Black Dude,” created by Chappelle as part of his desire to “promote conversation and dialogue.” I’ve argued in this space that this is the central point of the entire program. It’s not as if I lifted that idea straight out of thin air: Chappelle himself states it on more than one occasion, even if it’s in the context of creating a space for people to ask vaguely racists questions to Paul Mooney. Mooney’s career is impressive: He wrote for Richard Pryor during the comedian’s heyday, went on to write for shows such as Sanford And Son and Good Times, then served as head writer for the first season of In Living Color. In “Ask A Black Dude,” on-the-street questions are posed to Mooney, who is sitting in a nondescript production booth. There, he answers the queries in a low, dismissive tone that suggests he can barely tolerate the stupidity on display. Still, his throws down a couple of gems as responses, especially in terms of why African-Americans all walk with swagger. His response is one of the most oft-quoted lines in the program’s history: “The black man is the most copied man on this planet. Bar none. Everybody wanna be a nigger, but nobody wanna be a nigger.” It’s a brilliant, succinct summation of the conscription of African-American style into popular culture.
If those two sketches show the power of the show delving deeply into cultural politics, other aspects of this episode fail to reach those heights. Taking Jay-Z’s foray into the vodka business as a launching point, Chappelle imagines other hip-hop business ventures. He couldn’t have predicted the eventual rise of energy drinks within the rap community, so he settles for Roca-Pads and Redman Potty Fresh, which boasts “enzymes and shit that collaborate together.” The former is notable for the first appearance of Rashida Jones on the program, but little else. And while potty humor is an ongoing staple of Chappelle’s Show, I’m not sure seeing close-ups of Redman on a jetski inside a toilet bowl is the finest example of this prolific subgenre of the program.
The one true bomb in this episode lies in “Inside Chappelle’s Show Studio,” a curious misfire that never truly takes off and completely outstays its welcome. The concept of William Bogert reuniting with Chappelle onstage is a welcome one, considering the success of the Bigsby sketch. But rather than have the pair actually converse, Bogert is merely there to set up a series of fairly unfunny film parodies. Chappelle mocks war movies, historical dramas, and inspirational films, but they all feel like separate concepts all slammed into a single segment. Without much meat on the actual interview bone, there’s little connective tissue holding things together. Asking for logic in sketches seems crazy to some, but it does sometimes make a difference. Rather than building toward a single conclusion, “Inside Chappelle’s Show Studio” repeatedly stops and starts before abruptly ending. Chappelle’s obsession with Hollywood and fame will serve him well down the line. In fact, the next episode shows just how well he could skewer popular forms of media. But “Inside Chappelle’s Show Studio” is almost instantly forgettable, and washes out some of the good will that the shorter, punchier segments earned in this installment.
“Episode 1-6” (season 1, episode 6; originally aired 2/26/2003)
Things kick off swiftly in the sixth episode, with a short, blink-and-you miss parody of the Girls Gone Wild videos. “National Geographic’s Third World Girls Gone Wild” barely has time to announce its presence before giving way to the monologue. But as Chappelle and Chappelle’s Show co-creator Neal Brennan note in the DVD audio commentary track, this is a premise sketch. And once the premise wears off, there’s little meat on the comedic bone.
Next up, Chappelle muses on the temptations that must have come when Antwone Fisher wrote the script for the film bearing his name. I’ll confess I forgot this movie even existed, since Tony Scott’s rapid editing technique in Denzel Washington films like Unstoppable has all but erased Washington’s pre-2005 body of work. But remembering anything about Antwone Fisher isn’t necessary to appreciate the joke’s real target: the tendency to employ hyperbole in autobiography. So while strapping an eight-inch dildo onto a newborn baby is an eye-popping image, it also fits in with the segment’s premise. If only the rest of “The Dave Chappelle Story” lived up to the bold opening moments. From there, it’s a series of 8 Mile homages and imagined sex scenes with Halle Berry. The proceedings end with Chappelle exchanging awkward high fives with President George W. Bush, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear and certainly aren’t very funny.
From there, we get the spiritual partner to “Ask A Black Guy” in the form of “Ask A Gay Dude.” Mario Cantone, described by Chappelle as “the gay dude from Sex In The City,” takes the place of Paul Mooney to answer on-the-street questions about homosexuality. In the commentary, Brennan notes that both “Ask A… ” segments, in addition to last week’s “New York Boobs” sketch, were filmed during the same location shoot in New York City. That’s a pretty impressive haul for a single afternoon, one that nabbed provocative questions but also impromptu guest appearances by Joe Rogan and Dee Snider. Snider asks Cantone if Mario would like to have sex with him, which prompts a quick bout of faux nausea on Cantone’s part. Cantone’s responses in “Ask A Gay Dude” don’t cut nearly as deep as Mooney’s replies, but Mario’s disgust over the thought of having to make love to Snider saves the segment.
However, the main focus of this episode is a long parody of The Real World. It’s partially based on Chappelle’s experience helping David Edwards get on the second season of that show, only to see him kicked out of the house after less than two weeks of filming. Chappelle defends Edwards, and other subsequent African-American participants in the reality show, noting that living with six crazy people would drive a sane person mental. To prove that point, Chappelle’s Show casts a Hoboken-based version of the reality-TV watershed featuring six troublemaking black castmates and a sole, doughy, douchey white guy, played by comedian Christian Finnegan.
In the commentary, Chappelle notes the original cut for this sketch came in at 26 minutes, longer than a full episode of Chappelle’s Show. What ends up onscreen amounts to roughly half of that, and even there there’s some material that could have been tightened up for comedic effect. But by and large, it’s a wonderful segment, which builds up the anger of Finnegan’s character Chad in a convincing manner over its lengthy running time. His wide-eyed character realizes something’s amiss the second he gets paired with Charlie Murphy’s Tyree, a former inmate with a taste for taking Polaroids of his friends having sex. In this case, it’s his friend Lysol (played by Oz’s muMs da Schemer) and Chad’s girlfriend Katie getting developed while getting down. The use of night vision in these sequences is both disturbing and hysterical, particularly the way Murphy’s eyes shine in the dark as he furiously masturbates to the dimly lit action before him.
Chappelle’s recurring character Tron, last seen in the reparations sketch, also adds to the mayhem of the house. His warnings to Chad (“Night night! Keep your butthole tight!”) are as frightening as the recipes he concocts in the juice bar the cast has been tasked to staff. And yet, by the sketch’s end, it’s Chad who leaves the house due to his roommates’ fear of him. Why do they fear him? Because he calls them “you people” during another sleepless night in which Tron, Tyree, and others party into the late hours of the night. It doesn’t matter than Tyree shivved Chad’s father earlier that week. It’s Chad unfortunate phrasing that costs him a room in the house.
Just as with “Zapped!”, the outlandish actions displayed in this parody of The Real World don’t seem transgressive so much as journalistic. As crazy as people like Tyree act inside the show, the sketch still keeps one foot of the actual “reality” of how these shows operate. It’s really hard to go over the top when parodying these types of shows at this point. Just turn on any episode of The Soup and you’ll see something that seems as “unreal” as Katie sleeping her way through the entire household in front of Chad’s face. Still, to my knowledge, no one of any ethnic background has ever been stabbed on reality television. (Though Justin Sebik sure as hell seemed to come close during the second season of CBS’ Big Brother when he held a knife to Krista Stegall’s neck.) Short of Chad’s father’s death, there’s little here that wasn’t already on the cusp of being aired even when this episode originally aired. And by now, watching a threesome on a reality program barely registers as a sweeps stunt.
Chappelle’s affection for The Real World as a whole shines through the entire endeavor, culminating with a quick performance in-studio with David Broom, a cast member from the program’s New Orleans-based ninth season. Because he’s a good sport (or because he desperately craved any type of attention three years after his fifteen minutes of fame had expired), Broom appears to perform “Come On Be My Baby Tonight.” It’s a song from Broom’s run on The Real World, and stands out as one of the most unintentionally funny moments in that programs’ entire run. Chappelle and Broom scat away in near-perfect synchronicity, which speaks to how many freakin’ times Chappelle must have watched that initial performance. There’s little to this segment beyond Chappelle fulfilling a personal dream, but it’s still infectious to watch the man groove onstage with Broom. It’s a parody that turns into an honest homage, somehow transforming Broom from a joke into a collaborator. It’s a surprising (and surprisingly sweet) way to end the episode after Chad’s long day’s journey into Real World’s night.
- I didn’t bring up the first installment of “Great Moments In Hookup History” in the fifth episode, since there’s little to say about this NFL Films parody. Seeing that the bar’s name is “Areola 54” is mildly amusing, but mainly it’s a sketch about a guy who brings home a really, really drunk girl. And that’s sorta funny, but mostly really problematic. “Great Moments” will have other iterations down the line, and I will talk about the series as a whole then.
- It’s really bizarre to think of Ann Perkins telling Leslie Knope, “Girl, I got something that will keep your flow motherfuckin’ tizzzight!”
- Mooney’s response, “Don’t ask me about drugs. Ask Whitney and Bobby,” plays a lot differently now than it did in 2003.
- The fifth episode features Chappelle’s Show first R. Kelly joke. But it certainly won’t be the last.
- Chappelle rapping, “Spaghetti! Spaghetti!” is never not funny. But it’s not as funny as Tron showing off his winnings from a back-alley dice game and singing, “Look, America! Look how Tron is living… for the city!”
- Murphy gives Tyree plenty of hysterical malapropisms, such as the word “convenial.” Finnegan probably doesn’t get enough credit for playing the straight man in this segment, but Murphy’s scene-stealing performance really can’t get enough praise. He’s better known for his second-season segments by far, but he’s brilliant here.
- Life lessons from Chad: “Be careful if you ever get a sleeper hold. The next day, your anus will really hurt.”
- Next week: The Wu Tang Clan offers you financial advice, and Tyrone Biggums gets an intervention.