“Episode 1-9” (season 1, episode 9; originally aired 3/19/2003)
I was glad to see the positive reaction to the format change in last week’s Chappelle’s Show review. Enough of you supported the change enough that I will continue to employ it throughout the summer, with one change: Rather than explain what did or didn’t work at the end of each individual episode review, I’ll try to bake those thoughts into the sketch analysis itself. Hopefully that will be the last major shift as we get into a great stretch of episodes in this show’s run.
“Life Like A Video Game”: The episode kicks off with a great premise-based sketch: What if life played out the way it does inside a Grand Theft Auto game? Chappelle’s Show was excellent at maximizing its small budget, and this sketch serves as a great example of how it managed to do that. The segment places the Vice City HUD onscreen, lets Chappelle walk around in the herky-jerky manner of the last-gen iteration’s animations, and uses an intentionally sloppy editing process to switch the weapons inside Chappelle’s hand after he hijacks a car outside his girlfriend’s house. I’m not sure how funny this plays to people who never played GTA, but it’s plenty hysterical for those who have to see Chappelle absorbs bullets like a sponge.
“Blackzilla!”: Here’s a great reason why I decided to run with the new format. There’s nothing really groundbreaking, either culturally or comedically, with Dave Chappelle running around Tokyo like a movie monster. You either laugh at him creating a bong out of a tree and a smokestack from a factory, or you don’t. You either giggle at him shoving Godzilla’s tail up its own rectum during a one-on-one-fight, or you gaze quizzically at the screen. You either howl with laughter at seeing Chappelle having sex with a volcano, or you pray for Tyrone Biggums to appear and save you from this hell. God help me, I laugh every time at this. But it’s hardly anything that stands out as memorable during the show’s run.
“Two-Minute Special”: As a child of the 1980s with an unhealthy obsession with televised stand-up comedy, I saw more than my share of increasingly elaborate introductions to cable comedy specials. HBO’s One Night Stand series often found comedians seemingly putting more time and effort into these pre-produced pieces than their actual routines. So it’s always fantastic to rewatch Chappelle waste the measly two minutes afforded by Comedy Central to do his own special on their network. The execution is simple, consisting of a tracking shot (accompanied by a 2:00 onscreen clock) that follows him from the green room to the stage, during which he high-fives an ever-growing entourage, gets his makeup checked, adjusts the sound levels at the mixing board, then takes a ridiculously long sip of water before hitting the stage.
But what really takes this sketch up a notch is what follows. With just about 15 seconds left, Chappelle launches into the “act” for this special: “I wanna talk about the war! I wanna tell y’all how I really feel about the war! Y’all ready to hear how I feel about the war? Y’all ready to hear how I feel about Bush? Well, this is how I feel!” At this point, the onscreen countdown ends, and a loud buzzer sounds. “Thank you very much, good night!” Chappelle shouts, slamming his mic to the ground. The cameras follow him back to the green room, where Chappelle breaks the fourth wall and screams, “Fucking pay me!” directly into the camera before slamming the door shut. It’s a surprising, and surprisingly powerful, end to a sketch that started off seeming like a parody of television production but instead turns into an expression of artistic frustration against Comedy Central. It’s a curious note to play: After all, we’ve already seen plenty of 9/11 references on the show. And sure, it’s easy to read too much into the anger on display here. But the second half of this segment makes one curious about what else might have been discussed behind closed doors during the first season.
“The Player Hater’s Ball”: Chappelle may have created more enduring characters, but Silky Johnson is the single best original creation in this show’s brief history. One can look at a character like Clayton Bigsby as more culturally important, but that character is as much a product of great writing as he is a great performance. (That doesn’t take away from what’s accomplished in the Bigsby sketch by any stretch.) In “The Player Hater’s Ball,” Chappelle doesn’t portray Johnson so much as embody him. It’s a performance that seemingly springs from an untapped well within Dave’s psyche, emerging fully formed, completely original, and utterly hysterical.
“Ball” is as a parody of the subset of HBO’s American Undercover documentaries that chronicled the seedier side of American life, such as Pimps Up, Ho’s Down. The opening crawl for the sketch is a marvel of writing, and it’s worth reproducing verbatim:
“HBO, the greatest network of our time, has brought you compelling documentaries about pimps, ho’s, players, johns, tricks, marks, mark-ass tricks, trick-ass marks, skeezers, skanks, skig-scags, and scallywhops… Now America’s most incredible network gives you another side of the story as we go into the world of the Haters…”
What follows is a faux documentary about The 9th Annual Player Hater’s Ball, a celebration for those that seek to verbally dismiss others due to jealousy over possessions, status, or anything else that makes them feel inadequate in some manner. Ice-T appears as a fictionalized version of himself, introducing the concept of the event about to unfold. He also appears later as emcee of the event, even if those in the fictional audience doubt his authenticity. (Donnell Rawlings’ character clearly shouts, “He look like a broke-ass Ice-T!” off-screen at one point.) Chappelle doesn’t create the only memorable denizen of this particular society. Charlie Murphy and Rawlings both contribute memorable characters in the form of Buc Nasty and Beautiful, respectively. And the late, great Patrice O’Neal appears here as a hater named Pit Bull. There’s even an elderly Japanese hater whose biggest beef appears to be with the English language itself. (Post-show credits show how many takes the actor required to get his one line on tape.)
What makes the sketch as a whole, and Johnson in particular, so memorable is the looseness with which it’s presented. While there’s definitely a structure to the proceedings, the majority of the “Ball” is heavily improvised. In some cases, it’s not so obvious: Johnson’s initial verbal takedowns of his rivals are so vicious, and so specific, that it’s remarkable to learn in the DVD commentary track that they were made up on the spot. But the “Photo Flip” segment doesn’t even pretend to mask its improv roots. As a scantily clad woman reveals a series of celebrity photographs, Chappelle and company take turns trying to come up with the fastest on-the-spot joke. Beautiful anarchy soon unfolds, as the men get in friendly competition trying to each craft the best joke. Chappelle wins hands down nearly every time, able to channel bizarre, specific riffs that leave everyone onscreen breathless with laughter. It all culminates with this brutal takedown of Rosie O’Donnell: “Now, that man right there I’d hate to fight, because she wears underwear with dick holes in them.” Everyone, including Chappelle, breaks characters within a millisecond of that utterance. Chappelle’s Show wisely leaves that moment in, since the energy onscreen translates incredibly well. The in-house audience gets infected with the same laughter they see onscreen, which is why it so effortlessly translates to those watching at home.
I could spend another three paragraphs simply transcribing the insults that unfold. But what’s truly great about “The Player Hater’s Ball” is the lived-in quality of its world. There are approximately five great jokes per minutes here, but they land as solidly as they do due to the strong setting established through production design, costumes, and relationships that somehow feel decades old. (Why does Beautiful speak fluent Korean? Who knows? But I certainly love thinking about the type of life he led that led to that lingual skillset.) People will probably saying, “I’m Rick James, bitch!” for the forseeable future. But I imagine I’ll be using Johnson’s closing line of his winning speech more often: “I hope all the bad things in life happen to you and to nobody else but you.”
“Episode 1-10” (season 1, episode 10; originally aired 3/26/2003)
“(I Wanna) Pee On You”: The Lonely Island crew, architects of nearly every Saturday Night Live Digital Short, knew that a great musical parody was only as great as the music itself. The beauty of this R. Kelly parody is that before the song goes scatological, it’s in and of itself a pretty great song! If you heard this melody on pop radio, it would not be out of place. Indeed, the first verse plays things straight, with the tune feeling less like a character assassination and more of a serviceable homage.
But things turn in an instant after a long pause near the end of that first verse when Kelly implores the object of his affection to show him her face so he can… well, read the title of this sketch. You get the idea. But you only get half the idea, since excretion of all forms and varieties get explored in excruciating detail. Taking R. Kelly’s real-life scandals and putting them into song is bad enough. Adding the visual of “R. Kelly’s Doo Doo Butter” pouring onto the dancers is almost unbearable. It’s funny, but it also goes to extremes in ways that go beyond shocking to simply excessive. But, hey, that’s a matter of personal taste. While I won’t mind having this tune in my ear, I’d rather wipe the visuals from my mind’s eye as soon as possible.
“Ask A Black Dude”: Paul Mooney returns after a short absence to answer more on-the-street questions. Dee Snider, who appears in seemingly every one of these “Ask A… ” segments, wants to know if all black men have large penises. Mooney asserts this is predominantly true, noting, “That’s why you have so many mixed couples… white girl ain’t that crazy.” The next question concerns sartorial matters: Namely, why do so many black men shave their heads? Mooney notes that Caucasians do this too. In his mind, it’s another act of cultural thievery. He says, “They took Tina Turner. They took Michael Jackson. They took James Brown.” After invoking Brown, Mooney pauses a bit, then says, “They gave him back.” Mooney ends by warning Chappelle’s Show as a whole that white people will take it too if it’s not careful.
“(I Wanna) Pee On You (Remix)”: One of the fun parts of revisiting the show comes from coming across sketches I simply forgot existed, but know I once loved upon seeing them again. “The Player Hater’s Ball” is the biggest example of that so far, but this parody of R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” is pretty damn close. “This is the remix edition/Of a song about pissing” is a puerile rhyme, but holy lord it’s funny all the same. It ends with another example of Chappelle breaking character, as he giggles in-studio as the sketch ends. It’s almost as if Chappelle can’t believe what he’s getting away with, and neither can we. This doesn’t last nearly as long as the “original” song, but a little goes a long way here.
“The World’s Greatest Wars”: Here’s a rare misstep at this stage of the game. The premise of the sketch is a bit odd, as the idea of comparing world wars with gang violence isn’t as wildly unrelated as the sketch wants us to believe. (In terms of scale? There’s a difference. In terms of intensity? I’m not so sure.) Now, had the entire segment revolved around two rival gangs scuffing each others’ Nike sneakers, which starts this fictional rivalry, perhaps the juxtaposition between the Gulf War and this Chicago-based feud might have been more pronounced. But even with Mos Def back as a thumb-sucking, birdcall-loving gang leader, the laughs-per-minute ratio here is almost nonexistent.
South Park recently did its own parody of The History Channel, noting how it has devolved somewhat in the past decade into a network less about hard facts and more about conspiracy theories so wild they make Dan Brown embarrassed. Maybe the current iteration of the network dates this sketch so much that it cuts the humor off at its knees. It’s hard to say. The in-house audience certainly doesn’t seem to be into this part of the show, so let’s chalk this up to a well-intentioned misfire and move on.
“Real Movies”: Many of the previous versions of this sketch have featured plot parodies that zig where the movie zagged. Here? Chappelle’s Show tweaks the film Deep Impact to offer up a smattering of conspiracy theories that the aforementioned History Channel might be discussing at the very minute you read this review. The action takes place with Chappelle (complete with the world’s worst Morgan Freeman impression) at a podium in a White House press briefing room. But this is less about the veracity of his impersonation and more about the chance to offer up some hard “truths” in the moments before the world ends. The cure for AIDS? The government has had it for 25 years. Cloning? Been there, done that, in hot triplet form no less. Magic? It’s not just for Gandalf anymore, but this world as well. And aliens? Not only do they exist, but they also are the source of cellphone technology and the source of the president’s escape thanks to Bibble, the alien from the Nebulon-5 Galaxy.
While Chappelle’s impression is non-existent, the cool, calm way he shocks the reporters in the room is consistently great. “Do I have your attention? Did I blow your mind yet?” He’s talking about the national secrets being revealed, but he could also be making a good case for Chappelle’s Show as a whole. There’s a confidence in this week’s episodes that demonstrate that the show was starting to truly understand its strengths.
“Goodnight”: In the final moments of the show, as Chappelle tries to say goodnight to the audience, “The White Guys” alluded to in the “Ask A Black Dude” sketch come to take the show away from Chappelle. The confused look on Dave’s face as one of the nondescript businessmen poses for a picture with him is priceless. As the lights go down in the studio, Chappelle screams, “Help! What y’all clapping for? Help! This ain’t no skit!”
And you thought Community was meta.
- Of all the things that date the ninth episode, it’s not Vice City so much as that picture of the Osbourne family inside “The Player Hater’s Ball.” I forgot all about the meteoric success of The Osbournes, even with Sharon Osbourne’s heavy presence in pop culture today.
- Next week: Fisticuff asks that we turn his headphones up, and Dave finds a magical camcorder.