We’re here at the end of Chappelle’s Show proper, ladies and gentlemen. I’ll be looking at “The Lost Episodes” next week as a way to wrap up the series, but these are the final two with Dave’s blessing and in-studio presence. The penultimate episode hints at some of the drama that would unfold over the next two years, but the finale itself shows little sign that it would be a series, not season, finale. There’s plenty to analyze this week, so let’s forgo lengthy introductions and get into the second season’s strong ending.
“Episode 2-12” (season 2, episode 12; originally aired 4/4/2004)
Intro: In a departure for the Chappelle’s Show, this episode opens up not with the opening credits but a scene in which Chappelle complains to two Comedy Central executives that he’s burned out from the demanding schedule of the program. When the executives note that the industry already expects a third season, an exasperated Chappelle threatens to quit. The executives (Lou Wallach and Jessi Klein, playing themselves) are okay with this, noting all the season’s sketches have already been filmed. “At this point in the season, you’re replaceable,” notes the female executive. Chappelle is skeptical that anyone could replace the titular lead of Chappelle’s Show. Cut to a brand-new title sequence introducing Wayne Brady’s Show, after which Brady himself appears in-studio to announce the regime change. “Nothing makes me happier than to be able to take another black actor’s job,” he exclaims, before noting he has to burn off some unaired sketches before the third season of this newly christened program can actually start. (There’s plenty to analyze here, but later sketches really flesh out what’s happening.)
Fear Factor: Up until a few months ago, you could have called this sketch dated. Then NBC, in a desperate attempt to have anyone watch anything they actually put on the air, revived Fear Factor. This newest version ofthe series didn’t exactly light up the Nielsen ratings, but its premise (and that of the Chappelle’s Show sketch it inspired) is elegantly simple. The joy in Fear Factor, if any truly exists, lies in watching the gross-out elements inherent in its many challenges. So what happens if you have a contestant without fear? No, I’m not talking about Matt Murdock. I’m talking about Tyrone Biggums.
Joe Rogan appeared in the first season of Chappelle’s Show, after Chappelle haphazardly ran into him in Times Square while filming segments such as “New York Boobs” and “Ask A Black Dude.” Here, Rogan appears on the set of Fear Factor to host a typical episode of the show. He plays the straight man to Biggums’ outlandish behavior, and it’s a smart move: When Chappelle is playing Biggums, it’s best to get out of the way and let him take center stage. Biggums effortlessly wins every challenge, whether it is lying in a coffin filled with worms, walking across hot coals, or eating elk penis. For Tyrone, this isn’t an episode of a reality show so much as “a typical Tuesday”. He wins the $50,000 cash prize, which he shares with his crack-smoking girlfriend. If I told you the “rock” he buys her with the cash isn’t a diamond, would you be surprised? Of course not. The sketch’s gross-out humor isn’t in my particular wheelhouse, but it’s well within the realm of both Fear Factor and each Biggums sketch to date. Biggums’ matter-of-fact approach to the challenges (“You know, Joe Rogan: This is not the first time I’ve tasted penis.”) are uniformly hysterical, and serve as an excellent start to this unique episode.
Back from commercial break, we see Dave at home watching Wayne Brady’s Show. He calls up Outkast’s Big Boi to hang out, but apparently Chappelle is already uncool without his own show, so Big Boi blows him off. Seeking to let off some steam, Chappelle leaves the house to find his son hanging with Nick Cannon. Holy continuity, Batman! Pivoting off “The 3 Daves” from the second season’s third episode, we see Chappelle’s son living the dream of being raised by the “hilarious” Cannon. Cannon notes that Chappelle’s kid needs a “working” father, which prompts Chappelle to infiltrate his studio, chloroform the two executives, and punch out co-creator Neal Brennan. Onstage, Brady tries to play it cool, asking Chappelle if the two can co-host. Chappelle is skeptical, reminding Brady of what happened the last time the pair hung out. What happened? Glad you asked!
A Night Out With Wayne Brady: If you ranked the popularity of a Chappelle’s Show sketch by the number of times it’s quoted by viewers, this has to be in the Top Five. (Anecdotally, I’d rank them as follows, from first to fifth: the Rick James “True Hollywood Stories,” “Player Hater’s Ball,” “A Night Out With Wayne Brady,” “Fisticuffs,” and “every Lil Jon sketch” lumped in as a single entry.) In the DVD commentary for this episode, Chappelle and Brennan both praise Brady for his courage in deconstructing his image in the service of the sketch’s premise. And their praise is not unfounded. In this homage to Training Day wrapped inside karmic payback for the “Negrodamus” sketch earlier in the season, Brady’s performance is almost unnervingly strong. While Chappelle’s ability to inhabit characters is remarkable, Brady’s acting in this sketch is what elevates it to the heights it achieves.
The premise is simple: Brady picks Chappelle up for dinner and leads him into deeper levels of Hell throughout the evening. Each stop along the way defies the audience’s expectations of Brady’s inoffensive persona and serves to scare the living shit out of Chappelle. The drive-by shooting that kicks off the night establishes the tone quickly. “Oh shit, it’s Wayne Brady, son!” screams Donnell Rawlings before being riddled with bullets. It’s one of the funniest lines of the sketch, but also quickly establishes a world in which Wayne Brady is a man you simply don’t cross.
From there, Dave is repeatedly intimidated by Brady at every turn, and becomes increasingly fearful for his own life and the lives of everyone around him. When Dave asks to go to an ATM to get some money, Brady simply pulls over to a corner and gets cash from prostitutes for whom he pimps. Brady is cordial upon introducing them: “Hoes, Dave. Dave, hoes.” Chappelle, already curled into the corner, murmurs, “Evening, bitches.” It’s an insult but somehow a polite one. (It makes no sense how the sketch squares that circle, but there you have it.) When one streetwalker comes up a bit short, Brady unleashes a line that he was loathe to utter yet became the standout excerpt of the sketch: “Is Wayne Brady gonna have to choke a bitch?” Again, it’s a repugnant line on the surface, but within the context of the sketch, it’s every bit as funny as anything Chappelle said as Rick James.
The explosive laughter in the audience confirms the aforementioned comparison. After Brady shoots Rawlings, the crowd is into the sketch’s premise. At this point, Brady has them in the palm of his hands. The crowd is so into Brady that when Chappelle tries to save the prostitute’s life (“Run, bitch! Run for your life! Get some help!”), it’s a bit shocking. We’ve already somewhat forgotten that Chappelle is even in the sketch. That’s how overwhelming Brady’s presence here is.
At this point, it’s worth noting that while it’s brave for Brady to come on and go against the grain of his typical brand of comedy, it’s also pretty brave/generous of Chappelle’s Show to allow Chappelle to look weak, foolish, and mentally outmatched by Brady. Sure, this is all a hyper-real environment that doesn’t represent reality in any way, shape, or form. But years before Louis C.K. hashed out his issues with comics such as Dane Cook and Marc Maron on Louie, Chappelle and Brady are working out issues that arise within the small community of black actors in Hollywood. Cannon’s presence in this episode highlights the constant struggle between solidarity and competition that exists within this group of performers. Onscreen, we see these men both support each other and then feel wounded when that solidarity is somehow betrayed. It could be something as big as Cannon taking over parental duties from Chappelle, or something as seemingly slight as Paul Mooney taking a crack at Wayne Brady in the second season’s fifth episode.
Of course, that’s not slight: A throwaway joke inside an episode of TV isn’t a dialogue. In an earlier commentary this season, Chappelle and Brennan note that every celebrity that they mock had an open invitation to appear on the show and “defend” themselves. R. Kelly took umbrage to Chappelle’s impersonation, but never came on the show. Brady did, and not only turned in one of the highlights of his career but a highlight of Chappelle’s Show as a whole. And yet, watching this episode unfold, it’s remarkable how prescient and yet unaware it is. On one level, Chappelle and Brennan own up to some truths in this episode: They were both exhausted, and both had gone through fights with people such as Wallach and Klein about the show’s future. But it still stings to hear Chappelle state on the commentary, “I’m still replaceable now, that’s what’s so crazy about show business.” On one level, he was correct: The show managed to produce three episodes in a manner similar to the fictional take-over by Wayne Brady. But on another level, Chappelle was in fact the furthest thing from replaceable. Not only could they not replace him on Chappelle’s Show, but no network has yet to find a suitable replacement for this type of show, doing this type of comedy. It’s only now that he’s truly emerging from his self-imposed hiatus, and while there have been some good sketch comedy shows in the past decade, there’s been only one Chappelle’s Show.
“Episode 2-13” (season 2, episode 13; originally aired 4/11/2004)
Profiles In Courage: They can’t all be winners, however—even this late in the game. Chappelle notes in the opening monologue that it’s never good to be the first black person to do anything. We then watch the tale of Cyrus Halloway, the first black man to take a dump in a whites-only toilet. Chappelle’s love of fecal-based humor is on full display here, but watching “the nation’s first shit-in” just doesn’t sit well after the genius of the last episode. Then again, I know these sketches aren’t for me. And I know that you know this as well by this point in my coverage of the show this season. So while there are small pleasures here (especially in the form of Charlie Murphy’s preacher), it’s a sketch I’ve definitely viewed for the last time.
A Moment In The Life Of Lil Jon: With the premise of this sketch largely overplayed at this point, Chappelle’s Show does the only thing it can in the lifecycle of this concept: Bring in Lil Jon himself to send the entire endeavor through the looking glass. There are few actual jokes here (aside from the one about giving oneself “a stranger,” a.k.a. masturbating with a numbed hand), leaving the comedy to come from the editing of the conversation itself. The back-and-forth exchanges are great, as both versions of Lil Jon oscillate between eloquent pain and monosyllabic joy. A shout-out to a previous sketch involving Oprah Winfrey (who is pregnant again here, this time with Lil Jon’s child) rounds out a short but very funny final installment of this recurring sketch.
Black Bush: Ah, the final Chappelle’s Show sketch with Chappelle’s actual blessing. End of an era, an era that ended too quickly but probably couldn’t have lasted any longer. That’s easy to say in hindsight, of course. And it’s not as if I’d be opposed to reviewing the next season of Chappelle’s Show here this fall were it still on. Here we get to that age-old argument about whether or not it’s better to burn brightly for a short period of time or have lesser success over a greater period of time. I’m not arguing for one or the other. But I do wonder if we’d look at the first two seasons of Chappelle’s Show differently if they weren’t the only two true seasons of the show.
In “Black Bush,” Chappelle tackles politics in a way that he rarely did on the show. He owns up to this fact in the introduction to the sketch, focusing less on what President George W. Bush did in the early ’00s and more on what a black president might have done (or more specifically, be allowed to do) under similar circumstances. The overriding premise is that a black version of President Bush would have been under more scrutiny than the actual version. As such, each decision is greeting with a gauntlet of questions probing each and every decision that Black Bush makes.
From there, the sketch pinpoints key moments in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Not only is the president black in this world, but all major domestic and international politicians are as well. Jamie Foxx plays Tony Blair, and Mos Def returns one last time as the Black Head of the CIA, brandishing “yellow cake” from Africa, “the cradle of fucking civilization” according to long-time Chappelle’s Show bit player Anthony Berry. Black Bush is simultaneously honest and deceptive, owning up to his desire to kill Saddam Hussein out of loyalty to his father yet still dismissing claims that oil has any primary, secondary, or even tertiary reasons for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
While the scripted parts of the sketch are strong, it’s the clearly improvised elements that shine here. Giving Chappelle lines to read isn’t a bad idea, but letting him riff for a while and editing out all but the best parts gives Chappelle’s Show nine out of every ten highlights. Extended riffs on Kofi Annan and the composition of his “coalition of the willing” absolutely kill, not only for their content but the gleam in Chappelle’s eye when he conceives of the joke a half-second before uttering it. It’s that gleam that truly made the show stand out: It’s a gleam that betrayed the comedian’s intelligence as well as the pure joy he had at the peak of his powers. Even if I never enjoyed toiled-humor-based sketches, there was never a single doubt about how much Chappelle enjoyed performing them. Chappelle’s Show was always many different things springing from a single source. The various sketches comprised the various aspects of his persona, his comedic stylings, and his worldviews.
That’s why, ultimately, despite his claims to the contrary in the DVD commentary for the Wayne Brady episode, Chappelle himself was never replaceable. Putting the show on without him was simply impossible. That makes his final lines to the in-studio audience that much sadder: “We shook up the world! I’m out!” He didn’t know what would happen to his show after this taping, but it seems unlikely that he could have anticipated how things would develop. Next week, we’ll look at what did.
- “You got a Daytime Emmy, you shouldn’t be doing shit like this!” I bet people say that to Dr. Oz all the time.
- Wayne Brady serenading the cop before breaking his neck feels like the best scene Whose Line Is It Anyway? never aired.
- The standing ovation at the outset of the 13th episode makes the episode that much more bittersweet.
- My favorite part of “Black Bush”: trying to blow off the question about oil before spilling some water and fleeing the congressional hearing.
- Next week: We’ll look at all three of “The Lost Episodes”.