Okay, boys and girls, we’re at the episode I’m sure many of you have been dying to discuss—or at least quote extensively in the comments. But before we get to the legendary Rick James, there’s plenty of good stuff in this week’s Chappelle’s Show twofer. Enjoy yourself, everyone: It’s a party. No, it’s a gala. Hmm… maybe it’s a jamboree? There’s a word for this, I just know there is.
“Episode 2-3” (season 2, episode 3; originally aired 2/4/2004)
“White People Dancing”: Chappelle opens the show in-studio noting the controversy surrounding some of his racially charged sketches. So he offers up a statement that seems clear to those actually watching the show closely: “I’m not advocating in any way, shape or form any type of racial hatred. I’m just making fun of each other’s cultures.” The problem, he notes, is that there’s little room for subtlety when it comes to maneuvering in humor about stereotypes. To him, “White people can’t dance” isn’t a funny statement, because it doesn’t really ring true to him. To find out the true source of this statement, he sets up a series of cultural experiments to get to the root of the issue.
Chappelle’s hypothesis: All cultures can dance, but simply respond to different musical instruments. It’s a silly, but also deeply humanist, sentiment. It’s that mixture that really helps this lengthy segment work. Employing John Mayer (in his pre-“douchebag Neil Young stunt double” days) as a lab assistant of sorts, Chappelle enters the boardroom of an office building to see if the white employees will respond to Mayer’s noodling. Sure enough, they rise up out of their chairs as if hypnotized, and bust out their best H.O.R.D.E. Festival moves. Later that day, in a chic restaurant, Mayer plays what Chappelle dubs the “fight riff,” and it’s Lollapalooza ’94 all over again. Once Mayer stops playing in both locations, the world returns to normal, almost as if no one there remembers their brief musical interludes.
“Now, every experiment needs a control,” Chappelle notes, so he takes Mayer to a barbershop in Harlem. The denizens there are either black or Latino. They respond poorly to Mayer’s blues-inspired riffs, with one man there eventually screaming, “Hey yo: Shut the fuck up!” Mayer is chastened, but Chappelle is undeterred. Dave anticipated this might happen, so he unveils his secret weapon: The Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, there to lay down a percussive beat that even Chappelle can’t resist. An impromptu rap battle even emerges within seconds of the drums starting. Still, this control wasn’t perfect, as the Latinos in the room didn’t seem to respond. Enter “Sanchez,” an electric piano player, who joins in the fun with Questlove to get the Latinos dancing instantaneously. Finally, Chappelle joins in by screaming gibberish into a megaphone to complete the musical melting pot.
There’s a joy to all of this that epitomizes Chappelle’s introduction to the piece. Just like with last week’s “Racial Draft” sketch, Chappelle’s Show is seeking common ground through theoretically divisive humor. The words that play over the end of the sketch (“People of Earth: No matter what your instrument, keep on dancing!”) is cheesy as hell, but it’s not delivered ironically. “White People Dancing” isn’t about one culture seeking superiority over another, but rather finding similarities in the way music can affect us all on an atomic level. The fact that the sketch also happens to be gut-bustingly hilarious serves as the spoonful of sugar to help this musical medicine go down.
“Ribs Sleep Aids”: Chappelle once again hammers home in-studio how his racial sketches are about celebrating, not mocking, differences. To prove his point, he breaks out a short sketch about the newest sleep aid for black America: ribs in a cylindrical canister. How does it work? By going into your stomach and causing a condition known as “the itis.” Side effects? Oh, there are side effects aplenty, including laziness, high blood pressure, wile bowels, and the dreaded Mud Butt™. It’s a short, silly sketch, but the highlight of the segment comes afterward, back in the studio. In an improvised bit, Chappelle asks the crowd for the Caucasian equivalent of the ribs in the sketch. He assumes it would be turkey, but then a man in the crowd shouts out, “Box of wine!” Chappelle apparently never heard of wine in a box before, and is absolutely delighted to learn of its existence. This fits in with the type of comedy the show does: Chappelle’s Show tends to derive its most powerful humor from simply asking questions about the world around it and broadcasting those answers in an informed, entertaining manner.
“The Three Daves”: Here’s a sketch with a great premise but awkward presentation. Anytime the show produces a segment which labors to set up its premise (such as season one’s “Crazy Camera”), the results are usually mixed at best. The concept is solid: After receiving criticism that Chappelle never points his satirical gaze inwards, he demonstrates how his 18-, 24-, and 30-year old self would react in certain scenarios. But what ultimately unfolds are 12 separate punchlines united by the loosest of frameworks.
Again, this isn’t a bad sketch, but it pales in comparison to those in which an actual in-sketch story drives the comedy. Seeing an 18-year old Chappelle listening to Arrested Development’s “Tennessee” and quoting Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rump Shaker” is funny, but doesn’t have resonance above and beyond its own context. Not every sketch need be a polemic on racial understanding in America, to be sure. So seeing Chappelle ninja chop a police officer in order to avoid getting a speeding ticket has its own pleasures unto it. (“Pleasures,” of course, being a contextual one in this case.) The biggest takeaway from this? If 30-year old Chappelle hated Nick Cannon so much, I wonder what 40-year old Chappelle thinks of the current host of America’s Got Talent!
“Episode 2-4” (season 2, episode 4; originally aired 2/11/2004)
“The Love Contract”: Rashida Jones appears for the first time on the show since season one’s “Roca Pads.” Here, Chappelle has her sign an overly complicated form for consensual sex. “Because you’d hate to catch a beef for something you know you didn’t do!” intones the voiceover. If you act now, you also get the “Confidentiality Agreement,” which comes in handy when Chappelle prematurely ejaculates mere moments after the Love Contract is signed. Chappelle then shouts, “Kobe!” before tossing the used condom into the nearby waste basket. This is a perfectly fine, if forgettable, sketch. But let’s be honest: we’re not here for “The Love Contract,” are we?
“Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories—Rick James”: Back in “The Player Hater’s Ball,” Silky Johnson asks, “What can I say about that suit that hasn’t already been said about Afghanistan?” Well, here I ask: What can I say about this sketch that hasn’t already been said? It’s the defining sketch of the definitive cable sketch comedy show. As such, it stands as a monument that’s almost impossible to critically review, since obtaining distance from this particular piece of pop culture is almost impossible. Chappelle’s Show will probably never completely fade from the popular consciousness, and this Rick James sketch is the primary reason for that.
Breaking down why something is funny often strips that object of its humor, but let’s try anyway: It works first because of the energy Charlie Murphy brings to his oral history. In the DVD commentary, Neal Brennan notes how every green screen scene with Murphy is a reshoot, with the original having been shot while Murphy was seated. Having the narrator stand gives everything he says more animation and energy, which in turn gives the piece a shot of adrenaline even through its exposition. This sketch also works because Chappelle doesn’t portray so much as inhabit Rick James. That’s not to say that his impression is perfect, but the incarnation is perfectly calibrated. The improv comes from within the characterization, not on top of it. (This is the hallmark of his greatest characters, slotting James alongside Clayton Bigsby and Silky Johnson.)
But truly, the sketch works because of the late funk icon’s involvement. His presence sends the entire sketch down the rabbit hole, but it also oddly validates its entire premise. Having Chappelle reenact stories about Rick James as told by Charlie Murphy would have been funny enough. But having James on hand as both unreliable narrator and unintentional validator sends the whole sketch over the top and into the stratosphere. On top of that, his presence gives the audience license to laugh at James’ horrific, cocaine-laced actions inside the flashbacks. And those flashbacks: My god, they are a marvel of visual minimalism. On the commentaries, Chappelle cites Family Ties’ seminal episode “’A’, My Name is Alex” as inspiration, and once you see that, you can’t unsee it. It’s an unlikely source, and yet making the production as minimal as possible places an emphasis on the stories themselves. It was a budget-saving maneuver that ends up working better than any attempts to accurately recreate Studio 54 or Eddie Murphy’s early-1980s mansion.
On top of all of this, “Hollywood Stories” is also helped by masterful direction and editing. The ways in which the flashbacks are filmed helps sell the heightened narrative at play, but it’s the way that Brennan cuts between the present and the past, along with his manipulation of repeated footage and line readings, that really drives home the comedy here. “Cocaine is a hell of a drug,” is funny the first time. But by the fourth, it’s the funniest thing you’ve ever heard in your life, with each iteration sending the audience into greater hysterics. But the repeated use of it doesn’t make James out to be a villain. It doesn’t make him a hero, either. It just makes him bewilderingly human.
And perhaps that’s the best part of this piece. Sure, the catchphrases spread like wildfire, and last to this day. But “It’s a celebration, bitches!” is both celebratory and predatory simultaneously. Even if Chappelle’s Show can’t help but ultimately admire James, that admiration doesn’t come without tacit judgment as well. Sure, it’s funny that James had women on call that would willingly take off their tops. But it’s also a little sad as well. “The milk’s gone bad!” Chappelle-as-James declares, and you don’t know whether or not to hate him or feel bad for the women. That James was alive at the time this episode aired is something of a miracle. But the show never pretends that his lifestyle was healthy. It simply shows that it was heightened, and demonstrates the good and bad that came of that lifestyle. It doesn’t judge, but it doesn’t shy away from the seedier aspects on display.
This sketch stands as both as funny as you remember and much darker than anyone usually cares to admit. The darkness doesn’t overwhelm the humor, but its presence actually makes this version of “Hollywood Stories” the lasting piece that it is.
- Craziest reveal on the DVD commentary: Chappelle had never heard of John Mayer before they did this sketch. But Mayer was a fan of the show, telling producers the night before “White People Dancing” was filmed: “Don’t make me look like Chad from ‘The Mad Real World.’”
- Speaking of Mayer and comedy: If you’ve never seen VH1’s one-off special John Mayer Has A TV Show, youmight be surprised at how incredibly funny it is.
- Chappelle gleefully breaking a bottle on Mayer’s head during the “fight riff” might be one of the best moments of “Episode 2-3.” It’s a funny visual gag, but also captures Chappelle trying to participate in the insanity around him.
- “Episode 2-3” ends with “Dave Chappelle’s Trio,” an outtake from the “White People Dancing” sketch, in which Chappelle, Mayer, Questlove, and Sanchez perform the theme songs to Diff'rent Strokes and The Facts of Life. Fun fact about Sanchez: According to the DVD commentary, his name is John, and at the time he played with Norah Jones.
- We learn in the DVD commentary that Chappelle actually met Rick James a few times while the former was filming Robin Hood: Men In Tights. Chappelle was 19 and without a car in Los Angeles; James often came to the hotel bar, where the two had lengthy conversations.
- Charlie Murphy’s son plays Eddie Murphy in “Hollywood Stories,” which means that Eddie is played by his own nephew.
- Next week: Charlie Murphy tells a tale about Prince, and Chappelle’s Lil Jon makes his first appearance. We’re going to do three episodes, as opposed to the normal two, since the second season runs 13 episodes. The fifth, sixth, and seventh episodes of the season are best covered together, allowing second-season coverage to end with a review of the finale (rather than reviewing “Episode 2-13” alongside the first of the “lost episodes”).