The two years between the second and third seasons of Chappelle’s Show were muddled, confusing, rumor-filled times. Even piecing things together after the fact has been difficult. There was a performative aspect to the public negotiations, hearsay, publicity, and public sniping that makes assembling a true timeline a difficult, if not outright impossible, endeavor. Wikipedia (I know, I know) has a decent rundown of events, and it’s worth reading the entire Time article mentioned in the second installment of what Comedy Central eventually dubbed “The Lost Episodes.” That’s not to say either offers definitive accounts on what went down, but both provide information that I would just be paraphrasing up front anyway.
Personally, I’d rather focus on these three episodes than the time between seasons. We’re not here to do anything but look at the unique, fascinating, flawed, and sad triptych of installments that Comedy Central managed to cull together after Dave Chappelle’s departure. I suppose we could have stopped last week and pretended like these last three episodes don’t exist. It’s an odd way to end this series of Chappelle’s Show reviews, but “The Lost Episodes” are also an odd way to end one of the best TV shows of this young century. So it seems only fitting to place these episodes in the context of all that has come before.
“Episode 3-1” (season 3, episode 1; originally aired 7/9/2006)
Charlie Murphy and Donnell Rawlings take the stage after Chappelle doesn’t answer the usual announcement of his name. Murphy tries to play things cool, noting that he’s not mad at Dave and feels weird about being onstage instead of him. Rawlings, however, is amped up at any chance to get more face time on the show. He parades around the stage, asking people to take his photograph. Neither seems quite sure what to do, so they simply throw things over to one of the few sketches completed before Dave’s departure.
Dave Has $55 Million: Money changes everything. That’s what I hear. (When I actually get some, I’ll let you know how true that statement is.) So we see Chappelle trying to adjust to a life with an extra $55 million in his pockets thanks to his new deal with Comedy Central. Naturally, everyone wants in on the action: The St. Thomas barber who charges $11,000 for a haircut, the car washer who demands $900 for services rendered, and the IRS, who not only takes $25 million for itself but also shoots and kills Dave’s newly hired bodyguard. “The IRS pulled the trigger, but your greed did this to me, Dave,” the bodyguard whispers, and it’s a revealing moment. For all the psychoanalyzing I’ve done this summer in trying to find moments during the first two seasons in which the pressures of creating the show appeared onscreen, here’s the best example to date. There’s no need to guess anymore. The evidence is onscreen, free of subtext.
Hip-Hop Newsbreak: This isn’t a sketch so much as the idea for one. It barely lasts a minute, and features the return of newsman Chuck Taylor as well as fan-favorite Tron. Apparently, Method Man beat up Tron via the ol’ “spiked bat to the balls” technique. You know, that old chestnut. Chappelle’s makeup job as Taylor is particularly hideous here, a physical example of the slapdash nature of a sketch that probably should have never seen the light of day.
Dave Gets Revenge: Here’s a slam-dunk premise that gets stunted due to the reality surrounding the third season. Watching Dave cross off names on a Kill Bill-esque list could have been some excellent twisted comedy… had Chappelle still been hosting the show. Instead, with him gone, his fictional actions inside the sketch just seem slightly off. It’s weird to watch a man systematically ruin the lives of those that have slighted him in the past, knowing that his own life was in relative turmoil at the time. You could argue that this sketch represents a type of mask put on to cover/complicate the emotions revealed in the episode’s first sketch. Or you could argue that this was written right before the time that Chappelle no longer enjoyed his newfound economic “freedom.” But mostly, watching Dave push a man in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs is awkward, not cathartic.
Tupac Is Still Alive: Simple premise, devastatingly funny execution. Noting that Tupac Shakur released as many, if not more, records after his death than during his life, Chappelle’s Show unleashes the “newest” record, ostensibly written in 1994 but uncannily describing events taking place in 2006. Not only is the beat itself catchy as hell (perhaps even catchier than the one in “Fisticuffs”), but the lyrics perfectly escalate from a generic party anthem to overly specific references to events happening concurrently in the club. Talk of “George W.” seems to hint at political events in the 21st century, only to turn out to reference “George W. Smith/From City Council/He ran in ’93/Out in Oakland/You probably didn’t hear about him.” Watching Chappelle and company try to square the circle of Tupac’s impossible lyrics is always hysterical, and Tupac essentially chasing Dave out of the club by repeatedly mentioning Chappelle’s wife and kids is great as well. For an episode that wears its melancholy, anger, and confusion on its sleeve, it’s nice to have at least one sketch in which everything appears to be business as usual. It’s an illusion, but an illusion with a great beat.
“Episode 3-2” (season 3, episode 2; originally aired 7/16/2006)
Black Howard Dean: Remember Howard Dean’s speech after the 2004 Iowa Democratic caucuses? The “Dean Scream” was a hot comedic topic in the immediate aftermath. Unfortunately, the delay on the third season of Chappelle’s Show made this sequence more than a little dated even when it originally aired. Chappelle’s repeated utterance of “Byaaah!” builds to a fun level of absurdity in the first third of this segment, but a debate with then-Vice President Dick Cheney falls short in terms of laughs. The Busta Rhymes video parody almost saves the sketch, but this segment never really gets out of first gear.
Watching TV While Having Sex: If “Black Howard Dean” never gets out of first gear, I’m not sure this sketch even makes it out of the garage. Had this been an examination of fantasizing (in both good and bad ways) about people on the television while getting it on, then this might be a serviceable, if forgettable, sketch. But the premise states that this is a problem only for famous people, because those on-screen might be real-life friends. It’s a small difference, but an important once, because it emphasizes the disconnect between host and audience that made Chappelle flee the show in the first place. Telling Charles Barkley, “Watch me take it to the hole!” takes on a different meaning if we assume the pair hung out between seasons of Chappelle’s Show. Still, any sketch that gets the great Marla Gibbs on television can’t be completely worthless. So there’s that small silver lining, I suppose.
The Real Side Of Gary Coleman: While Avenue Q was singing about Gary Coleman over on Broadway, Chappelle’s Show decided to take a different approach in examining the former child star’s fortunes. Taking a cue from Coleman’s stint as a security guard, the program depicts a typical day in Gary’s life. And, apparently, that typical day involves being asked to speak catchphrases, facing the wraths of those for whom he won’t perform on-demand, and then ripping the very hair from their scalp in the ensuing fight.
The show’s minimal budget has been well documented in this space, but even by those standards, this is some sloppy production. I understand the subpar effects are intended to be part of the humor, and lord knows I’m not expecting visual effects on the level of The Lord Of The Rings here. But the plastic hands used for close-ups aren’t ironically amusing so much as creepy, and the editing between Chappelle, the child actor, and the puppet borders on amateur hour at some points. Just as Marla Gibbs stepped in to help the last sketch, Isiah Whitlock, Jr. appears late in the sketch as Coleman’s store manager. It’s been some time since we last saw the actor best known as The Wire’s Clay Davis on the show, his previous appearance coming during season one’s crack intervention sketch. He doesn’t miraculously save the proceedings, but that’s okay. What’s truly memorable about this episode is up next.
Stereotype Pixies: This isn’t a sketch so much as several parts of what would have been, in theory, a whole. Murphy and Rawlings set up each iteration of the joke—a pixie appears offering up the most stereotypical advice possible—and then let the individual segments roll. Each pixie is played by Chappelle, who appeals to black, Latino, Asian, and white men during the course of the sketch. As with most sketches that aired during this shortened third season, the results are hit-or-miss. The Asian segment is horrific, the white segment is inoffensively bland, and the black and Latino segments manage to straddle the line between offensiveness and outrageousness. But that’s just my opinion, and here’s where things get really interesting.
Audience Reaction To “Stereotype Pixies”: Chappelle’s Show shows a brief clip from the previously Time article that depicts Chappelle leaving his own show, citing “Stereotype Pixies” as one concrete example of why he jumped ship. The quote reads, in part, “…at the taping, he wondered if the new season of his show had gone from sending up stereotypes to merely reinforcing them.” Some of the finished material in these episodes seemed appropriate to air (as much as anything aired without Chappelle could be “appropriate”), but as a focal point of Dave’s departure, the producers had a more difficult time deciding whether or not “Stereotype Pixies” should see the light of day.
Their solution? Have Murphy and Rawlings conduct a Q&A with the audience members about their reactions to the sketch. Many times throughout the first two seasons of the show, Chappelle expressed his desire to start conversations with his sketches. While he undoubtedly achieved that goal, both in popular media as well as around water coolers, he never had the chance to converse with the people in the studio. That’s a shame, although it has more to do with the type of show he wanted to conduct than an inability to engage in off-the-cuff, entertaining, and thought-provoking conversations with his audience. Given the nature of the pixie sketch, this episode provides the perfect opportunity to air the types of conversations Chappelle himself always wanted to inspire.
The actual comments rarely rise to great intellectual heights. Many take the form of “it’s comedy, just chill,” which makes me think a lot of the people in this audience have been commenting on these reviews all summer. Others take the stance that whites got off easy in the sketch, with Chappelle’s humor aimed at stereotypes that have benign, not negative, connotations. Still, the fact that such a discussion aired at all is remarkable. Even when certain people step up to the edge of controversy themselves, the room keeps a civil (if tense) attitude throughout. Part of that has to do with the editing, which distills a longer discussion into choice sound bites. But I also choose to believe that many there (including Murphy and Rawlings) simply relished the opportunity to speak about the sketch in an open environment. It could have easily turned into a situation where people either turned on each other or Chappelle’s Show itself. Neither scenario occurs. Nothing is solved during this debate, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to continue the conversation that Chappelle’s Show started, even if the man who started that conversation was no longer around.
“Episode 3-3” (season 3, episode 3; originally aired 7/23/2006)
The Monsters: Here’s an eight-minute sketch that would kill at about half that length. The idea of Murphy, Chappelle, and Rawlings as Frankenstein’s monster, The Wolfman, and The Mummy is prime for satirical content. Indeed, a lot of it the scene does work. But it’s impossible to know if this segment would have aired in the form we see today had things not gone down with Chappelle. There’s a bloated nature to the proceedings that slows things down.
Specifically, the sketch doesn’t get going until the lengthy segment involving Murphy getting fired from his job. It takes up approximately half the sketch, but communicates its necessary information in less than a minute. The crisp, rapid-fire editing of the Mummy and Wolfman segments should have been applied to the Frankenstein portion, and could have strengthened the whole endeavor.
That being said, there is some strong material here. The idea that people misidentify the reasons others don’t like them is potent. There’s a combination of cultural stereotypes and heightened sense of self that combine to produce an atmosphere in which any perceived slight can trigger an over-proportioned response. And while some of the problems people have with these three characters come from their status as monsters, just as many are straight-up racist. It’s not one or the other, which makes it all the harder for the monsters to react to things in their everyday lives.
Making these men monsters doesn’t remove the issues from the real world so much as heighten them for satirical purposes. Also, given Rawlings’ propensity to overact, it’s remarkable to see him in a subtle and even somber approach to the news his Mummy is going back to jail. That’s not to say Rawlings’ other appearances to date needed such nuance in order to work. (Ashy Larry need only be Ashy Larry, after all.) But it’s appreciated here all the same. Still, more work in the editing room would have gone a long way toward transforming this from a good sketch into a classic.
“Minorities” In The News: After the lengthy opening sketch, here’s one that barely lasts longer than the opening credits. The sketch changes the audio of a fictional news report to replace “minorities” and “special interests” with “niggers” and “fags.” Here’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sketch that shouldn’t have aired, even in this context. It’s not that the words used are offensive. It’s that the off-handed, half-formed way in which they are deployed undercuts the idea at play. Noting that the media employs specific euphemisms in order to codify certain parts of society isn’t mind-blowing, but it’s an important point to raise all the same. Other Comedy Central programs such as The Daily Show still do this today. But whereas The Daily Show (and, in its heyday, Chappelle’s Show) would take the time to really twist the knife, here the program gives a half-hearted attempt using a dull blade.
Dave Meets Show Business: The discussion that ensued after the “Stereotype Pixies” sketch helped exemplify the type of dialogue that Dave Chappelle hoped to engender with his program. “Dave Meets Show Business” exemplifies the types of demons with which he wrestled following the second season of the program, and as such serves as a fitting final sketch for “The Lost Episodes.”
In it, Chappelle meets the embodiment of Show Business, a floating head living in an Oz-like world. He scoffs at Dave’s dream to continue his career with integrity, ordering Chappelle instead to broaden his scope through merchandising, film rights, and other forms of exposure in order to capitalize on his brand. What follows is a succinct microcosm of everything that Chappelle’s Show loved to do: fake commercials (this time for “Dave Chappelle Cereal”), celebrity sendups (bringing in Susan Sarandon to act opposite Chappelle’s Lil Jon), the falsehoods of “celebrity” (via a staged episode of MTV Cribs that exposes the sweat shop that makes Dave’s sneakers), and the show’s desire to insert crude, corporeally based humor whenever possible (Chappelle cooks T. Rex eggs in an effort to be “baller”, cutting off the head of a baby dino and licking the spurting blood from its neck).
“Dave Meets Show Business” doesn’t represent the zenith of any of these long-standing tropes within the show. But as Dave walks away from the Yellow Brick Road, we see him also walk away from the piles of gold (metaphorical as well as literal) that would have come his way. Couple that with the heartfelt goodbyes from Murphy and Rawlings to the audience, and you have a fairly powerful farewell to the show as a whole. Murphy thanks the audience for giving him closure through these three episodes, but it’s easy to imagine that these episodes actually didn’t achieve that goal for anyone involved. Comedy Central only aired them after years of behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Dave didn’t want them aired at all. Murphy and Rawlings really didn’t want to host them. The viewers received more of the show we loved, but in a form that often made us realize how much was really missing. As three episodes of Chappelle’s Show, “The Lost Episodes don’t measure up. As three episodes that depict how difficult it is to sustain something with the power, potency, ferocity, and intelligence of Chappelle’s Show, “The Lost Episodes” are essential.
- This short season featured a new introduction, without Chappelle dropping money in the hat of the two performers. Later, Murphy and Rawlings tie the men up to perform it themselves, with Karl Lake too busy doing his signature dance to free the unfortunate musicians.
- Spike Lee appears in “Dave Gets Revenge,” selling a lie that his former casting agent hurled a racial slur his way during the filming of Jungle Fever.
- God help me, I love Duran Duran’s “The Reflex.” So hearing Chappelle sing that during the pixie segment hit home for me.
- Thanks so much for reading these reviews all summer. I’ve been wanting to write about this show since I started here at The A.V. Club, and the response has been spirited since day one.