As mentioned last week, we’re going to cover three Chappelle’s Show episodes as opposed to our normal two this week. Since this second season covers thirteen episodes, I wanted to make sure I ended my analysis in a way that didn’t combine the final episode of this season with the first episode of the third one. After all, things slightly change between the two. I’ll cover that shortened third season in a single entry to round out our coverage of the program. But for now, let’s get into this middle stretch of the show’s second season, which finds Chappelle’s Show in a strong, if repetitive, rhythm that at times reveals the tensions already lingering under the surface.
“Episode 2-5” (season 2, episode 5; originally aired 2/18/2004)
“Law & Order: Tron Carter”: Here’s a sketch that actually might play better today than when it originally aired, given the current attitudes toward the CEO’s of financial companies. The premise is simple: What if the seemingly two separate types of legal systems (one for rich citizens, one for the rest of us) got reversed? What unfolds is the head of a fictional financial firm getting treated like scum while recurring character Tron Carter gets the red carpet treatment.
Honestly, this lasts way too long to really have the intended impact, even if Tron Carter is one of Chappelle’s most infectiously entertaining characters. One can anticipate nearly every beat of the CEO’s storyline, which makes the wait to see Carter work the cops like a violin that much more interminable. It takes a while for the sketch to really come to life, but it happens when Carter testifies in front of Congress in order to receive a reduced sentence. The way in which he pleads the Fifth Amendment in various ways is fall-down funny, and nearly justifies the long wait to get there. Still, in a season with few misses this far, this entire sketch is slightly off the mark, even if the premise taps into a primal sense of revenge.
“Red Balls Energy Drink”: “Now cocaine comes in a delicious shake!” says Tyrone Biggums. And that drinks comes in handy, as the boost the drink provides turns him into The Six-Million Dollar Crack Man. Of course, Biggums doesn’t use this power for good, but rather to do things like lift up a bus to get a shiny quarter under its wheel. And no jail can contain Biggums while under its influence, since he leaves a Road Runner-esque hole in the cell wall after escaping from its confines. This is as short and sweet as “Law & Order” was long and bloated.
“Negrodamus”: As I wrote when this sketch premiered, there’s not a lot to these segments that allows for much analysis. The Negrodamus character exists to deliver punchlines to questions addressed by the audience. What makes this particular edition remotely notable? Because Paul Mooney states that white people love Wayne Brady because, “He makes Bryant Gumbel look like Malcolm X.” This statement will lead to one of the best episodes of this second season down the line, and we’ll discuss it in context at that time.
“Charlie Murphy's True Hollywood Stories: Prince”: “There are some great storytellers in the world we live in today, man. Who the fuck can make up that shit?” asks Charlie Murphy in this follow-up to last episode’s massively successful Rick James installment. That statement helps illuminate what makes this stories so successful: They are so insane that somehow they must be true. The specificity of these tales lends them veracity, even if we can’t actually vouch for them ourselves.
In last week’s comments, many of you professed that you prefer this installment to the Rick James iteration. I’m not sure I have a personal preference, but can easily understand why an argument could be made for the supremacy of either. What’s important to note is that while both feel visually similar, there’s a tone to each that are very distinctive. The Rick James version feels like it’s riding the high of the lifestyle depicted therein. Here, we get a more laid-back, almost dreamlike vibe, befitting the tone set by Prince himself. Sure, we get another flashback set in a stark, sparsely decorated set. But to simply lump both sets of "True Hollywood Stories" as mere variations on each other doesn’t give them enough credits.
Chappelle once again goes deep into character, making Prince’s soft-spoken nature part of his arsenal to trick Charlie Murphy and his friends into playing a pick-up game of basketball at his house. Prince is an enigma here, but one that is self-cultivated in order to both keep people at bay as well as disarm them. When Prince and his band The Revolution emerge from the fog to play basketball in their stage clothes, both Murphy and the audience roar with laughter. But it’s clear the act is one of subterfuge, enabling Prince to school Murphy and his cohorts without breaking a sweat. Literally. (One of the classic lines of this sketch finds Prince answering Murphy’s request for a towel thusly: “Why don’t you purify yourselves in the waters of Lake Minnetonka?”)
The game ends with Prince making pancakes for his vanquished foes. It’s a bizarre detail, but doesn’t feel like something Murphy simply made up in order to give the story a better ending. This brings us back to the initial quote of this analysis: As outlandish as these two sets of stories were, they never felt as if they were comedic creations that leapt from the imaginations of this show’s writing staff. Plenty of successful sketches in this show arose from such a place. But “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories” serve a special function. They draw back the curtain on celebrities, but do so in a way that doesn’t mock so much as illuminate. What we learn isn’t always flattering for all involved, but they feel true. And since the basis of comedy lies in illuminating truths in fresh, entertaining methods, then Chappelle’s Show was smart to let Charlie Murphy share these stories with us.
“Episode 2-6” (season 2, episode 6; originally aired 2/25/2004)
“A Moment in the Life of Lil Jon”: How good is Chappelle’s take on the rapper/producer? So good that Lil Jon himself started accentuating the vocal tics described in this sketch as part of his everyday persona. There’s little “there” there to Lil Jon checking into a flight, but the “Who’s On First” approach works like gangbusters due to Chappelle’s energy and the relatively brief running time of the sketch. But what really sells this are the stand-up segments before and after the pre-taped segment, especially Chappelle’s delight that white America didn’t appear to know what “skeet skeet” meant just yet. Did I know? Um. Sure. Sure I did! Of course I did! Let’s move onto the next sketch before stuff gets awkward…
“If the Internet Were a Real Place”: I’ve talked before about how “True Hollywood Stories” works, in part, due to its abstract set design. Placing it inside a black box theatre gives off the impression we’re inside Murphy’s imagination, and the lack of veracity somehow actually sells the illusion. And while the idea of a mall as the physical representation of the internet is a sound idea, there’s something about the actual realization of this idea during this segment that slightly falls short. Simply filming a mall through an overexposed lens might have been a practical solution to the show’s miniscule budget, I do wonder how a less specific environment might have helped sell the seedy landscape Chappelle wanted to present here.
It’s a small quibble, and one that certainly doesn’t derail the proceedings. Dave’s search for a Knicks score leads him past literalizations of spam emails, illegally downloaded music, seedy erotica, pop-up ads, and dating websites. If that last one sounds a little less offense than the rest, then you’ve identified the single structural problem with the sketch. Chappelle is aiming to go further down the sketchy rabbit hole with each item he confronts in the mall, and for a while, it really works. The central section in which men (including Ron Jeremy) lead him toward an increasingly lurid series of pornographic content is fantastic, especially Chappelle’s increasing disgust with himself at continually looking at it. Overall, his hatred of this internet mall grows throughout, until he reaches a dating chatroom/bar inside of it. I understand that Chappelle looks at this as a potential oasis in the midst of the hell he’s in. But rather than a bait-and-switch, it’s an obvious joke that someone as smart as Chappelle’s character should ostensibly detect at that point in the sketch. Yes, I’m looking for logic inside a Chappelle’s Show sketch again. You know where to direct your ire.
“The Theresa Roddy Interview”: Another Lil Jon moment, undoubtedly inspired by the gold mine Chappelle and company felt they had tapped. There are two things of note about this one. The “normal” monologue in the middle of this sketch is not only excellently written, but it’s actually dramatically performed. It’s not Chappelle going over the top with the histrionics: He walks right up to the line, but somehow dignifies the proceedings all the same. Secondly, in case it wasn’t obvious in the airport sketch, Lil Jon literally has a hearing problem in this version of the character, with his lengthy hair getting in the way of his ability to understand those with whom he’s engaged in conversation. Too bad he and Fisticuffs never got into a debate.
“When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong”: Season one featured an ongoing series of sketches called “Great Moments in Hook-Up History.” This season, Chappelle’s Show slots in this new series, which gets its inaugural airing here. Chappelle’s character Darius gets taunted into defending his girlfriend’s honor when leaving a club by a tenth-degree black belt. What ensues is an ass-kicking that affects not only Chappelle’s character but the insanely obvious dummy that stands in for him when the violence gets too much. (Keeping it real apparently doesn’t apply to stunt actors.) Humiliated by the incident, Darius moves in with his grandmother, who is still anxious to “get [her] swerve on” even with him in the house. Chappelle’s Show obsession with finding humor in the elderly continues here. In this season’s premiere, he proposed having teenagers watch their principal have sex as a form of abstinence education. Here, Grandma is letting it all hang out for our horrified amusement. If you’re dying to see more moments like this, don’t worry: There’s plenty more Lil Jon and people keeping it real later on this season.
“Episode 2-7” (season 2, episode 7; originally aired 3/3/2004)
“A Moment in the Life of Lil Jon”: See? I told you there would be more. Here, Lil Jon is at a hospital after injuring his arm. Is it possible to overdose on Lil Jon? Because I think I’m dangerously close at this point. Man was not meant to consume this many “WHAT?”s in a single sitting, I fear.
“Marijuana Commercial”: The Half Baked crew reunite to film a fake PSA about the dangers of reefer. After pulling up at a WacArnold’s, the men fight over a cheddar burger, accidentally running over a 12-year old girl who happens to be pulling in front of them in the drive-thru lane. They fear they’ve killed her, which prompts Guillermo Díaz to suggest they chop up the body to hide the evidence. But she’s not dead, merely dazed…which freaks the guys out even more. If this were filmed today, they would accuse her of being a zombie. But we’re not quite at the zombie zeitgeist just yet, so Chappelle merely steals her bike as an escape vehicle. The punch line to the entire sketch? That it’s meant to warn 12-year old girls, not the a-holes in the car, to avoid smoking marijuana. Fantastic.
“Mooney on Movies”: Not content to simply do Negrodamus, Mooney appears here in between two fictional movie critics to offer up his thoughts on films past and present. (About Barbershop: “You know it’s a front, right? They sell drugs out of barbershops.”) Mooney’s segments are always welcome, yet sometimes feel as if they are inserted from another program entirely. Chappelle’s Show offers up a variety of comedic tones, to be sure. But they usually feel like sides of the same comedic brain. Chappelle’s inclusion of Mooney serves as homage to one of his comedic inspirations, but rants about Brad Pitt’s film The Mexican don’t always jive with the other pieces of the whole.
“2004 World Series of Dice”: A limp parody of the poker competitions that became popular on ESPN and other networks at the start of this century, “World Series Of Dice” starts out feeling like it could capture same lightning in the bottle that “The Player Hater’s Ball” did in season one. Unfortunately, the masterful improvisational energy from that sketch is nowhere to be found here. Instead, it’s a tightly scripted but oddly inert depiction of a dice game in the basement of The Marcy Projects. There are plenty of laughs at the expense of Ashy Larry, played memorably by Donnell Rawlings. But Chappelle’s Leonard Washington (on loan from last season’s “Trading Spouses” sketch) barely gets out of the comedic gates here, and guest star Eddie Griffin gets little to do as well. Considering this sketch is longer than the first three in this episode combined, I’ll call this sketch a miss and move on.
“When Keeping It Real” Goes Wrong”: Chappelle sets up the premise once again with great vigor, noting that it’s the basis for his entire on-air persona. (“I’m not this nice in real life. I get wild!” he screams.) This time, we witness a hard-working man by the name of Vernon in a corporation see his years of hard work fly out the window when he refuses to greet his mentor’s ill-advised request to “…give me some skin.” Vernon loses his mind at the perceived indignation, and unleashes a verbal assault upon his fellow board members. For his outburst, he gets fired and finds himself at a gas station making minimum wage. The introduction to this sketch is fascinating, given how much Chappelle himself inevitably bristles at those with whom he had worked with at Comedy Central. He probably didn’t bark like a dog and scream “Wu Tang” at those executives. But it’s hard not to watch this sketch and extrapolate the psychology involved in real-life situations less than a year later.
- Boy, that dog getting shot in the head in the "Law & Order” sketch is…yeah. I’m almost afraid to mention it, but somehow ignoring that it happened seems worse.
- Tron Carter’s sign during his testimony helpfully let me know he was pleading the “FiF” Amendment.
- Of all the homages in the “Prince” sketch, I think I enjoy Chappelle re-enacting Prince crawling on the floor toward the camera from then “When Doves Cry” video the most.
- In the intro to the sixth episode, Chappelle says, “Thank you, bitches!” in his Rick James character. It’s an interesting moment in which real-life acclaim is starting to seep into the actual content of the show. (It also happens when he notes that people often implored him to “keep it real” in terms of his show later in that episode.)
- Chappelle’s line reading of “Of course I do!” in regards to seeing Halle Berry naked might be my favorite line reading he does throughout the entire run of the show.
- Next week: We’re back to our normal two-episode coverage, in which Dave hosts a game show to find out who knows black people the best.