Updated: Sep 5, 2019
Dave Chappelle is an enigma. His story is well documented from starting stand up at age 14 to his widely acclaimed stand up specials all the way to leaving the set of his successful sketch comedy show ‘Chappelle’s show’. Dave left the show and a 50 million dollar contract to flee to South Africa. He never outwardly spoke about the reason someone would leave the set of a successful show but in his last special before his 11 year hiatus, Dave hinted at many things. He talked about celebrity culture and how we’re all lead astray and manipulated by the media. He said something was wrong in hollywood and disappeared for years. In 2011, Dave returned to touring after years of only doing local club appearances. In 2016, he signed a $20 million-per-release comedy-special deal with Netflix and in 2017, he has released four standup specials so far, with the next one titled ‘Sticks & Stones’ coming out on August 27, 2019. The third special, Equanimity, was filmed in September 2017 at the Warner Theater in Washington, D.C., and then on November 20, 2017, Chappelle filmed a fourth special, The Bird Revelation, at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles. On December 22, 2017, Netflix announced the expansion of the deal to include The Bird Revelation, which was released with Equanimity on December 31.
The Bird Revelations was a last minute addition to the deal. It was recorded later than the rest of the specials, it was shorter than them, the audience was much smaller and the production value was clearly much lower. All the other specials looked and felt like specials you would get from a superstar like Dave Chappelle. They were filmed in arenas with thousands of people there and Chappelle was standing up the whole time. That might seem like a trivial fact but when Chappelle's standing the show becomes a stand up special and loses that intimacy that was ever so present in The Bird Revelation. It was filmed in The Comedy Store with a small crowd as Dave sat on a stool, smoked his cigarettes, told stories and interacted with members of the audience. Chappelle is a gifted storyteller. He’s able to take you on a journey using his words and giving you punchlines at unexpected moments while also being deeply profound. His humour is layered with absurd circumstances covering up social commentary. He’s able to teach you without you realizing he’s even doing it. Basically he’s able to mix in the medicine with the food better than possibly any comic ever, and he did just that in The Bird Revelation.
Chappelle is reminiscent of George Carlin but he takes a different approach to the way he spreads his philosophies and airs out his grievances. Carlin went on stage and ranted in essay format. What Carlin was saying was clearly written and rehearsed plenty of times and it never felt like he cared if people laughed or not. He was up there to say what was on his mind no matter how abrasive or aggressive the material was. It wasn't disguised or hidden. It was raw truth that would even be the punchline at times. Carlin wasn’t always like that, in fact during the beginning of his career he was very cookie cutter. He said that he abandoned the cookie-cutter gimmicks after he abandoned his mainstream dream that, by his own admission, blinded him in the beginning of his career. He wanted to be very mainstream and to appeal to a mass audience and then later on in his career he abandoned that gimmick and became more sincere, more philosophical and more open about his message. He credited psychedelics like LSD that got him in touch with his “true self” as well as the counter cultural shift that was happening in the early 70s thanks to the hippy movement. What Chappelle and Carlin both seem to have in common is that their material got more serious as they aged.
Chappelle came out of the gate with his widely acclaimed special ‘Killing Them Softly’. He had been doing stand-up since he was 14 years old and he was about 25 during the release of that first special. But even then, he spoke with a depth that seemed as though it was much older than his age. Everything he did was layered. Every joke he told, even the sketches on his hit show: the Chappelle show, they were all riddled with social commentary, critique and historical backing. Chappelle was always able to masterfully mix in the medicine with the food as opposed to being abrasive with it.
I feel like that was because of the racial barriers he faced as a black comic. George Carlin as a white person was able to come out with his rhetoric and be different. Before Carlin there weren’t many counter cultural white comedians that would critique all institutions as abrasively as he did. But a lot of black Comics come out with social commentary, especially during the time Dave Chappelle was coming out. There were people like Eddie Griffin, Chris Rock, Katt Williams and many other comedians who were doing social commentary. There's nothing that middle America hates more than the angry black guy, so for comedians it's a hard line to walk. You want to appeal to as many people and make them laugh but you also want to spread your philosophies and messages. So they had to refine that skill of being able to tell the truth and spread your message without making it in a way that it's hard to hear, preachy or make the white audience (which is the majority of the audience after a certain point of notoriety) feel comfortable.
Chappelle was able to carry that baton from George Carlin and turn it into something true to him. After years of doing stand-up, even during his hiatus, Chappelle came back to prove that he was even sharper than when he left. Chappelle’s comedy was a breath of fresh air in the oversaturated netflix stand up market. His material aged like wine when he came back with 4 specials, one of which stands alone. In this special Chappelle sits in a dimly lit room in the small comedy store as he sat on a stool atop a stage. He held a cigarette and blew the smoke in the air, it was reminiscent of old stand-up specials where you were able to smoke indoors. He sat there and spoke for about 49 minutes, much shorter than any other special he’s ever released. The special starts in the middle of the set which adds on to the last minute aesthetic of the special, even though this was Chappelle's most important special to date. He spoke about a variety of topics from the me-too movement to how it affects culture and how the media shapes our reality. It also happens to have punchlines riddled everywhere.
It felt like listening to a lecture from the funniest professor in the world. Even in his youth Chappelle's comedy had tons of historical depth but now it seems as though he’s been able to distill his big ideas to a palatable short format. There’s a video on YouTube right now which is an unofficial Chappelle special where he talks for 3 hours and 42 minutes, which is basically just a scattered, less distilled version of The Bird Revelations. Chappelle has clearly added to his repertoire of knowledge after having aged and traveled the world as a 45 year old man than he would have in his 20s.
Chappelle was able to shine a light on the deeply dark moment that was the me-too movement where everyone in the entertainment industry was being exposed. Everyone from Bill Cosby to Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and much more. Chappelle took that grim and morbid topic and didn't make fun of it, but brought levity to it by shining a light at the absurdity beneath the insanity. The best comedians are able to take you to that place where there's most fear and bring a sense of levity to it, and that's exactly what Chappelle did here. He took the me-too movement and made it a moment of understanding, learning and humour towards our insanely backwards culture and nature as humans. The bit on Louis CK illustrates that point perfectly when he mocks and briefly condemns Louis for his misdeeds, but he does it from a point of understanding perverse human nature.
The title ‘The Bird Revelations’ was fitting because this felt as though it was revelatory. He referenced how this me-too movement was affecting our culture and how it was affecting how we as non celebrity regular people interacted with each other. Because it was culturally changing the way we interact with each other. We had, at least on social media, gone to a place of polar extremism. He talked about the nuances in the situations that nobody outside of a masterful comedian is allowed to discuss because of the climate. Dave and many other comedians have leeway to say controversial things and not get hated for it because everyone understands that comes with the job. Dave also talked about how there was beginning to be no room for imperfect allies, even though we are all human.
Chappelle provided biblical wisdom but applied it to modern times. He talked about Colin Kapernick and modern day martyrs that lead the charge of speaking out against the corrupt system even if it affects their flow of income when they don’t have to do that, even comparing Kaepernick and others like him to Jesus. Colin Kapernick was making millions and gave it all up for integrity. Chappelle talked about how Hollywood was not a place for moral absolutism. Throughout the show he kept hinting at the reason why he left, he kept reminding people of him leaving and compared it to the ride of Paul Revere. Paul Revere had one moment of Glory, Paul Revere rode through the town and woke everyone up and told them that the British were coming, then for the rest of his life Paul Revere was just reminding people of how he was Paul Revere.
Dave asks the question: “Where did I go if I didn't get raped?” People in the audience laughed but Dave kept a straight face. This was one of the moments where the special took that surreal serious tone. The switches in tone were the hallmark of the special. Being able to take these deep dark truths and mold them in with the rest of the humor was done masterfully. If you read between the lines It was more a TED Talk than a stand-up special.
Chappelle went on to say that he was going to tell the reason why he left but he was going to do it in a way that wasn't obvious and he talked about a book. The book was by an African American who was a Pimp in the forties named Iceberg Slim, the book was called ‘Pimp’. Chappelle called the book “The capitalists Manifesto”. He told the story of this pimp and everything he had to do to achieve his goals as a pimp. Iceberg Slim told this one story that was the crescendo of this Dave Chappelle special. Iceberg Slim was having problems with one of his bottom bitches so he went to an older pimp to ask for advice. The older pimp told him “that's easy Iceberg, all you have to do is beat that bitch with a coat hanger and then run her a bath and give her some pills, she'll be so grateful that you fixed her, she'll forget that you were the motherfucker that beat her in the first place.” Iceberg went on to talk about how one of his bottom bitches was at the end of her mileage. He explained that being at the end of your mileage was an important concept in this book. Being at the end of your mileage meant that a pimp understood that there was only a certain amount of stress that a person can be put through before they lose their shit. He made a very important contrast by saying that. He compared it to how people go to work and that's the reason why people work from 9 to 5 exclaiming that 9 to 6 would make people lose their minds. It felt like a throwaway contrast but it was actually very intricately planned. Icebergs bottom bitch was at the end of her mileage and her mental health was deteriorating. Iceberg came up with a plan, he went to his bottom bitch and gave her some pills to give to one of the men that she was going to be sleeping with. He told her to go and put some of the pills in his drink and then get a suitcase of money from underneath his bed and then come back, give it to Iceberg and they could part ways forever. That was supposed to be her last trick. So the bottom bitch goes, takes the pills and puts them in the guys drink as Iceberg awaits in his room. As iceberg is waiting the woman comes running back to him. She tells him that the man does not look right and she believes that there's something wrong with him. So Iceberg goes, checks him out and calls a friend of his. The friend was supposed to be a doctor. He checked the man's pulse and told them that the man was dead. The bottom bitch started crying and Iceberg called a couple of people with a truck. They wrapped the body up, put him in the back of a truck, Iceberg took some money out of the suitcase and gave it to the men with the truck and they all parted ways. Iceberg and the bottom bitch were sitting in a car as she was crying. Iceberg told her that he took care of it and now they had a secret between them and that he wasn't going to tell anyone if she wasn't going to tell. The woman was so grateful she ended up tricking for Iceberg for 6 more months even though she was supposed to leave after that last trick. But it turns out the guy wasn't dead, it was just one of Icebergs friends pretending to be asleep, the doctor who checked his body was actually just a butcher who happened to have a white coat, the guys that came with the moving van to put the body in the back of the truck were just movers that were helping Iceberg move into his new apartment, the money inside the suitcase that Iceberg wanted the bottom bitch to get was actually icebergs all along.
There was a reason why he called this the capitalist Manifesto. It's an idea that Chappelle has been weaving into his comedy since the start. In the three and a half hour YouTube video he discusses the egregious lengths people are willing to go in the quest for power. He talked about capitalism and how it incentivizes unethical methods of control by private business interests. At one point he even references Machiavelli's Prince where Machiavelli says to the prince:”He (The Prince) must separate the people. And if the people cling to one another and refuse to part, then you must picture them as if they were in a pit and eventually they will push one of their own to the top to be their leader. And when they do, you must grab their hand and fling them to the mountain top with the villa. And if they refuse the villa you must cut his head off.” Chappelle was on the same track he was on for his current special but he was not able to distill it at that point as he did by the end destination. Now as he's aged and as he's learned more he's been able to take that big idea and distill it into a digestible format.
The joke was about the effects of capitalism and what our consumerist culture incentivizes.. Capitalism is defined as an economic and political system in which a country's trade and Industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state. That leads to fast development but opportunistic morals and values. Even though capitalism is the cause for the Western Worlds rapid development in Technology, architecture, business and a lot of other things, it's also been to the detriment of the human condition. We're forced into this rat race because we live in a culture that makes you feel as though your main purpose in life is monetary gain. We're all chasing a dream. Where happiness is achieved through consumerism. And the amount of money you have, the higher your status in our monkey mind that likes shiny shit. That status symbol is what drives a lot of us in the morning to get up and do things. And there are levels people are willing to sink to so they can reach that level of status. People are willing to give up their morals, values, integrity and everything around it just to achieve that dream. And that's why capitalism breeds pimps, drug dealers, drug users, murderers and everything that we feel is a detriment to us as a people. Comedian Bo Burnham defined the phenomena of how capitalism incentivizes certain things perfectly when he said: “ You can start a company that makes rape whistles, and even though you started the company with good intentions trying to reduce the rate of rape, now you don't want to reduce it at all cause if the rape rate declines, you'll see an equal decline in whistle sales, because without rapists who’s gonna buy your whistles?”
Capitalism breeds private prisons and higher incarceration rates due to financial gain, capitalism breeds neglect for human life in countries like China and Bangladesh where workers are dying because of poor work conditions and being paid $0.07 an hour. Capitalism breeds what's going on in Congo right now where miners are dying every moment just to make the new iPhone. In the bird Revelations Chappelle is able to take that idea and tell his own story through it. The story ended with the money being icebergs money all along. But icebergs money was just money he was collecting from the work that the prostitutes were doing with their own bodies. So Iceberg was circulating his own money with his own prostitutes and making money through them for himself and then using that money to keep the prostitutes in line. That was a major theme he kept repeating.
The bottom bitch was used to keep the other bitches in line. How this relates to his personal life is through his situation with Comedy Central. Capitalism breeds celebrity worship. In this pyramid scheme that is capitalism Chappelle and other celebrities would be the bottom bitch. Chappelle said that the reason he left was because of the way he felt as though the white people working with him were laughing at his material instead of laughing with him. He felt like he was being irresponsible with his material. That's a place where a lot of black entertainers feel like they get to.
In Kendrick Lamars ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ he penned a poem to Tupac Shakur. The poem was about the place in his career where Kendrick felt he was. Where he was being irresponsible because he was a flawed human but he had a message he wanted to get across: "I remember you was conflicted, Misusing your influence, Sometimes I did the same, Abusing my power, full of resentment, Resentment that turned into a deep depression, Found myself screaming in the hotel room, I didn’t wanna self destruct, The evils of Lucy was all around me“. The album ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ somewhat mirrors Dave's experience including Kendricks trip to South Africa on the album. The poem presents an internal struggle that a lot of entertainers especially black ones have to go through because you as a minority in the entertainment industry have to depict the representation of your entire race and people who look like you to the whole world. The power of the media is more powerful than a lot of people know. The media shapes our reality.
There is a fine line of making entertainment yet also being responsible with the way you put it out there. And that's not a fine line that a lot of people are able to walk. A lot of the media we consume is promoting everything that's detrimental to the bigger picture without any type of responsibility. What sells isn’t usually what's responsible. I’ve even noticed in my short tenure in life as a 20 year old that people flock to controversy and sensationalism. But some artists have an innate need to speak on social issues even if that's not what sells. Chappelle, Carlin, Chris Rock, Kendrick, Pac, J Cole, Kanye and many other entertainers have spoken about having to dumb down their material or being asked to abandon certain ideas so they could appeal to the mainstream. Chappelle was contacted by Bill Cosby and many other black entertainers in the upper echelon of the entertainment industry and was told that his show was becoming irresponsible in the depiction of black people. Bill Cosby notoriously used to contact up and coming comedians to confront them about their material as Eddie Murphy stated in his ‘Raw’ stand up special. Chappelle spoke with Maya Angelou and many other influential black people that advised him to be more responsible with his material.
So Chappelle and other seemingly wealthy celebrities are the bottom bitch and Iceberg Slim is the billionaires controlling all of the major studios. There’s only 5 major studios and wealthy business interests have their hands in all the pots of this tightly controlled infrastructure. All the media that we consume is from them and all the money from the creatives work goes back to them. Artists sign deals like 360 deals in music that give studios and labels ownership and basically all the money they make from their art and everything around it. So even though the creatives are creating the work that makes the money, the money still goes back to the pimp. The pimp being the owners of the film studios, record labels and the billionaires who have a hand in every industry.
Chappelle felt like he, along with other black celebrities, were being used to spread a distorted image of his people and make them a laughing stock and something to be feared as opposed to being responsible with their depiction in the media. You can see this when he was on Oprah trying to tell the story of how black men in entertainment have all put on a dress at one point in their career. Chappelle stated that he was a conspiracy theorist to a degree and he always found it peculiar that powerful black men who would usually never wear a dress because of the stigma that holds where they come from, all wore dresses at some point in their career. He felt like they end up abandoning their morals and values as soon as they get to a certain level of notoriety.
Before he left for his 11-year Hiatus Chappelle was on many different interviews such as behind the Actors Studio. Chappelle talked about the American media machine being hard to beat. He referenced Mariah Carey gaining a certain level of notoriety and then taking her clothes off on TV or Martin Lawrence gaining a certain level of notoriety and then running on the street waving a gun saying “they're trying to kill me”. He said that as soon as these individuals who are usually strong people get to a certain level they happen to lose their minds. This sentiment still ring true.
It does feel like once certain artists cross over to the next plateau of fame, notoriety and monetary gain, they go “crazy”. Britney Spears, Kanye West, Jim Carrey, Charlie Sheen, Michael Jackson. These are stories that we've been hearing forever. As soon as Chappelle left his show rumors started from trusted news outlets about how he was doing crack and how he was going through mental health issues. They said he went to South Africa to check into a mental asylum. He denied all of those stories and said that it was a way to tarnish his reputation.
Chappelle is very clear about his belief that the entertainment industry, political sphere, cultural spheres and the way society operates are all very connected. That belief is riddled through all his specials but specifically this story. In my interpretation he feels as though he was used to distribute and promote an image of his people. And he was paid scraps while he was making his pimp, which would be the film studios, much more than he made himself. He felt like he abandoned his morals, values and everything in between for monetary gain. He discusses this concept on Inside the Actors Studio where he was talking about the duration of time where his father was ill before his passing and he left his bedside to go work on the show. He also talked about abandoning the filming of a show pilot because the studios were looking for a female lead with “universal appeal” which he felt meant a white female co-star. He abandoned that show to maintain his morals and values. But as time went on Chappelle felt as though he was losing that fight for monetary gain. Chappelle's parents were both educators and his mother was even a professor of African American studies. Due to his upbringing in an academic black household, Chappelle is very knowledgeable and connected with his roots. He had an activist mentality from the beginning of his career. That's why his comedy was very social commentary oriented and focused on social critique. But his sketch scenarios became more and more absurd as time went on and despite being hilarious many of the black higher-ups were very much against the direction the show was headed towards.
Chappelle felt as though there were people around him who had a vested interest in controlling him because he generated a lot of money. He said he was given psychotic pills while he was deliberately put under stress. That ties in with the story of the pimp. The older pimp told Iceberg Slim that if he wanted to rein in an unruly prostitute, all he had to do was beat her, run her a bath and give her some pills. Once you fix her, she'll forget that you were the one that broke her in the first place. Chappelle was put under stress and then given medication to heal him by the people putting him under stress.
Despite being autobiographical the Bird Revelation story also applies to most of us and how we maneuver through our daily lives due to capitalism. There’s no such thing as ethical consumption in capitalism so just by adhering to our system, we abandon our morals and support the harm and exploitation of people for capital gain. We also abandon certain aspects of our life and what we would truly be doing if the expenses of life weren't so high. Whether it's something small from working on a birthday to neglecting our own health and spending our only luxury, which is time, doing something we hate for the sake of monetary compensation. A lot of us go to school and get in debt, a lot of us get jobs that we don't enjoy, a lot of us don't see our kids for 18 years until they're out of our house, a lot of us dream of being able to relax when we're over 60 years old and in retirement homes after spending our whole lives slaving away at something we hate. We all sell out.
Capitalism neglected a lot of the basic necessities of regular human life. We've gone from individuals to numbers which is conducive to the economic growth and development of a country but it's also deteriorated the lifestyle and mental health of the individuals in that society. Many people live their whole lives in quiet desperation all while being in the race towards a fictional escape at the end of the road. Living to pass out on weekends and forget weekdays until you’re back on the treadmill by Monday. It's a dream we've been sold that leaves us in debt and with no time to spare, all in the quest of manufactured happiness. Edward Bernays used psychoanalysis to create public relations and made people quest for happiness. Our consumerist culture sells us products that are supposed to bring happiness which basically means you need more money. So more work=more money, more money=more stuff, more stuff=more happiness, but in reality that's not the truth. Our need for happiness is a deeply entrenched need. People want to feel good and people want to feel good all the time and if you're able to replicate, manufacture and mass produce that feeling, then it's easy to keep people thirsting for that product. It's a Pavlovian method of crowd control. That's exactly how drug dealers sell their products. Because the customers are always chasing that high. That's also why social media companies are growing bigger everyday. Because of the dopamine that floods your brain every time you get a like on a new picture you posted. That feeling we get incentivizes us to post more frequently in an everlasting chase for that high.
We do exactly what we’re supposed to do to get the treat at the end of our activities. We’re trained for this our whole life and so accustomed to it because of the grooves that have been deeply curved into our psyche. We’re trained to chase happiness in the form of money and the stuff you’re able to buy with it. The class system we have in place gives power to celebrities aka the bottom bitches. They’re there to be seen as wealthy and to keep us working to get to their levels. Celebrities flaunt their riches through clothes, diamonds, chains, cars and houses so that the lower classes keep working towards that goal. But the celebrities aren’t even rich. The celebrities are like the butcher with the coat who pretended to be a doctor in Iceberg Slim's story. They don’t have nearly as much money as Iceberg Slim himself aka billionaires who own all the industries. Robert Kraft makes kraft dinner in the food industry as well as a variety of other products but he has a hand in sports, music, oil etc etc. Dave Chappelle was given $50 million when his work was making his corporation billions. But we are so enamoured by 50 million dollars that Dave and other celebrities keep us in check and give us something to work towards and make us keep working when in reality us and the celebrities are prostitutes for the real pimps.
In the bird Revelation Chappelle was able to take this big idea and make it digestible and humorous. And that's why the bird Revelation is the best stand-up special of all time. It was filled with humor, depth, social commentary and pure wisdom. It was past just being stand-up comedy and went the Carlin route of philosophy. Decades from now I believe that the bird Revelations will be studied as one of the great modern philosophical works. I'm anxiously awaiting Dave Chappelle's next stand-up special ‘Sticks and Stones’ and seeing if he's able to top this Avant Garde masterpiece.