Dave Chappelle Stumbles Into the #MeToo Moment


In “The Bird Revelation,” the first comedy special to focus on the #MeToo movement, Dave Chappelle, sitting on a stool at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles in November, pauses to give advice to some comedians in the back. “You have a responsibility to speak recklessly,” he says.

In that special and a second one, “Equanimity,” both released on Sunday by Netflix, he makes a show of hesitating before wading into controversial territory. It’s an old tactic of his, building suspense by suggesting he is about to say something taboo. But it’s worth asking: Just how reckless is Dave Chappelle being these days?

“Equanimity” is a defensive, occasionally hilarious hour, shot in his hometown Washington, D.C., and covering the material that he developed in his month long stint at Radio City Music Hall last summer. The real headline is “The Bird Revelation,” which addresses accusations against Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K. and Harvey Weinstein with the conspiratorial tone of someone who wants to tell you what everyone (including Mr. Chappelle) is afraid to say.

Judging by Mr. Chappelle’s stand-up output, however, there are few subjects he is more drawn to than the sexual misbehavior of famous men. He has joked about R. Kelly, Ray Rice, Michael Jackson, Nate Parker and Bill Cosby. Mr. Chappelle’s approach varies, but generally speaking, he denounces the actions and minimizes or mitigates them. (“How old is 15, really?” he asks in reference to Mr. Kelly’s alleged misconduct.) These bits often have the feel of someone digging a hole to prove he can escape, but in this new special, for the first time, they also seem like tired shtick.

Taking long pauses, sounding confessional without being so, Mr. Chappelle performs introspection while resorting to the same old tricks. They appear more clearly here than in the past because the set is so raw and unpolished. Mr. Chappelle didn’t have months to refine his material, smooth his transitions, build the act.

“The Bird Revelation” is one of four specials he released in 2017, and in another of those, “The Age of Spin,” he brings up a rumor that Bill Cosby paid for the microphone that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. used in his “I Have a Dream” speech. It was Mr. Chappelle’s way of expressing how hard it is to give up the comic as one of his heroes. In “Bird,” he again leans on the gravitas of King to pivot from the pain caused by sexual misconduct. Mr. Chappelle criticizes the “brittle spirit” of the female comic who said Louis C.K. masturbating in front of her hurt her career, before imagining what would happen if Louis C.K. masturbated in front of the civil rights leader, prompting him to give up his movement.