Turns out those controversial election takes and the Saturday Night Live hosting gig were just viral marketing. Dave Chappelle and Netflix have announced a deal for three stand-up specials, further formalizing both Chappelle’s commercial “comeback” and Netflix’s encroachment into a space previously dominated by cable television. (Prediction: you will hear the word ‘Chapelleissance’ sooner rather than later)
For Netflix, this is the latest in a string of notable (and pricey) coups to turn its streaming platform into the go-to distribution channel for the industry standard hour-ish stand-up special. Until the huge $40 million/two special Chris Rock deal announced last month, much of our attention has been paid to Netflix’s wild spending on scripted series, feature films, and documentaries. Yet, the streaming juggernaut has been just as active in bankrolling these specials. Making lots of noise with deals for Rock and now Chappelle guarantees that people will be paying attention a bit more, giving Netflix the buzz it needs to jump-start its control in another arena.
For Chappelle, this is a fascinating move. His SNL performance, particularly the monologue and the Walking Dead riff, was one of the best from a first-time host in recent memory. By all accounts, Chappelle has been delivering one great stand-up set after another, but his response to the election results illustrated that he can still be an important voice in tumultuous times.
While not everyone surely agreed with Chappelle’s take on wealth, race, and politics, they were intrigued enough by the comedian to tune in to SNL at its highest ratings in three years. Chappelle’s turn on SNL was one of those rare occurrences where excitement for a host paid off in the material itself.
You could say that the hype for Chappelle on SNL stemmed from a curiosity to see what “controversial” things he would say—especially coming off his comments the week prior—or a general fervor around the election. That’s probably true to some regard. However, the ratings success of and subsequent chatter about his hosting stint also demonstrate that Chappelle is still a legitimate star, and one who people are desperate to see perform, despite and not because of all those years out of the spotlight.
Past evidence would suggest he doesn’t care about the marginal value of what a Netflix special or three means for his career. As he’s made clear in recent weeks, money isn’t an issue. He’s done upwards of 500 stand-up sets over the last three years. He doesn’t need to “return” to anything. Still, fans would love to believe this opens the door for Chappelle to try his hand at another TV series, free from the restrictions of basic cable (but not those of expectations). Even if (read: when) that new show doesn't happen, Chappelle could easily use this new platform to reassert himself as a cultural force.
Fans have been begging for Chappelle’s reentry into mainstream pop culture since the moment he left it last decade, but changes to how we view and respond to media make this an especially tricky needle to thread. The response to Chappelle’s pre-election commentary and SNL monologue has been rightfully mixed, with many wondering aloud on social media why anyone should give President-elect Trump a chance.
However fair, Chappelle’s voice comes with a lot of expectations—from the white male fans of the Rick James sketches to the people now disappointed that he used such an anticipated and highly viewed performance to ask them to give a fear-mongering monster a chance. The web and social media have done a lot to alter what is and is not approved for comedic purposes, and Chappelle’s incendiary, self-admittedly contradictory perspective might not exactly fit into that universe. In this case, the criticism of Chappelle feels warranted, but how does he approach a culture predisposed to outrage?
He probably doesn’t care. Neither will Netflix executives, who will appreciate any additional attention or interest that is given to these upcoming specials. That means the onus is on us to take Chappelle seriously but not imbue him with all this excess meaning. If we wanted Chappelle back, we have to recognize what it means to have him back, both good and bad.
It's never ideal to rely on an entertainer, no matter how woke, to make things better or save us. Dave Chappelle didn't want to be our savior before, and he definitely and rightfully doesn't want to be now. As long as we let him do his thing—and pull Netflix’s stand-up queue further into the spotlight in the process—this will be a win for everyone.