Dave Chappelle predicted that The Closer would be his last stand-up special on Netflix, perhaps anticipating—and even welcoming—the massive backlash that ensued. That might explain why his latest surprise entry on that streaming service is being billed as a “speech.”
Early Thursday morning, Dave Chappelle: What’s in a Name? quietly appeared on Netflix right alongside The Closer and his previous specials. Instead of a traditional stand-up hour, it’s a recording of the approximately 40-minute speech he gave last month in which he rejected an offer to put his name on the theater at his alma mater, the Duke Ellington School for the Arts in Washington, D.C., following a contentious Q&A with students over his transphobic jokes.
Despite the setting, Chappelle’s speech at what will instead be called the Theater for Artistic Freedom and Expression feels a lot like his stand-up act, with plenty of jokes throughout. He is also quick to do his signature move of dropping the mic to his leg to punctuate his punchlines.
“Rather than give this theater my name, I would like to give these students my message,” Chappelle ultimately explains after revealing that he had decided to “defer” instead of accept the honor.
That message, it seems, concerns the value of free expression above all else. And it comes in response to the message he received from students who were upset about The Closer when he last visited the school in 2021. Rather than express humility in the face of this criticism from those who are coming up after him, Chappelle pushes back hard.
“These kids said everything about gender and this, that, and the other, but they didn’t say anything about art,” he says, accusing them, and the media, of removing “artistic nuance” from his words. “It would be like if you were reading a newspaper and it said, ‘Man shot in the face by a six-foot rabbit, expected to survive, but they never tell you it’s a Bugs Bunny cartoon.”
He says he was “sincerely hurt” by the criticism he received from students that day, but doesn’t allow that they could have formed their opinions about him on their own. “I know those kids didn’t come up with those words. I’ve heard those words before,” Chappelle says. “The more you say I can’t say something, the more urgent it is for me to say it. It has nothing to do with what you’re saying I can’t say. It has everything to do with my right and my freedom of artistic expression.”
“These kids didn’t understand that they were instruments of oppression,” he adds pointedly.
A bit of humility does ultimately sneak in when Chappelle tells the crowd that it would be “untenable” for him if his name on the theater would make any kid who walked through its door feel “anything but pride” in their school.
But at the same time, he declares The Closer a “masterpiece,” adding, unironically, “I challenge all my peers to make its equal. They cannot, I am sure. It will be decades before you ever see someone in my genre as proficient as me. I am maybe a once-in-a-lifetime talent.”
He then extends that challenge to the students themselves. “If you have a better idea, then express it, and you can beat me,” Chappelle says. “It’s that easy. If you have more talent than me, then display it, and you can beat me.”
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