–Bo Burnham, Make Happy
Don’t explain the joke. That is the first rule of comedy, but this essay will break that rule by explaining what makes Dave Chappelle’s fourth Netflix special so great.
However, such explanation is fine because The Bird Revelation is not actually meant to be funny. Chappelle starts the special by explaining:
Sometimes the funniest thing you say is mean…I say a lot of mean things, but you guys gotta remember I’m not saying it to be mean. I’m saying it because it’s funny. And everything’s funny ’til it happens to you.
The Bird Revelation has numerous serious rants where the tension builds up, and the audience nervously waits for Dave to throw in a joke to break the gravity of what is being discussed. However although the previous special Equanimity is less serious and more outright funny, TBR still has plenty of laughs. The bit about OJ Simpson trying to kneel during the national anthem is especially memorable.
Yet while the topics discussed are funny to the audience, they are not humorous to Dave because he has experienced them. Jokes about dead babies and AIDS are not as easy to make or hear after you have personally had a miscarriage or an HIV diagnosis. Dark humor is better not when it aims to be controversial for controversy’s own sake but rather when it comes from personal experience. “Offensive” comedians like Anthony Jeselnik are talented and witty, but their work sometimes lacks a sense of authenticity.
Dave Chappelle does not suffer from this weakness. His latest releases have been controversial in the press due to the sometimes “shocking” nature of the jokes, but he still is able to lay himself bare instead of hiding behind scandalous humor. TBR is the most honest explanation for why Dave left Chappelle’s Show in the middle of producing its third season, something that he has only hinted at before.
But The Bird Revelation also has a much wider appeal and is not solely about Dave Chappelle. This is stand-up comedy not about an individual but a collective problem. TBR is about the System and how it tries to entomb all entertainers into damnation.
I did not really watch Chapelle’s Show during its original run. South Park was my favorite show on Comedy Central at the time, so I would only occasionally catch glimpses of Chappelle’s work. However since I was in middle and high school during the shows’ original release and cultural phenomenon, I was completely aware of all his big skits. Kids would constantly reference Tyrone Biggum and quote, “I’m Rick James, bitch!” For anyone between the ages of 12 and 30, Chappelle’s Show was an unavoidable presence in our lives.
Dave Chappelle is truly the comedian of a generation. His departure from the spotlight only cemented that fact. Scarcity develops passion which is why it is good Led Zeppelin V does not exist. Everyone saw Comedy Central go downhill as it promoted lesser shows like Mind of Mencia. My friends and I heard the legends of Dave’s 6 hour sets. We all hoped he would one day make a comeback.
So yes, I am biased in my love for The Bird Revelation, but context is an inherent part of stand-up. Pop culture references and jokes have a limited shelf life. Timing is an innate part of comedy but not only in the second-by-second performance. Instead, comic timing extends to the day you present the material. Jokes about Monica Lewinsky or Osama Bin Laden would be dated in 2018. In stand-up comedy, content is not king; context is.
And context is why The Bird Revelation exists in the first place. Originally, Dave’s Netflix deal was reported to be for only three specials. Only recently was the existence of the fourth revealed, and TBR feels like a last minute addition. Shot at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, this special is more intimate and less grandiose than any of Chappelle’s others. The material is less tight than his other work and feels half-baked.
That is because this special is half-baked. This 50-minute show still works as a cohesive whole because Dave is a gifted storyteller and the editing was done so well. But this material could have been given more time to develop out of the rough draft stage. However, it was more important to release this special now because of the cultural climate. 2017 was the year of #MeToo when the pervasiveness of sexual harassment was revealed. Dave starts the special talking about Charlie Rose and Harvey Weinstein, but by the end of the show, he is talking about so much more.
Closers are important. They are what sticks with you after watching, and The Bird Revelation has a fantastic closing bit.
As a refresher, Chappelle recounts a story from the novel Pimp: The Story of My Life about Iceberg Slim keeping one of his hoes past her mileage. He gets his bottom bitch to feed a client some drugs whom then appears to overdose and die. Slim takes care of the body and uses the secret as leverage to keep his bottom bitch working for him. In the novel, Slim reveals that the entire situation, including the client’s death, was all faked. As Chappelle explains, the whole situation was “some cold shit”.
The comparison between Slim’s story and Chappelle’s own history is obvious. Dave was reaching his creative limits when producing Chappelle’s Show. Comedy Central, the pimp in this metaphor, tried to generate leverage against Chappelle, so he would keep working for them.
But, of course, Dave was able to walk away. Comparing his situation to how a bushman finds water by setting a trap for a baboon, Chappelle once explained in an interview:
Baboons love salt. So they put a lump of salt in a hole and they wait for the baboon. The baboon comes, sticks his hand in the hole, grabs the salt, salt makes his hand bigger, and he’s trapped. He can’t get his hand out. If he’s smart, all he does is let go of the salt, but the baboon doesn’t want to let go of the salt. Then the bushman comes, throws the baboon in a cage, and gives him all the salt he wants. And then the baboon gets thirsty, the bushman lets him out of the cage. The first place the baboon runs to is water. Bushman follows him, and they both drink to their fill. And in that analogy, I felt like the baboon, but I was smart enough to let go of the salt.
Chappelle never explains what exactly Comedy Central used to try to trap him. The reported $50 million contract surely was tempting, but Dave’s words throughout the special make it sound like it was something darker and threatening. Whatever it was, from here on out, we will call it simply the Bad Thing.
The reason this special spends so much time on sexual assault victims is because like those women Chappelle was abused by the Hollywood system. Dave is not saying he was physically raped, but rather the rampant rape in Hollywood is only one small way that the system abuses entertainers. The most haunting lines in the special are:
Where did I go for twelve years if I wasn’t raped? Maybe there’s something else going on. Maybe these rapes aren’t even the worst of it. Wouldn’t that be something?
Although the Iceberg Slim anecdote is fascinating, it is not critically important to the special. Conclusions are repetitions of what has already been said. The Iceberg Slim story might be the first time a viewer really understands what Dave is talking about, but he has already explained everything already. Let us now go back and look at the rest of the special.
Frustratingly, the biggest headlines regarding The Bird Revelation have been about Dave’s jokes towards Louis C.K.’s accuser. Those claims are frivolous and completely miss anti-sexual harassment undercurrent to the entire special.
And Dave actually does make a good point against the accuser:
One lady said, “Louis C.K. masturbating in front of me ruined my comedy dreams.” Well, then I dare say, madam, you may never have had a dream…That is a brittle-ass spirit.
But this is not some frivolous point from Chappelle. This is his first hint that a Bad Thing happened to him.
Dave’s interview in Inside the Actor’s Studio covers many different areas of his life, including his earliest aspirations:
And my Mom bought me this Time Magazine with Bill Cosby on the cover: “Cosby Inc.” Me and the guy had a lot of stuff in common, some of the quotes he would say. I just remember after reading that stuff, I put it down. And it was like: I’m gonna be a comedian…That’s when my mom suggested that maybe I go to a comedy club and check it out.
Dave Chappelle had a dream to become a stand-up comedian and probably a world famous one if possible. No small obstacle would deter him. But then he did give up his dream when he left Chappelle’s Show and went to Africa. So clearly the Bad Thing that made him leave comedy was no minor problem.
To say Chappelle’s work has often included a racial component would be an understatement, and his fans love him for it. My favorite Chappelle bit ever are about the adventures of his white buddy Chip.
It comes as no surprise that he touches on race in this special too:
Don’t forget what I am. I am a black dude. And don’t ever forget how I got here. My ancestors were kidnapped. I don’t even know where the fuck I’m from….And once they got here, they beat the humanity out of my people…We damn near freed ourselves…But then the Black Codes came, then Jim Crow came, and it was a hundred years of unspeakable oppression again…Something, something, something, Barack Obama.
It is worth noting that this is a long stretch of serious material. The tension can clearly be felt in the room, and it is only slightly lessened with the Obama joke at the end. This is the first major indication that this will not be a standard comedy special.
But TBR is not fundamentally about race. The discussion on race and the history of African-Americans is used here primarily for comparison purposes. Chappelle’s body of work tends to focus on two major areas: race and Hollywood. Most people would not put corruption in Hollywood on the same level as the history of racism in America, but if something can stand next to slavery and the denial of civil rights, then clearly it is a major problem. Dave is indicating that what he is talking about for the rest of the special is some fucked up shit.
Halfway through the special, Dave talks about the difficulties of being a woman. He tells a story about carrying $25,000 from drug dealers in his backpack on the way home from a show. He compares the fear from his temporary experience to how woman must feel all the time:
Your lives look terrifying to me…I know nothing about being a woman, but I know fear…What if I had a pussy on me all the time? That’s what women are dealing with.
Of course, Dave does have something that people want all the time: his comedy. In a capitalistic society, someone will try to get that from him with any tactics they have available to them.
Comedy Central clearly tried to use the Bad Thing as leverage against Dave to make him continue with Chappelle’s Show, but what exactly is the Bad Thing? Most likely, there are three possibilities:
1. Drug use When Chappelle first left for Africa, there were plenty of rumors about his potential drug use, but Dave has always denied he was a crack addict. Given how honest he is throughout the rest of his comedy, the audience has no reason to believe Dave is lying here.
2. Abuse towards women Dave has admitted before that he has not always treated women with the utmost respect. During his interview on Inside the Actor’s Studio, he said:
All these, you know, chicken-head girls you’re messing with, it comes with the territory.
Dave never admits to any predatory behavior, but considering that everyone else in Hollywood seems to have done so, it is a possibility for Chappelle as well. This may be the reason he is choosing to talk about such topics in the first place now.
3. Professional misconduct One point that Dave stresses when telling the Iceberg Slim story is this:
A bottom bitch is a pimp’s number one ho. She’s even a bitch that helps keep the other bitches in line.
Dave’s relationship with Chappelle’s Show co-creator Neal Brennan still seems strained today. Also as Comedy Central’s biggest star at the time, Chappelle would have had a huge influence over other comedians on the network. Perhaps Chappelle used his position of power to hurt others’ careers.
But the specifics of the Bad Thing Dave did are irrelevant. (It’s probably not Illuminati blood sacrifices, however.) Everything written in this section is rampant bullshit speculation. Whatever happened, the audience is aware that Dave is admitting some wrongdoing. When you go see a priest, the sin does not matter; the confession and absolution are what are important.
And this is why the special is called The Bird Revelation. Due to Biblical references, we often associate “revelation” with prophecy, but those are not the type of revelations Dave is making. The more appropriate definition for “revelation” being used here is “an act of revealing to view or making known” (Merriam-Webster). This special might as well be called The Bird Confessions.
The system tried to use the Bad Thing as leverage against Chappelle. Although he does not say so explicitly, Dave is comparing his experience to Michael Jackson’s:
Remember when they said all that shit about Michael Jackson? They never proved anything till his dying day. But they said he did some very heinous things.
The system will use whatever it can against you. In Chappelle’s case, that leverage was the Bad Thing.
Confessing your sins is not easy. Ben Affleck tried to support the #MeToo movement but was shot down because of his past discretions. Dave talks about the problems of this:
Men want to help; they’re just scared. Ben Affleck tried to help.
“What happened to these ladies is disgusting.”
“Oh, nigga, you grabbed a titty in ’95.”
“All right, fellas, I’m out. Fuck that. I ain’t helping.”
…Hollywood is no place for moral absolutism.
Although it may be difficult, confession is the solution to the systemic abuse in Hollywood. The thesis for TBR is laid out in a discussion of Nelson Mendela and Desmond Tutu:
You can’t make a lasting peace this way. You got all the bad guys scared, and that’s good. But the minute they’re not scared anymore, it will get worse than it was before. Fear does not make lasting peace. The cure for LA is in South Africa. You motherfuckers need truth and reconciliation with one another. Because the end of apartheid should have been a fucking bloodbath by any metric in human history…If a system is corrupt, then the people who adhere to the system and are incentivized by that system are not criminals. They are victims, and the system itself must be tried. The only way we can figure out what the system is is if everybody says what they did. Tell them how you participated.
Yet as we already discussed, there is a danger in the current culture to admit your participation in a corrupt solution. Dave’s solution is to admit to wrongdoing but not to the specifics of what that wrongdoing is.
All the solution requires is a moment of bravery. This is why Chappelle talks about Paul Revere and Colin Kaepernick:
Nigga, I don’t want to be your hero. I want to be rich. Never choose to be a hero cause heroes die uncomfortable deaths. All I wanted to be was Paul Revere. I just needed one heroic moment.
Dave does not want to spend a lifetime fighting the system. That is too much work and struggle. All Dave wants is a single moment of heroism. That heroism comes in the form of an hour-long comedy special.
The Bird Revelation is confession without description. It is an attempt to fight back against a corrupt system. Hollywood is comparable to apartheid South Africa.
The cruelest part of Iceberg Slim’s story is that it was all an illusion. The client never actually died. Iceberg Slim only had power over his bottom bitch because she kept the incident secret. If the bottom bitch had confessed her secret to the police, the facade would have crumbled, and she could have walked away.
The most obvious interpretation of the Iceberg Slim story is that Dave was the bottom bitch and Comedy Central was the pimp. But the special concludes with the audience being called a bitch:
So now we got us a little secret, bitch.
We are the bottom bitch, and Dave is the pimp. We know that Dave did a Bad Thing, but more importantly, the Hollywood system will use Bad Things against everyone. All that needs to be done to break the system is to bring the secret into the light, and that responsibility falls on us.
By the end of The Bird Revelation, Chappelle has completed what he set out to do; his moment of heroism is finished. So what comes next for Chappelle?
Right after the title screen, Chappelle says this “the last show”, and there are currently no more announced and planned Netflix specials. We went 13 years between For What It’s Worth and The Age of Spin, and it is quite possible we will have a similarly long wait. Chappelle clearly does not like being in the cultural spotlight.
But The Bird Revelation begins with an on-screen quote from Bird himself, Charlie Parker:
I came alive. I could fly.
And that’s how Dave feels when he is on stage. I expect he will keep doing plenty of stand-up comedy. We will continue to to hear whispers of legendary sets, but the only way to see him will be live. The permanent record of video can let the point be distorted.
Dave Chappelle does not like being a comedian, but he does love comedy.