Almost exactly halfway through Deep in the Heart of Texas, the second of his two comedy specials released on Netflix last week, Dave Chappelle does something unusual: He sits down. The live-wire comic perches on a stool in the center of the stage, plops his feet onto a speaker, and asks the crowd if anyone has a cigarette. He delivers the rest of the show like that, occasionally springing to his feet to drive home a punchline, then resting back on his stool to chat with his rapt audience. It gives the show a spontaneous, conversational feel, as if he’s telling stories the instant he thinks of them.
Of course, every move in a stand-up show is a calculated one, and Chappelle is a veteran of the form, using a looser approach to sell a shaggier, more anecdotal form of his comedy. It makes for an interesting contrast to his other Netflix special, The Age of Spin, a more composed, finely tuned set with an overarching structure (based around four brief encounters with O.J. Simpson over the course of his career). But though they’re wildly different shows, the strengths and weaknesses of Chappelle’s comedy comeback are consistent in each.
Chappelle is at his most fascinating, and funny, when he’s reckoning with his own place in the comedy firmament and the consequences of his overwhelming celebrity. But he’s at his most tired and forgettable when he tries to occupy the role of social commentator and provocateur, particularly when he tries to untangle his feelings on gender identity. When Chappelle’s not attempting such “searing” material, The Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas are filled with gripping, hilarious stories tinged with unease—and Chappelle really shines when he kicks up his feet, even if it’s only in a metaphorical sense.