It understandably never ascended to catchphrase status, but the most resonant line on Chappelle's Show was "This racism is killing me inside!" from the "Niggar family" skit. Uttered with deceptive offhandedness but unmistakable pain by Dave Chappelle's beaten-down '50s milkman, the line cuts to the essence of dark comedy: laughing to keep from crying. It also alludes to the knotty, troublesome fact that the racial stereotypes Chappelle lampoons so brilliantly have a real, painful history.
This is especially true of Chappelle's Show: The Lost Episodes, a fascinating, brilliant, and sometimes maddening collection of three episodes cobbled together, Frankenstein-style, from skits Chappelle made before he famously ditched his show and fled to Africa. Forget subtext: Chappelle's conflicting emotions about the fame, money, and power that accompany superstardom form the text of the first "lost" episode. A paranoid meditation on the dual nature of fame, that episode finds Chappelle abusing his newfound celebrity by punting babies, pushing disabled enemies down stairs, and basically using his power in the pettiest manner imaginable. The next episode pushes even deeper into comedy's heart of darkness, dabbling in literal blackface (with Mos Def, no less), only to pull back with a jarringly wrong-headed segment where awkward fill-in hosts Donnell Rawlings and Charlie Murphy (a.k.a. the other guy and Eddie Murphy's brother) host an interminable town-hall discussion about racial stereotyping. The segment is a well-intentioned effort to promote discussion about race and social responsibility, but since when has Chappelle's Show ever been about social responsibility?
From a delirious skit where Chappelle transforms Howard Dean's famous scream-heard-round-the-world into an infectious howl of joy to a series-closing tour de force where Chappelle contemplates getting his own breakfast cereal and turning his back on Hollywood, the skits on the Lost Episodes set are as strong as ever, but the wrap-around segments couldn't be clumsier. That's the paradox of these DVDs: It's Chappelle's Show, but since these episodes were assembled without Chappelle's participation, it's no longer, you know, Chappelle's Show. Nevertheless, The Lost Episodes confirms Chappelle's singular, unparalleled gift for pushing buttons and getting under people's skin, even his own.
Key features: Chappelle-free audio commentaries, deleted scenes, bloopers, and a making-of documentary.