Dave Chappelle’s “Unforgiven” Is A Masterpiece Of Persuasive Writing
It’s easy to forget that comedians are writers first. Before they get up on stage in front of thousands of people and make us laugh, they sit in a room, alone, and figure out how they’re going to do it. The good ones do it so well that it feels like they’re up there just getting things off their chests.
Dave’s Chappelle’s Unforgiven is no exception, but he takes the concept to a whole new level. What feels like an impromptu set, casually thrown up on Instagram in the middle of the week, is really an eighteen-minute and twenty-eight-second declaration of war against the corporations he feels have wronged him.
Dave, as he usually does, holds his audience in the palm of his hand. Only this time he’s not trying to make us laugh, he’s trying to recruit us.
I can just take it
Like all good stories, Unforgiven plays out over three acts, the first of which is set back when Dave was fourteen years old. Even though he was just getting started in comedy, he was, it will surprise nobody to learn, a natural. From the first moment he got up on stage, Dave displayed a level of poise and confidence far beyond his years. And as the older comedians watched him perform, perhaps they forget that he was still a child.
When one of his fellow comics asked if he could “borrow” a joke for an audition at a different club, Dave innocently said, ”Sure.” He was still too trusting to know any better. Not yet wise enough to feel that twinge of warning that you’re no doubt feeling in your gut.
A few weeks later, when the same guy uses his joke in a live performance, Dave pulls him aside after the set.
“Hey man,” Dave said, “I don’t mind you borrowing the joke, but you have to give it back!”
The man apologised and offered to buy the joke for a measly $50. Dave, a new comedian trying to build up a body of work, said no. It didn’t go down well.
The older man looms over the young boy, making sure he gets a sense of how much bigger and stronger he is, then he leans in close and says, “Really? I can just take it.”
And he does.
Dave tells us that even now, thirty-two years later, he still thinks about that man on a daily basis. It was the first time in his life that somebody had taken something that he believed was his, but it wouldn’t be the last.
The first act establishes Dave as the underdog. A child, being taken advantage of by a world he’s still too naive to understand and too young to truly belong in. It’s impossible not to feel the injustice of what happened to him. But as we do, Dave ups the stakes.
Don’t ever come between a man and his meal
Dave is a little older in the second act. He’s just finished a gruelling tour, but he’s making his own money. Succeeding, but not yet successful. He’s still the underdog, but at eighteen years old, he’s no longer quite a child.
One day, while he’s trying to figure out how to entertain a girl with the last sixty dollars he has to his name, he sees a group of guys playing three-card Monte. Some of them win, some of them lose, but all of them seem to be having a great time. Dave notices that the red card, the card he needs to identify in order to win, has a little bend on the corner.
Spotting his chance to double his money, he walks over, puts his cash down, confidently points to the card with the bent corner, and…loses. Dave can’t understand what went wrong, so he stays there and watches, and as he does, he realises that the guys that he’d seen winning were all stooges. They were in on the act, pretending the game was fair to draw in the suckers.
Dave was furious. He’d been cheated out of his last sixty dollars. So when the next victim comes along, he yells out, “F*** that, man! Don’t put your money there! All these ni****s is in on it!”
The man running the game, who was huge, snatches Dave up by his collar, and the only thing that stops the man from beating him to a pulp, is the look of terror in Dave’s eyes. He looks down at Dave, as a father might look at a child, and gives him some valuable advice:
“Young man,” he says, “don’t ever come between a man and his meal.”
The second act is less clear cut than the first. Dave could easily have painted the antagonist as a monster, but instead, he humanises him. This man isn’t a mere bully, he’s a man willing to fight to protect what’s his. Instead of hurting Dave, the man teaches him the importance of being willing to do the same.
“Taking a man’s livelihood away from him”, Dave notes, “is akin to killing him”.
This line is the perfect setup for the finale.
In perpetuity throughout the universe
In the final act, Dave is a man. Not only that, he’s a successful man. Already a well-known comedian, Dave is just about to sign a contract that will make him a household name. He’s about to become the star of the Chappelle Show.
The antagonist in this part of the story can’t be anything as ordinary as a man. As adults ourselves, we can’t sympathise as deeply with a man who is up against an equal, so Dave gives us an enemy that we can all relate to. He doesn’t come up against a man, he comes up against the man. And as he does, he once again finds himself in a world, this time the boardroom, which he’s too naive to navigate.
He’s offered a contract so complex that it’s impossible to understand. He signs it on trust. The phrase he repeats when he refers to the licensing clause, “in perpetuity throughout the universe,” is deliberately a little ridiculous. It highlights the fact that he was out of his depth, and the fact that those sharks in the boardroom had put him in that situation on purpose.
From there, Dave takes us back through the layers of the story. The executives encouraging him to sign an unfair contract are like the stooges who hung around the guy playing three-card Monte, encouraging the sucker to believe that the game is fair.
The network is like that first comedian, “borrowing” Dave’s talents but offering him a fraction of what they’re worth. When Dave tries to regain control, the network looms over him, allowing him to get a sense of how much bigger and stronger it is and takes his work.
The story folds back on itself gracefully, like a decorative fan, and as it does, we’re brought back to that first image of Dave as a child, being robbed of his work by an enemy who’s too big to fight.
But the story doesn’t end there. At his lowest ebb, Dave plays his trump card. He asks the audience for their help. He asks us to help that child get back what was taken from him by refusing to help the networks profit from his work. He asks us to boycott him. Not the networks, him.
“I’m begging you. If you ever liked me. If you ever think there was anything worthwhile about me, I’m begging you. Please don’t watch that show. I’m not asking you to boycott any network, boycott me. Boycott the Chappelle Show. Do not watch it unless they pay me.”
The story isn’t about Dave Chappelle the superstar, it’s about the fourteen-year-old boy that we were introduced to in the first act. We’re being asked to do our part to help that child get back what was taken from him. What’s refusing to watch a TV show compared to that?
To be clear, I don’t disagree with Dave here. Not that it would mean anything if I did. I don’t know anything about Dave Chappelle or contract law or about having an iconic, world-renowned TV show that bears my name. Neither do any of us.
What I do know, is that Dave Chappelle is worth an estimated $50 million, and yet he persuaded a crowd of ordinary people, who paid their hard-earned money to see him, that they should refuse to watch his show unless he gets paid more than his contract told him he would. He sat on stage and told the story of a multi-million dollar deal, that made him fewer millions than he hoped, and managed not to sound like an asshole.
We don’t connect to his story because we’ve been in his shoes, we connect to it because he tells his story through themes that we can all relate to. We’ve all been a scared kid being threatened by a bully or a young adult trying to find our way in the world or a grown-up, struggling to navigate bureaucracy. Persuasion isn’t about telling people how you feel, it’s about helping them to see your perspective from their point of view. That’s the principle behind all good storytelling. And with Unforgiven, Dave Chappelle has proven that he’s a master of it.