Netflix, which uses the odd tagline “Netflix is a joke,” released Dave Chappelle’s new standup special yesterday on YouTube. As I have written before, standup as an art continues to become something other than jokes, and Chappelle, who won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2019, is at the forefront of that.
His new special, 8:46, is performed in a tiny outdoor venue in Beaver Creek, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton, a few minutes from Chappelle’s home. It is neither funny nor meant to be: It is a shout of anger and grief at the murder of George Floyd and the death of other black men at the hands of police, and a statement in response to media personalities such as Don Lemon (“that hotbed of reality”), Candace Owens (“she’s so articulate she can tell you how stupid she is—precisely”), and Laura Ingraham (“[unprintable here]”).
“This is weird,” Chappelle says when he takes the stage, “and less than ideal circumstances to do a show.” It was filmed June 6, only 11 days after Floyd’s murder.
The show is brief—less than half an hour—and Chappelle has to consult his notebook frequently. He is not comfortable and has to swat at bugs, while what appears to be a bat loops around the stage. The folding chairs in the grass are sparse, and applause is light. Masks cover the audience’s mouths, so their only visible reactions are eye-squints and nods. Chappelle, without the usual feedback, asks a couple of times if he is boring them—not in a dare to agree, but seemingly from genuine concern. He cannot even get his cigarette lighted.
“This is not funny at all,” Chappelle says near the end of his set. “I got some pussy jokes I can do.”
He starts the show by saying he is proud of protestors, and that celebrities like him should not “step in front of” what is happening on the streets with their own singing and appearances.
“You kids are excellent drivers,” he says, “and I am comfortable in the backseat of the car. So carry on, young ones.”
“This is the streets talking for themselves,” he says. “They don’t need me right now.”
This reveals a slight irony about the making of this special, which is heightened when Chappelle criticizes Lemon for demanding celebrities respond, but also says he needs to respond because people trust him.
But Chappelle was made for this moment. The stories he tells are often about perception, history, race, and the United States as a divided nation. Over time they have become longer and more serious. (I wonder if he honed that working with Charlie Murphy, who told wonderful long stories on Chappelle’s Show.)
Chappelle’s style has become its own dare, a challenge to stick with him as he reaches for ever-greater digressions, then ties them back to a main topic. His work of late has been architectonic: He gathers seemingly-random perceptions and makes them integral and coherent, and in the process says something true and significant about the world, himself, and storytelling itself. His routines at their best are like progressions of chords in minor keys.
In this short special, that structure works well—at times. For instance, he ties together the stories of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered nine African-Americans in an AME church in South Carolina in 2015, and Chappelle’s own great-grandfather, a bishop of the AME church (and former slave), who led a delegation from South Carolina to see Woodrow Wilson about white violence against the black community. Chappelle combines mention of being pulled over in Beaver Creek by a white police officer, who let him go with a warning, and the killing the next night of a black man named John Crawford by the same officer.
Other times, personal and public do not synch smoothly, and the structure might be called merely paranoid. Chappelle calls the special 8:46 because it was how long George Floyd was knelt on, but adds, “I can’t get that number out of my head because it was the time of birth on my birth certificate.” (Who knows the minute they were born?) He says that when Kobe Bryant died, Chappelle saw that Kobe’s two jersey numbers coincided with his own birthdate, and he tries to tie that to the shooting of 14 white police officers by a black Reserve veteran in Dallas.
Even apart from the architectonic style, Chappelle has always performed close readings of events, the way academics do with other texts. Imitating Minneapolis police with their hands in their pockets as they watched George Floyd die, he asks, “Who. Are. You. Talking to? What are you signifying?”
Angela Davis, asked about black revolt in this undated clip, said, “Because of the way this society is organized, because of the [white] violence that exists on the surface everywhere, you have to expect there are going to be…explosions.” That is Chappelle’s point, too, after all these years.
“This is not a long time ago,” he says. “It’s today.”
In 8:46, as he did in his acceptance speech for the Mark Twain Prize, Chappelle makes a plug for his art form, claiming standup is our last space for civil discourse.
After that, he says, with a big, bitter smile, “it’s just rat-a-tat-tatty-tat-tat-a-tat-tat!”