A Night With Dave
Dave Chappelle has the biggest balls in comedy.
I don’t mean literally. He didn’t whip them out at the show I attended Sunday night at Chicago’s Thalia Hall (though he did threaten to do just that a couple of times). I mean that he has done more to reject the expectations of how a mainstream celebrity should behave than perhaps any other entertainer ever.
He turned down the part of Bubba in Forrest Gump because he found the character demeaning. He walked away from a $50 million contract with Comedy Central because he felt that the network executives were trying to undermine and discredit his sanity in order to maintain control over him. He refused to perform for a crowd in Hartford that wouldn’t stop shouting old catchphrases at him. He has zero social media presence. He is a performer who, at every turn, has managed to preserve an unwavering commitment to being himself and not allowing anybody else to dictate who he should be.
I’ve frequently heard Dave Chappelle compared to Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, transcendent talents who put together one incredible thing and then disappeared from the public eye. But Mangum, who recently reemerged from wherever the hell he’s been for the past decade for a Neutral Milk Hotel reunion tour, struck me as overwhelmed by and apathetic to people’s adoration for him. He didn’t seem to particularly enjoy being the object of so much love.
Dave, on the other hand, loves that his fans love him. He revels in it. Celebrates it. His entrance to Sunday night’s show, part of a sold-out 15-show residency at Chicago’s Thalia Hall, was far closer to a beloved wrestler walking into WWE’s Main Event than a typical comedian in a theater. He knew his fans were fucking stoked to see him, and he wanted to fan those flames. It was a rock star entrance, befitting a rock star. In an age in which a premium is placed on comedians humbling themselves before their audiences, Dave insists upon his dominance. He’s not like you. He knows it. You know it. Why should anybody pretend?
What separates him from others who have reached his level is that he doesn’t use that self-awareness as an excuse to be complacent. He takes it as a challenge. If all of these people are going to pay a not-absurd-but-still-large amount of money to come see him, then goddammit, he’s going to put on a show. That’s why he hired a live DJ to greet the audience with remixes of 80s and 90s hip-hop classics. That’s why he brought on fantastic comedians Jak Knight and Azhar Usman to open for him. That’s why he went to absurd lengths to make sure that nobody would be on their phones once they entered the venue. He wanted everybody in the room to have just as much of a stake in this thing as he did, for nobody to be able to retreat into the comforting world of Twitter or Facebook (of course it’s also so nobody can record his act and release the material before he does, but let me be noble and idealistic for a second, okay?).
Of course, all of this style in presentation would mean nothing if Dave didn’t have the material to back it up. He’s earned the right to create a festival atmosphere at his shows because his material has always been edgy, biting, confrontational in a way that paradoxically disarms and excites. Sunday’s show, which was filmed for an upcoming television special, was no different. There is a type of energy that is created in the room when he performs that is truly unique. His engagement with the audience in the room was unlike any other comedian I’ve ever seen. On a dime, he could turn from opining on the history of American unity to commenting on the unique brand of shittiness and the, shall I say, considerable physical assets of a self-described “bottle girl” in the front row. The feeling was akin to watching a great thriller flick, gripping and engrossing, saturated with a sense of intrepid anticipation of what’s coming next.
Because it’s going to be included on a new special, and in due deference to his radical ownership over his work, I don’t want to go deep discussing the material itself. Suffice it to say, it’s great. The man didn’t lose a single step whilst in self-imposed exile. He’s truly one of the greats. I will say, though, that much like his past material, it will cause a “stir.” While I had no problem with anything he said, my companion at the show found some of his bits to be, for lack of a better term, problematic. While I didn’t agree with her assessment, I could definitely see where she was coming from, and it’ll be interesting to see what people say once they can play it over and over again on the Internet. That is not something Dave has ever seriously had to deal with before, and it’ll be fascinating to see how he handles it.
That being said, in a year dominated by headlines highlighting the deep, festering wound of America’s history of racial discrimination, and in the midst of Chicago’s own reckoning with its deeply entrenched racial inequality, it is impossible to watch Dave Chappelle perform without considering his refusal to sacrifice the integrity of his blackness for money or approval. He has always been aware of the complicated history between white audiences and black performers, and has no interest in contributing to what he sees as the ceaseless degradation of black comedians by “mainstream” expectations. As he once put it to Oprah when recounting a time he refused to take part in Hollywood’s weird ritual of putting black men in dresses, “you gotta take a stand.” It is infuriating, yet sadly wholly unsurprising, to realize Dave has repeatedly been called crazy, clinically insane, for asserting the dignity that is unquestionably bestowed on his white contemporaries who have demanded the same type of ownership over their own work, like Louis CK or Stephen Colbert.
As he mentioned at the show on Sunday, after the way he left his last television show, it is highly unlikely that he will be entrusted with another show again. Dave’s stances have earned him the immeasurable respect of audiences and fellow comedians, but have also alienated him from the true decision makers in the entertainment industry. These live shows are all we’re probably going to get from him. It has to be that way if he’s going to maintain his sense of self and keep on being awesome and sharing that awesomeness with the those lucky enough to get a ticket to see him. It’s the only way he gets to keep his balls.