A socially-distanced YouTube comedy special, with little comedy, is the culture right now
Over the years, Dave Chappelle has dipped his toe and then his whole foot into straight public speaking. During recent Netflix specials, his well-executed stories grow longer and more pointed, with fewer punchlines and more political messages. Chappelle’s new YouTube release, titled 8:46 (the length of time murderous officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on George Floyd’s neck, and also, coincidentally, the time listed on Chapelle’s own birth certificate) represents his first full dive into preaching, with more or less no jokes. It has nearly 20 million views.
I’m usually put off by comedians making statements that aren’t also jokes. Humor has always been my coping mechanism, and also one potent way I’ve learned about life’s more serious issues, especially racism. To me, Paul Mooney is just Cornel West plus laughter. I don’t fault any celebrity or artist for wanting to throw their own political thoughts onto the pile, but I typically have little interest in hearing a comedian get up and talk about serious issues like the rest of us would.
Granted, Dave Chappelle doesn’t talk about anything like the rest of us would. He is a seasoned public speaker, prescient, insightful, and brave (while also being wrong about some things, without coming off like too much of a dick). In this new half-hour “special,” he certainly speaks truth to power. It’s just that he doesn’t magically twist anything around like he would when wielding his most powerful weapon: his jokes. In 8:46, Chappelle trades-in his art, for a simpler, more traditional catharsis.
This show takes place outdoors, at a small wooden amphitheater in the woods in Ohio. Pink paint surrounds pairs of chairs all placed six feet apart from each other. Along with Chapelle’s traditional pre-show taking-of-the-cellphones ritual, nurses press thermometers against the foreheads of these audience members who all drove out into the woods for a show Dave deems “the first concert in North America since [the virus].”
Chappelle arrives on stage in black Hammer-pants, smoking a cigarette and holding what looks like a black bible but turns out to be his journal. “Young people out there protesting, I am very proud of you,” he begins. “You kids are excellent drivers. I’m very comfortable in the backseat of the car.”
He then tells the detailed story of surviving his first earthquake, and how that 30 seconds seemed to last forever, before he suddenly shouts, “And this man kneeled on a man’s neck (pause) FOR EIGHT MINUTES AND FORTY SIX SECONDS!” Unable to believe it, he pounds his journal and invokes genuine fire and brimstone.
As in his recent comedy specials, Dave takes time to respond to talking heads and other mouthy celebrities who no one will remember in five or ten years. In 8:46, explaining why it doesn’t matter what crime George Floyd supposedly committed, Chappelle says, “I don’t care if he kicked Candace Owens in her stinky pussy!” He then draws the show’s only real laugh by adding, “I’m not sure it stinks, but I imagine it does.” He goes on to call Laura Ingraham a “cunt,” but I don’t even know who that is.
Chappelle goes off on CNN’s Don Lemon for shaming Black celebrities who’ve remained silent during the protests (“I was yelling at the TV ‘I DARE YOU to say me, n—-!’”). Chapelle defensively centers himself, while making a typically astute point: “He wants me to go out on the streets and talk over these people who are doing this work? This is the streets talking for themselves; they don’t need me right now! …Don’t think that my silence is complicit or all this shit these n—–‘s is saying, trying to get everyone to sing these songs. I know these songs! I was raised on these songs!” He really looks and sounds like he might cry, which is certainly not something we’ve seen before from Chappelle. “Why is Dave Chappelle silent?” he asks rhetorically. “Because Dave Chappelle knows what the fuck he’s looking at!”
He also laughs and admits, “This is not funny at all. I got some pussy jokes I could do, but…”
It’s hard to “review” 8:46 since it obviously isn’t a comedy special (I assume Dave probably treated the audience to a full, long comedy show, and then released just the serious parts). It’s not really even a piece of art, unless expressing your frustration straight-forwardly is now an artform. Seems like, since Chappelle doesn’t post on social media, he made his official statement this way instead. I did love listening to his impassioned take on this subject we’re all discussing right now, whether or not I learned anything new.
Dave Chappelle has certainly earned the right to speak however he wants. But when a comedian stops joking and starts preaching (Sarah Silverman and Andy Richter on Twitter come to mind) they often seem, to me, to have lost the battle, as if Donald Trump, or racist police, succeeded in taking away their sharpest sword, and left them sobbing and complaining like the rest of us. For a comedian, I can’t even joke about this can come off as I give up.
8:46 shows that Chappelle has clearly not given up. But I maintain that a blow he delivers as a joke is a stronger blow landed.