Don’t Call it a Comeback

Jun 25, 2013 by

On Monday, June 17th, the Stevens Center played host to one of the largest sold-out shows no one knew about (I just happened to stumble across it a week prior thanks to some partial tour information my brother in Raleigh found). The oddly under-advertised event was the second stop (after Richmond) of what is being called Dave Chappelle’s “comeback” tour, and NC certainly faired well with generous attention via 5 or so separate performances that took place between the Triangle and Charlotte.

Leading up to the event, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I mean, Dave Chappelle’s been in my veins for years now. Back in college during my evening radio gig, I would toss the booth into autopilot and go catch new episodes of Chappelle’s Show over in the station lounge, prompting listeners to take a break and do the same.  And for a good stretch of time the audio from Killin’ Them Softly and For What It’s Worth was easily my most popular go-to soundtrack for any road trip.  But it’s been a long time since Chappelle’s Block Party and any substantial public attention. And as much as I despised the thought, I couldn’t help but acknowledge—with all the dates he’s pushing—the possibility of perfunctory, rush job appearances and maybe riding his own coattails of fame afterglow (a worst-case scenario sparked, perhaps unfairly but almost exclusively, by one other big name that passed through town earlier this year).

As it turns out quantity shouldn’t necessarily out-shine the prospect of quality. As the evening got underway, it quickly became clear the night would be an epic one – not just regarding untouchable comedic merits, but epic in terms of adding yet another landmark “cool point” for city history (right next to, say, having the original Empire State building and birthing the Safe Bus Company).  Winston is now the place that got to be one of Chappelle’s first stops, after nearly seven years of relative public silence, in preparation for broad national release (as he’s slated to soon headline the Funny or Die Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival this fall).

The night itself was fantastic. Erin Jackson opened for Chappelle and had a great set – joking about her weight, her worst date ever, and other comedic staples – and then Chappelle came out swinging.  I often forget how relatively small the Stevens Center is for a theater, so the performance felt unexpectedly, and decently, intimate.  Adding to the intimacy were his frequent pauses throughout his set as if he were continuously recalibrating his trajectory throughout the night—seemingly either flipping through a mental rolodex of new material or figuring out which train of thought to hop and ride out to whatever conclusion. Either way I laughed the entire time.

In true Winston-Salem tribute fashion, and making note it was already cleared in his contract, he lit up a cigarette about a third of the way into his set. I couldn’t help but wonder how many other people have ever had the privilege of smoking in that space (albeit not so much when it was the Carolina Theater back in the golden leaf’s golden days, but contemporarily as the Stevens Center). As he was lighting up, he said something like coming to Winston-Salem to smoke was like bringing the ring back to the fires of Mordor. Precision. Steadily, as the night progressed, the inner cavity of the theater began to fill with the smoky contents of his lungs—the settling haze across the crowd being just his thoughts that made it out.

There’s a lot to say about Chappelle’s style.  His delivery for one is tremendously honed.  I often catch myself watching so many other comics and wondering why the audience is laughing.  Often mediocre punchlines will hit and I see the audience laughing all the same, and I’m wondering if they’re laughing because they think it’s genuinely funny, or if there’s a cadence to the overall performance and they’re simply responding to it as if in reflex to some unspoken comedian/audience social contract. I’m not saying people can’t recognize bad jokes, but rather so many laughs appear to percolate simply through traditional joke setup/punchline cadencing and atmospheres of expected social cues:  set up, punchline, laughter, repeat.  It’s almost as if those spaces have the ability to incubate laughter through environmental social pressures and conditioning as much as they can through crafting actual hilarity. There is no question with Chappelle, however, of who is authoring the experience. Listeners are quickly subsumed into his world of storytelling sans cadence that, I believe, generally wraps the audience experience in something much more closely approximating authenticity.

I suppose the essence of what makes Chappelle brilliant for me is so much of his content sits on the level of the sociologically absurd. Absurdity in this sense isn’t cornball weirdness, but rather a bold recognition of the perpetuation of social situations that don’t fundamentally make rational sense but are held all the same to be the accepted, and preferable, norm. These situations are often realities of whole populations who are continuously marginalized to such an extent they are rendered unimportant, invisible, or some other blanket pejorative by mainstream ideologies that unapologetically dominate the reproduction of that status quo.  This can be seen particularly well throughout a mainstream American culture that plays the song championing everyone’s ability to flourish while simultaneously refusing basic social survival elements like diversity and equality.  The historical experiences of women in America, blacks in America, children in America, indigenous populations in America, the working class in America, and other “minorities” ad nauseam all find themselves at one point or another (or perennially) caught in absurd situations of trying to flourish while, say, more arbitrarily-underperforming inner-city schools see the chopping block year after year.

It would seem absurdity is an integral part of this awkward social experiment called America. Cornel West characterized much of the black experience in particular this way:

 

Black strivings are the creative and complex products of the terrifying African encounter with the absurd in America – and the absurd as America. Like any other group of human beings, black people forged ways of life and ways of struggle under circumstances not of their own choosing. They constructed structures of meaning and structures of feeling in the face of the fundamental facts of human existence – death, dread, despair, disease and disappointment. Yet the specificity of black culture – namely, those features that distinguish black culture from other cultures – lies in both the African and American character of black people’s attempts to sustain their mental sanity and spiritual health, social life and political struggle in the midst of a slaveholding, white-supremacist civilization that viewed itself as the most enlightened, free, tolerant and democratic experiment in human history. [Ref]

 

Open conversations in mainstream dialogue about absurdist situations are some of the most ephemeral events ever, but I think a large part of being able to call social absurdity and false normalcy out for what they are is an important part of that attempt to maintain sanity.  A testament, however, to the mainstream not being able to handle such cognitive dissonance whenever the absurd is illuminated can be seen by how Chappelle’s humor is just about always categorized, first and foremost, with marginalizing terms like “racial” and “controversial”—as if the vocabulary just doesn’t exist to think about it in any more complex terms than those (remember when Chappelle himself called out the Comedy Central promo poster on his own show that read, “Still Dave, Still Dangerous”, saying he never approved it?).  The subtle coded language behind it all is intriguing—almost as if to slap fine print across his “edginess” to warn consumers that it is not intended to be used for analytical purposes.

There is more to Dave though than just calling attention to absurdity.  He gives voice to it. Other comedians in that realm of calling attention to it (Jon Stewart being one) often set up the scenario, and then call it out for whatever it is. Chappelle’s storytelling however, often places you right inside it, and rides it out so you have to sit with that discomfort, irony, cognitive dissonance, or whatever the emotional impact may be.  In that sense he’s not telling you how to feel, but building up the punchline around you until you have to figure out how to digest it (makes me think of this for some reason). For instance, in the Stevens Center, there was one long parading story he told about being up in NYC during the height of Occupy Wall St. and an encounter he had with a presumably homeless guy.  I won’t give it away, but I do remember thinking “where is he going with this?” until I realized he had built up this new world around me where I was in the midst of this uncomfortable situation and having to deal with it seemingly as much as he was. And that’s part of the brilliance. His jokes can be elevated enough to create full internal dialogues on that which is so often treated as invisible around us, and his masterful storytelling has a way of eliciting direct and rare confrontation on some level with those realities that may be fought tooth and nail in the external social world to avoid. And it’s just often soul-rockingly funny to have absurdity exposed for what it is and given some space out in the open air every once in a while.

With all that said, at the same time, he’s not preachy about any of it, which I think is an impressive line to walk. At the end of the day he’s also just a guy who doesn’t mind telling a fart joke or two.  I mean, what more do you need?

While they’re calling this his “comeback” tour, I’m not sure I’d sell it that way.  Sure, he took a break from the spotlight, but arguably I tend to think of the connotation of a comeback as implying of some prior fall from greatness. He didn’t really fall though, did he? Even he refers to the whole “going crazy” episode (which he did at various points throughout his set), but who isn’t batshit crazy in Hollywood? I read that episode (perhaps generously) as Chappelle seemingly wanting to reclaim some agency and not be further swept along by forces too tsunamic (and perhaps too absurd) to hope to control, and I can only respect the boldness it must have taken to reroute so drastically. Regardless, this phase doesn’t feel like a career restart to me (he’s apparently selling out theaters sans advertising).  He’s onto something next level, more intuitive, and more developed. I’ll stick with LL on this one: don’t call it a comeback – he’s been here for years.

Follow Marcus on Twitter @marcusalexander

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