“This is not funny at all,” says Dave Chappelle at one point in the middle of 8:46, the monologue/TED Talk/comedy set that he dropped without fanfare on YouTube last Thursday. He’s talking about his set, but he could just as easily be talking about the world around us. We’ve got a global pandemic that has already killed over 426,000 people, an orange Mussolini-wannabe in the White House, and people taking to the streets in response to yet another police murder of a black man. The only humour in 2020 is gallows humour—a grim, twisted pressure valve for the hopelessness and despair of our situation. And even that well is running dry.
So it’s not particularly surprising that the veteran comedian has few jokes for us on 8:46, which draws its name from the length of time that a police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck. Instead, what we get is 25 minutes of Dave Chappelle, the truth-teller, weaving a compelling history of racist violence in the USA that is both universal and intensely personal. Advertised as a “talk with punchlines”, the set is more of a group therapy session, with the audience playing the role of a sympathetic support group.
Partly, that impression comes from the strange setting. Recorded live on June 6 at a Dave Chappelle & Friends: A Talk With Punchlines event in Yellow Springs, Ohio, 8:46 is the first official stand-up comedy video performed in front of a socially distanced audience since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down comedy clubs across the US. It starts with footage of people in masks—many of them custom Chappelle masks with the ‘C’ logo—getting their temperature tested before taking socially distanced seats on the club’s green lawns. There’s a row of white candles lighting the brick wall and fireplace that serves as stage backdrop, and Chappelle looks physically and mentally exhausted—and perhaps a little tipsy—as he walks onto the stage, cigarette and red Solo cup in hand. Even the cutaways to the audience show them nodding along in serious, thoughtful agreement rather than the uproarious laughter that is the norm for a comedy special.
Chappelle starts off with a few apologies for the weirdness of the situation, making excuses for what you’d expect is a raw, unrefined set. The black moleskine notebook in his hand almost makes it look like he’s workshopping new material. But after an awkward start, Chappelle quickly hits top gear and doesn’t slow down—rarely referred to, the notebook disappears after the first ten minutes. This may be new material responding to a new situation, but none of what’s going on is unfamiliar to any black man in America, let alone a comedian who has spent decades talking about police brutality and racism.
He begins with an anecdote about being in Los Angeles when the Northridge Earthquake hit in 1994—the terror, the acceptance that you are going to die—before contrasting those 35 seconds of fear with the eight and a half long minutes of trauma that George Floyd underwent as a cop kneeled on his neck. “What are you signifying?” he asks, pacing up and down the stage. “That you can kneel on a man’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds and feel like you wouldn’t get the wrath of God. That’s what’s happening right now.”
The rage here is real and unfiltered, and it never really lets up for the next 25 minutes as he makes his way through a litany of racist murders by policemen, names that have now become tragic icons—Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, the eight victims of Dylann Roof, Michael Brown. The last was murdered just a few days after a policeman shot and killed 22 year old John Crawford III in Chappelle’s adopted hometown of Beavercreek, Ohio. It turns out, the same policeman had stopped Dave Chappelle the night before Crawford’s death, letting him off with a warning.
That’s not the only time that Chappelle draws a personal connection between his life and the reality of racism and violence in the United States. He links those eight minutes and 46 seconds to his time of birth—8:46 am—and links Floyd begging for his dead mother to Chappelle’s own memory of his father asking for his deceased grandmother on his deathbed. Towards the end, he also talks about his great-grandfather leading a delegation to the White House back when Woodrow Wilson was president after the lynching of a black man in South Carolina. “This is not a long time ago, it’s today,” he says, drawing a line under 100 years of black struggles for dignity and respect. “That man’s wife was the woman that my father called on on his deathbed. And they were slaves! Are you out of your fucking mind if you can’t see that.”
Advertised as a “talk with punchlines”, the set is more of a group therapy session, with the audience playing the role of a sympathetic support group.
Most of the laughs during the set come when he turns his attention to the media and political commentators. CNN’s Don Lemon comes under fire for trying to shame celebrities, including Chappelle, into speaking up about Black Lives Matter. “Do we give a fuck what Ja Rule thinks,” he says, a reference to one of his famous bits from the early 2000s. “This is the streets talking for themselves, they don’t need me right now.”
Chappelle also fits in a few punches at black conservative black pundit Candace Owens and Fox News host Laura Ingraham. Owens gets put on blast (“She’s so articulate, she’ll tell you how stupid she is, precisely”) for highlighting Floyd’s rap sheet and asking why the black community would choose him as a hero. “We didn’t choose him, you did,” he retorts. “They killed him, and that’s not right. So he’s the guy.”
Ingraham, meanwhile, catches flak for telling LeBron James to “shut up and dribble” when the NBA player made some comments about Donald Trump. While these media figures provide the little humour there is in the set, they’re not just there for the punchlines. Each example ties into a specific aspect of how we are dealing with this moment—the role of celebrities, betrayal by black conservatives. Chappelle brings Ingraham’s comments back into focus a little later, when he’s talking about Kobe Bryant’s last game as an LA Lakers player, which coincided with the killing of police personnel at a Black Lives Matter rally. “The night those cops were killed, felt like the end of the world,” says Chappelle, crediting the lack of apocalypse to Bryant’s superlative performance, which kept everyone glued to their television screens in the midst of a crisis. “I watched this n—- dribbling and saving this goddamn country for himself.”
And then Chappelle sits and stares at the unlit cigarette in his hand, pulling himself back together, as you fight the urge to go give him a hug. These moments of honest vulnerability—along with Chappelle’s no-punches-pulled rhetoric—are what make 8:46 work, and he knows it. “The only reason people want to hear from people like me is because you trust me,” he says. “I don’t lie to you. But every institution that we trust lies to us.”
There are, of course, some things that are problematic, such as Chappelle’s constant riffing on misogynistic insults (he makes a special point to call Ingraham a “c*nt”). And the night the video was uploaded, a Twitter user caught a discrepancy between the subtitles and the video. The subtitles riff on Lemon’s sexuality—“…he’s black and gay, but unlike my other black and gay friends, he’s got this weird self-righteousness…”—strongly implying that this was a joke that got cut. Chappelle has received a lot of criticism for trans-phobic and homo-phobic content before, especially in his 2019 Netflix special Sticks & Stones. This joke-that-wasn’t serves as a reminder that Chappelle has spent the past few years punching down rather than up, undercutting the truth-telling underdog persona that makes his comedy so powerful.
For some viewers, that problematic history will—rightly—colour their view of Chappelle and his work, especially since it depends so much on his own experiences of being marginalised. But even with its flaws, 8:46 is an important piece that channels the pain and anger of black America. And it comes with a warning that is poignant and necessary, even if you don’t believe that Chappelle deserves the benefit of the doubt here. Throughout the set, Chappelle highlights the case of Chris Dorner, a black policeman who alleged that he was wrongfully dismissed from the LAPD after filing a complaint against a colleague. Dorner wrote a manifesto (in which he called Chappelle a “genius”) and declared war on the LAPD, killing four, before he was tracked down and shot dead by the police. Chappelle does not valorize Dorner’s actions—or those of the other black former military men he mentions who killed policemen—but does contextualise it as a personal extension of the “war on terror” they enlisted to fight. The implication he leaves unsaid is that if America can’t find a way to resolve its problems with racism and police violence, then Dorner may be a harbinger of an even darker future.
“We’ll keep this space open, this is the last stronghold for civil discourse,” says Chappelle as he concludes his set. “After this shit, it’s just rat-a-tat-tat-tat.”