Dave Chappelle doesn’t care what you think
By Gabriel Lucich
When your newspaper offers to purchase you tickets to see comedian Dave Chappelle, who is, arguably, one of the greatest performers of the last quarter century; you go.
Chappelle is divisive. He is insensitive. You may feel that he punches down much of the time, and you may be correct in that assertion. He addresses race relations head-on and without pretense at a time when many others in and out of the entertainment world feel it needs to be handled with kid gloves.
But, if you happen to be a 45-year-old man that considers himself reasonably self-aware, you take your time when contemplating and writing about the content of the controversial comic’s performance, especially when it is laced with words that most news organizations wouldn’t even quote.
Chappelle’s December 7 show at MODA Center was presented in the round, with the small stage positioned dead-center in the venue allowing everyone to get a good view of the performers, even without viewing the giant screens above the stage.
The show opened with Cipha Sounds, a New York-based comedian and the original DJ from the hit show, Chappelle’s Show. Typical of an opening act, you expect someone with less finely-tuned comedic chops. He launched his set with the line, “Hello Portland! There are so many white people here that it looks like a Black Lives Matter protest.” Cipha was funny, but there were more experienced performers waiting to hit the stage.
Marshall Brandon took the stage next. Brandon, a Hartford, CT comedian began with a bit about how an alien invasion would make all races equal. He went on to tackle abortion rebranding and more race-related topics. He got the crowd going, but it was probably the weakest performance of the evening.
One of the biggest surprises of the night was the appearance of Donnell Rawlings. His recurring character, “Ashy Larry,” was a Chappelle Show staple. Rawlings was also a regular in the critically acclaimed HBO series, The Wire.
Rawlings took the stage while DJ Trauma played Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, a song chosen specifically for pandering to a white audience. Rawlings is a consummate showman. His high-energy performance flowed from manic to chill, bringing in elements clearly influenced by classic Redd Foxx and Dick Gregory. His crowd-work picked on everyone in the front sections, mainly the one person still wearing an N95 mask in late 2023, and closed with a gospel-inspired rant about the differences between Black and White holiday food, using Shirley Caesar’s viral song “Greens, Beans, Potatoes, Tomatoes,” as his exit music.
The next several minutes were filled with DJ Trauma getting the crowd pumped, playing classic Rap and Hip Hop (there is a difference) and getting the energy of the room right for Dave to make his entrance.
“It’s good to be back in Portland. This town has changed a lot since I was here last. My last visit, I had to go downtown and buy heroin, just so I could fit in,” was Chappelle’s opening line, which brought a gasp from the audience, followed by a roar of laughter.
Lauren Bobert, Lil Nas X, Jim Carrey/Andy Kaufman, abortion, the Chris Rock assault by Will Smith, the person that attacked him at the Hollywood Bowl, all of these and more were tackled by Chappelle during the set. He talked about wanting to rewrite Huckleberry Finn from Jim’s perspective.
He worked the crowd the last 15-20 minutes of the show. One of the funnier moments was talking to an Iranian/Mexican couple in the second row, asking them how they met, listening to their very sweet story and then stating that it sounded more likely that they met in a immigration detention center. Not funny? It was that evening.
If you pay attention to the material he covers, you already know much of what he talked about that evening. The trans community is a target in many jokes. Chappelle frequently makes sexist comments hidden inside other stories. He’s been exceptionally clear about his biases. He circled back on these ideas several times and from many different angles. It feels like the backlash to his content only caused him to dig in and double-down on his stance.
I’ve been trying to decide if much of what I laughed at that evening was actually funny. At the time it was. But when you begin to analyze it, it becomes clear that it’s not the topics that are funny but the irreverence. The timing, the flow, the storytelling and the energy of the performer — that makes a show great.
Chappelle cultivates the attention and reactions of the audience. When in the presence of a comedian like Chappelle, you become enthralled. It is magic. The laughs come despite your feelings about the subject matter. This should come with some self-examination.
Chappelle has evolved as a comedian, but when it comes to putting together performances he’s lost a step. He relies on old prejudices and premises to bring back the same old laughs and that doesn’t bring a lot of new fans to the table. The subjects were fairly safe and predictable for Chappelle fans. But is that why we go to see comedians? For me, the answer is no. I want performers to push themselves and the audience into new territory.
I still laughed hard and repeatedly, retrospective judgment and critique aside; that’s on me. You might have been offended, triggered, angered or saddened. You may have agreed with every point that he made and loved every word. Comedy is subjective, no two people are going to agree upon what is or isn’t funny. One thing is absolutely certain: Dave doesn’t care what you think.