Dave Chappelle’s new special, taped and released in the middle of a pandemic, solidifies his status as the premier comedian of our time. It’s raw, “unrefined,” as he concedes in a brief note posted to YouTube, emotionally and aesthetically. It’s also the kind of forest-for-the-trees analysis Chappelle does best, stepping back from the daily media fray, this time in a short set filmed outside at dusk, speaking to a sea of masked fans. “Every institution that we trust lies to us,” he tells them.
Chappelle named the special “8:46” in honor of its subject, George Floyd, who perished after a police officer spent eight minutes and 46 seconds choking him with his knee. It also happens to be the time of day at which Chappelle was born.
“Does it matter about celebrity? No,” the comedian declares early in his set, ironically but appropriately downplaying the value of A-list input in troubled political times. “This is the streets talking for themselves.” But, Chappelle pointedly adds, “don’t think my silence is complicit.”
The special is a 27-minute monologue on the protests that erupted in the wake of Floyd’s killing. It’s angry, it’s exhausted, it’s different. You don’t have to agree with Chappelle to appreciate his mastery of the craft—walking creatively through fraught political conflicts with observations that are both hilarious and deeply provocative, tapping into relatable sentiments with forceful writing and poignant delivery. “8:46” is not Chappelle’s funniest work, but it’s a perfect showcase of his importance to comedy.
“This is not funny at all,” he admits in the special. “I got some p-ssy jokes I could do but I just really…” Chappelle trails off, cigarette in mouth. His sharpest punch lines are reserved for Candace Owens, whom Chappelle describes as the “Most articulate idiot I’ve ever seen in my life”— and with much coarser language. The comedian savages Owens’ megaviral Facebook video, which argued against making a martyr out of Floyd. “They killed him and that was wrong, so he’s the guy,” Chappelle insists.
Chappelle is right that we shouldn’t be waiting with bated breath for celebrity reactions to every political development. But as his rolling series of timely Netflix specials has proved, when Chappelle decides to speak, everyone listens. We’re mostly better for it, too.
Chappelle works for the same reason Joe Rogan works: He can produce enormously compelling, resonant cultural commentary in an “unrefined” format, authentic, barely produced, posted on YouTube, unshackled by the strictures of political correctness. He’s everything 2020 demands from comedians.