On June 12, comedian Dave Chappelle released 8:46
, a stand-up special filmed just days before in his hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio.
It’s hard to call it comedy — after all, the title refers to the length of time that police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on the neck of George Floyd in late May, killing him. And while there are jokes, irreverent observations and comedic musings, Chappelle spends much of the 30-minute performance examining Floyd’s death and subsequent protests, the history of systemic racism that has led to this point and the current general state of the world.
That of course includes the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, making a public performance like this rare, if not otherwise nonexistent.
Since filming that special a month ago, Chappelle has been hosting intimate, socially distanced comedy shows at that same location, Wirrig Pavilion, a private outdoor event space amid corn fields and Christmas tree farms in the idyllic village of Yellow Springs — all with the approval of Ohio Governor Mike DeWine.
The show I attended on Friday, July 3, was nothing like the somber 8:46. It was like nothing I’d experienced before or probably ever will. From the required temperature check, masks and 6-foot separation to the remote location surrounded by woods, the surprise lineup and eclectic mix of performers to the fact that, like many in the crowd and onstage, this was my first non-essential outing in nearly four months — this was truly something uniquely 2020.
Chappelle is no stranger to organizing pop-up parties. He’s thrown famous “Juke Joints,” mysterious music and comedy parties, in Yellow Springs and around the country since 2015. But I first caught wind of these recent recurring shows at the end of June when a photo of Chappelle and a group of comics began circulating on social media. A few early attendees shared their experiences online, but details on how to actually attend were sparse. Tickets, in limited numbers to comply with safety measures, have been quietly released on differing distribution sites, often just days in advance. I happened to be sleuthing online last Wednesday morning when tickets for Friday’s show went on sale via Ticketmaster. They were available in pairs at $100 a head and sold out quickly.
As far as what to expect logistically, watch 8:46 and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the space. After parking in a gravel lot that is extremely easy to miss among the sprawling farmland, attendees line up 6 feet apart for temperature checks, receive specially branded face masks (the ultimate functional memento) and pass through security. All phones must be left in your car or locked in a Yondr pouch, which has certainly helped maintain some of the secrecy of the event. It was a welcome requirement that helped me appreciate the night even more, distraction free.
Folding chairs were spaced out in pairs and staggered across the spacious lawn, they had those fancy porta-potties that flush, which were frequently cleaned, and masks and social distancing were gently enforced. Can all concerts be like this? No bumping into sweaty strangers, no squeezing past a row of folks to use the bathroom, everyone had an incredible unobstructed view of the stage. It was awesome. The crowd was mostly locals from the region including Cincinnati, but one group came all the way from Oakland, California. I’d say there were maybe 200 people there tops, including the audience, performers, their guests and various crews.
If you hope to attend a show — and I do believe there will be more, because it works so well — keep searching, follow internet chatter and accounts that announce performance news and act fast if you do find tickets. I encourage you to go in blind without any expectations both because the surprise of it all was so exciting and, surely, no two shows are alike. I’m sharing my experience, but I don’t want to spoil any of the magic. Proceed accordingly!
When I made it into the space Friday, a full concert-style stage with lights, big screens and a DJ and band setup were built out in front of the pavilion, a departure from previous shows. Clearly there was going to be some musical element in addition to comedy. The suspense was real!
Chappelle’s tour DJ, DJ Trauma, provided the music before Chappelle took the stage around 8:30 p.m. Instead of the obvious headliner being saved for last like in a typical comedy show, Chappelle did a few minutes between each performer, sharing informal, unrefined material that spoke to the absurdity of this unique time. And dick jokes. It was like hanging at a party with one of the greatest comedians and some of his most entertaining — and famous — friends.
The core lineup appears to be the same for most of these shows: NYC DJ-turned-comic Cipha Sounds, last year's White House Correspondents’ Dinner host Michelle Wolf (who was with Chappelle when COVID struck and has been quarantining at his house ever since), Ramy actor Mo Amer and Donnell Rawlings, best known as Ashy Larry on Chappelle’s Show. Each brandished their own flavor of comedy, speaking on how they ended up performing for the first time in months in a field in Ohio (Chappelle flew many of them out on private planes). None of the performers wore masks, but their mics were constantly sanitized, they remained removed from the crowd and spoke humorously about how rigorously Chappelle tests each of them for COVID.
Most comedy shows get progressively better as the crowd loosens up, which was difficult when there was no alcohol (just food trucks and a small bar for VIPs, an issue Chappelle attempted to remedy), it didn’t get dark until after 10 p.m., oh and all our faces were obstructed and laughter muffled by face masks. Chappelle even joked about how we were getting the chance to see some of the best comics bomb since they haven’t had practice and are testing new material, but in reality no one bombed — it’s just hard to convey that a joke landed when you’re wearing a mask. Truly bizarre. Could masks change the way we interact at a distance?
Chappelle then brought out a surprise guest — the first of many: Girls Trip breakout star Tiffany Haddish. The best part of her set wasn’t the jokes about performing to her houseplants and dream interpretation, but how genuinely excited she was to be here. Between raunchy jokes and musings from quarantine, she shared how integral performing is to her, and how grateful she was to have the opportunity to tell jokes to real, live humans once again.
Chappelle then brought out Dayton Hip Hop artist Issa Ali to perform a couple songs. He was joined by Talib Kweli, who has Cincinnati ties, and then Common. You couldn’t see my mouth, but my jaw was dropped. Then none other than Questlove of the legendary Roots crew jumped in on drums.
At this point, the stage was filling up with the comedians and friends getting a close look at this impromptu Hip Hop concert — I spotted Saturday Night Live’s Michael Che, who didn’t perform that night but I believe he did Saturday, and New Girl’s Lamorne Morris.
As I strained by eyeballs to identify each famous person like I worked for TMZ, an iconically large hat emerged (think Pharrell’s Arby’s hat at full mast). It was Erykah Badu.
They all performed some of their hits, with Chappelle and others jumping in on a verse, Talib and Common freestyling about the night, Haddish having a dance-off with a sharply dressed attendee. Commanded to stand up and dance by Common, the crowd naturally drew closer to the stage, but continued to maintain distance.
Cipha, noting the mostly-white audience, remarked that maybe old-school Hip Hop is not the best soundtrack to get this crowd hyped. Cut to Jon Hamm — yes, Don Draper of Mad Men Jon Hamm — taking the stage to lead the crowd in a rendition of “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Is Jon Hamm friends with Dave Chappelle? I guess so?!
The impromptu karaoke session saw Chappelle singing Radiohead’s “Creep” and Badu requesting Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” prompting a celebrity mosh pit onstage. The place went wild.
There were countless times throughout the night where Chappelle or someone else would announce, “OK just one more” before everything would go off the rails with music and laughter. Even when the show was over and the music had gone silent, Chappelle, Common and others remained onstage to interact with fans and just soak up the love. These performers wanted to keep the party going just as bad as we did, even in the pitch black of midnight in the middle of nowhere.
I don’t know if this beefed-up show was a special event for the holiday weekend or just the natural evolution of what Chappelle has created. Either way, there’s a demand on both sides. People are craving human interaction, fresh air, entertainment that doesn’t come from a screen and an event to look forward to and reflect on. Artists, creatives and performers are similarly hungry for a stage to perform on. During a time of so much uncertainty and a desire for normalcy, Chappelle says the show must go on, and it can, if you can think outside the box (and box office — I highly doubt he sees a profit from these shows). But there’s nothing normal about it. It’s extraordinary.
A film crew was on site capturing the entire experience, as they have been with past shows and given Chappelle’s near-constant stream of Netflix releases, I can all but guarantee these unique shows will make their way to a comedy special. I hope fans everywhere can soon get a taste of this weird magic, even if it’s from a distance.