Critic's Notebook: Dave Chappelle's '8:46' Offers a Harrowing Snapshot of 2020

On Thursday night, with no preface or warning, Dave Chappelle dropped 25 minutes of material on the "Netflix Is A Joke" YouTube channel.

Starved for a definition of such things, we're describing it as a new "special."

It's not.

If it were a new special, it wouldn't have been cut together in less than five days and Netflix definitely wouldn't have just put it on YouTube, because, as you might know, Netflix actually has an outlet to stream comedy specials. It's called "Netflix."

Oh and the video, titled 8:46, definitely isn't comedy, which makes it a pretty disturbing match with the "Netflix Is A Joke" chyron on the page. But Netflix doesn't have a YouTube channel dedicated to what Walt Whitman referred to as his "barbaric yawp," the untamed, untranslatable exclamation he sounded "over the roofs of the world." Here, Dave Chappelle's yawp is not one of joy or jubilation. It is, if anything, a yawp of angry resignation, or well-earned exhaustion.

On CNN, Don Lemon asked why certain celebrities hadn't responded publicly to the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests. 8:46 is Chappelle's response — a specific response to police kneeling on a man's neck for nearly nine minutes and a general response to having to address incidents like this over and over again, violations of a system theoretically meant to protect and serve. It's also a response to the confusion from people who don't understand why there have been protests about these incidents over the past however many years — as if anything had ever been fixed between one atrocity and the next.

You know who those people are who don't understand? They're Chappelle's newest fans.

"Answer me: Do you want to see a celebrity right now? Do we give a fuck what Ja Rule thinks?" Chappelle asks in 8:46.

This is, as any Chappelle fan knows, a call-back. Possibly my favorite piece of Chappelle material is his incredulity at Ja Rule being enlisted for comment after 9/11.

"I want some answers that Ja Rule might not have right now!" Chappelle declared.

Chappelle is right about this. He's also disingenuous. Some string of comedy specials ago, Chappelle got a lot of buzz for a run of jokes built around repugnant trans slurs. Those words were enthusiastically picked up by more than a few conservative non-thinkers, who felt emboldened to amplify and appropriate Chappelle's words and, more than that, his attitude.

So Chappelle had the opportunity in his next special to backtrack, to be introspective, to tear down the pundits who believed they were now on the same page with Chappelle because they had common ground on a single issue. Nope. He doubled down and instead lambasted people who were offended and only gave the reactionary wing of his fanbase further cover under the umbrella of his celebrity. This is and was a choice Chappelle made.

Chappelle knows his words have weight because he's a celebrity; he takes pride in those reactions and he always has. He is not, after all, Ja Rule.

There's a lot of overlap in the circle of commenters giddily embracing Dave Chappelle for their kinship in transphobia and people who respond to Black Lives Matter with "All Lives Matter" or worse. I don't think insulting Candace Owens for the aroma of her genitals or calling Laura Ingraham a "bitch" is going to make the Dinesh D'Souzas of the world as happy as his mockery of trans people, but I don't know if the effect is likely to be full alienation either.

In a way, it's silly to review 8:46. Were it not for the urgency of the moment, it's not a thing that would ever see the light of day. It's not a "routine," because there's nothing routine about it. And it's not likely to be a set that he's going to tweak and refine in the months to come, because what opportunity is he going to have to go on the road and do unannounced sets at comedy clubs? This, in its own strange way, Dave Chappelle's version of the horrible black-and-white video of white celebrities talking about their "responsibility" in this precarious moment — only that video came across as uncomfortably embalmed and embarrassing, while this set is uncomfortable only in intentional ways.

It's fascinating.

It's fascinating in its formal aspects, like the opening minutes showing patrons arriving at the outdoor venue, being tested for temperatures and being directed to very carefully marked-off and socially distanced makeshift seating.

It's fascinating in how it responds to our expectations of what a typical comedy special looks like. There's nobody roaming the theater with a camera to get different perspectives or angles. It's mostly a single, stable shot interrupted by disturbing images and video footage of Floyd, of Eric Garner, of Philando Castile. Even that staple of the standup concert film, the cutaways to audiences roaring with laughter, takes on a somber tone as those reactions come from people wearing masks, many emblazoned with a "C" for "Courage." The editing is minimal, hence a five-day turnaround.

It's fascinating because of how entirely it feels like the audience was attracted by a bait-and-switch. Chappelle begins by declaring "This is weird and less-than-ideal circumstances to do a show," a sentiment he repeats several times, while also noting that this is the first concert of its type since a nationwide lockdown began in March.

Carrying a rarely referenced notebook to give the impression of jokes being workshopped, he says early on, "It's hard to figure out what to say about George Floyd. So I'm not gonna say it yet." Within a minute he's talking about George Floyd. "This is not funny at all. I've got some pussy jokes too I could do," he says much later, as if he hadn't already made such jokes about Candace Owens.

The 25-minute speech is, for all of its alleged "unrefined" aspects, very refined. There are laugh-lines, but very few jokes, and no matter how digressive Chappelle might have wanted to suggest the new special is, it methodically builds to a very persuasive argument about what is happening in the streets of America — and why expressing obliviousness about it at this point is either ignorant or criminal. Chappelle has always been more of a hilarious storyteller than a rat-a-tat joke teller, and this is a story and an explanation and a yawp of sadness and rage.

"I'm gonna give him a chance," Chappelle said in his first SNL monologue after the election of Donald Trump. "And we, the historically disenfranchised, demand that he give us one, too." Those waiting for some follow-up to that chance Chappelle gave Donald Trump, and how it relates to the upheaval of the past two weeks, won't find it in 8:46. Nor will they find any newfound recognition that he's made a bunch of new friends in recent years by marginalizing the trans community. When you drop a new release on the eve of the anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting, you should know that.

But, in its own eerie vacuum, 8:46, however one wants to define it, is a fascinating snapshot of the moment.