Going into Dave Chappelle's latest Netflix special 8:46 cold, you’d be forgiven for expecting raw standup. From the sparse stage-setting and communal outdoor environment to Dave literally walking onstage still holding his notebook, it feels like we’re about to witness a treat typically reserved for the Comedy Cellar: Dave Chappelle field-testing new material for the entire audience he would usually sell a special to, no doubt out of months of quarantine boredom. Instead, we got a cathartic town hall for the culture, with Chappelle’s voice statements often crescendoing to impassioned yells like a Black Baptist preacher. As much as a traditional stand-up set from Chappelle would’ve been a welcome respite from the heaviness of the world right now, these times are, as Chappelle made clear, no laughing matter.
8:46 is bookended by the debate around the significance of celebrity statements during moments of turbulent crisis. You already know how the man that gave us “Where’s Ja?” feels on the matter, and Don Lemon draws some slight ire for highlighting Chappelle’s perceived “silence.” But the bulk of the special isn’t designed to attack anyone—save Candace Owens, who gets several deserved grenades lobbed her way—but to talk through everything. A legend like Chappelle is inherently funny. There are a handful of asides designed to elicit a few throat-clearing, tension-deflating chuckles (“I said ‘I read [Dorner’s manifesto]—he likes me, is there anything I can do for you?”) But the only true hand-to-mouth, ‘did he just say that lmao’ moment is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to Azealia Banks’ recent claims. Otherwise, it’s a half-hour therapy session.
Chappelle doesn’t just speak to the broader pain the Black community is feeling, and has been for centuries, but instead contextualizes it within his own personal story. (The Ohio setting was surely borne out of more relaxed COVID-19 restrictions than other venues in the country could accommodate—guests were shown having their temperature taken, seats were in pairs and six feet apart—but the subtext of Chappelle hosting this event in his hometown where racial violence has occurred was not lost. His first LA earthquake experience, his ancestral namesake, his birth date and time all serve as sharply written framing devices for a generational trauma we can all relate to but is ultimately specific to him and the way he’s been processing this hellacious year going back to Kobe Bryant’s tragic death. The numerology of it all is especially potent, as he explains why he couldn’t go accept a Grammy on the evening the news about Bryant broke, in a building where his two jerseys are prominently displayed: 8 and 24, his birthday, when he entered this world at 8:46 AM—the same numerals that add up to the incomprehensible amount of time Derek Chauvin spent slowly murdering George Floyd. These are life-altering events that weigh on everyone famous or not, platform notwithstanding, and in lieu of an empty IG note of platitudes, Chappelle has invited us to process with him in real-time. In one of the special’s heavier moments, he invokes the murder of John Crawford III, whose story was eclipsed by Michael Brown’s death later that week. Black citizens are dying at a rate even the news cycle can’t keep up with.
There are broader contexts too. I don’t know how many cops or people who otherwise don’t already empathize with and support Black Lives Matter will tune into this. But while many have already cited Dylann Roof as a stark contrast to the way white aggressors are taken in alive for unspeakable acts of violence while black men and women are being killed over alleged petty misdemeanor bullshit at most, Chappelle dares to use another analogy most would stay away from: Christopher Dorner. Chappelle is careful not to valorize his actions, but he does illuminate how inherent brokenness within the police system led to them—and how the force’s unified response to Dorner should be a mirror to the way a community comes together by any means necessary when they’re under attack.
It’s heavy, poignant stuff—an unprecedented response during unprecedented times. And yet, to see Dave posture-less, at times unrehearsed, not in comedy god-mode but instead just black father grappling with his country’s enduring attack on people who look like him, was comforting in its own way. We’re all going through it and we’re all using conversation to cope. Chappelle started off signaling to an interracial duo seated in the audience (the camera did not cut to the aforementioned guests) that they’re in for an awkward ride home by the time he’s done. Awkward sure, but necessary nonetheless.