Perhaps Dave Chappelle was striving for irony when he spoke about being cancelled before a sell-out crowd at San Francisco’s Chase Center on Thursday night.
Kicking off a recently announced 10-city tour, the comedian took the stage to address the ongoing backlash over his latest Netflix special, The Closer, which features a number of controversial jokes about the transgender community. Despite the rightful criticism many have shared in the wake of that special’s release, Chappelle’s career seems to be doing just fine if the arena-wide standing ovation he received upon arrival on Thursday is any indication.
Regardless, much of the comic’s material focused on his self-proclaimed status as a cultural pariah. “Man, I love being cancelled,” Chappelle told the crowd of 19,000. “It is a huge relief. It’s like getting Capone on tax evasion.”
There was, in fact, a decidedly outlaw nature to the entirety of the evening, which began with opening sets from comedian Jeff Ross and Oakland comic Luenell Campbell. After Ross returned to “speed roast” willing members of the audience, the focus pivoted from live entertainment to a screening of Chappelle’s new documentary, Untitled.
In an Instagram post announcing his tour, Chappelle claimed that the fervor over his recent special had cost his film a chance to appear at several festivals. He also promised that those who attended would have the chance to “see what they’re trying to obstruct you from seeing.”
Well, having seen Untitled, it’s difficult to ascertain what in this movie could possibly have merited such an effort.
Largely focused on a series of intimate, outdoor shows that Chappelle hosted during the pandemic last summer in Yellow Springs, Ohio, the film is packed with appearances from other famous comics like Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, and Tiffany Haddish.
Balancing footage of the comics’ act with scenes of them bonding together by means of kayaks and kickball games, Untitled goes to great lengths to underscore the logistic challenges that went into pulling off over 50 shows long before a Covid vaccine was available.
To that end, we see Chappelle buy his own equipment and hire nursing staff to make rapid testing available on-site. We also watch him engage in an ongoing struggle with the region’s zoning inspector, who threatens to shut the venue down. This culminates in what is intended to be the film’s climax: A Zoom meeting of local government officials who must decide whether to issue Chappelle’s production a temporary permit.
If it sounds anticlimactic, the same can be said for what happens next: a Covid outbreak among Chappelle’s staff that essentially ends his Yellow Springs experiment. The documentary is not, however, without its powerful moments, including a performance from poet Amir Sulaiman and footage capturing Chappelle’s furious response to the murder of George Floyd in a set filmed ten days after Floyd was killed.
Over the course of the documentary, a number of small business owners in Yellow Springs are also offered brief spotlights. It all serves to emphasize an overarching theme built around the importance of community and togetherness, which is one Chappelle returns to again and again throughout the film. From that angle, Untitled can ostensibly be seen as a portrait of a small town trying to weather a pandemic with the help of some familiar faces, but in truth, the narrative is really driven by Chappelle’s own efforts to make sense of the pandemic by going full Field of Dreams.
What, if anything, he learns from the whole experience is difficult to say, given Untitled is ultimately best understood as a visual scrapbook of an unusual summer spent with very rich and funny friends.
Such amenities were also on display in San Francisco, where Chappelle’s time at the microphone following his documentary screening was quickly ceded to a parade of popular Bay Area music talents. Speaking fondly of his relationship with the region, Chappelle began his abbreviated set by vaguely addressing the backlash surrounding him before quickly segueing into a gay joke and then inviting Oakland soul artist Goapele to the stage.
From that point forward — it’s impossible to say when, exactly, as every member of the audience had their phones locked in Yondr pouches upon arrival — the night basically turned into a Bay Area block party.
After two songs from Goapele, Chappelle returned for a few more brief remarks and then brought out another Oakland musician: R&B singer-superproducer Raphael Saadiq. Though both Goapele and Saadiq expressed support for Chappelle, neither mentioned any specifics regarding his situation and why he’s in it.
From there, the hyphy movement enjoyed a brief comeback courtesy of a medley of performances from Too Short, E-40, and Lil Jon. Running through certified Bay Area anthems like “Blow the Whistle” and “Tell Me When to Go,” the set saw the crowd at Chase Center go predictably wild.
Then all that was left was a few closing words from Chappelle, who again returned to the subject of his alleged cancellation to end the night.
“For the past three or four weeks,” he said, “they’ve been saying in the news that I’ve been cancelled. It doesn’t matter. The point is, no matter what they say, we are together.”
Oscillating between vague platitudes about unity and his delight at being back in San Francisco, Chappelle’s material came across like the words of a man at a crossroads. The comedian himself admitted as much, when he closed his set by noting that the last time he felt this way, he decided to quit Chappelle’s Show.
“I’m going through something,” Chappelle added. “It might be history.”
And with that observation, so was the evening.
It’s difficult to determine exactly where Chappelle goes next once this tour concludes. With his Netflix obligations complete, his options are wide open. Again, this would seem to contradict the very essence of whatever it means to be cancelled, but hopefully the fervor over Chappelle dedicating an entire special to defending his terrible jokes about transgender people will inspire him to rethink what it truly takes to bring people together.