So without any warning, Dave Chappelle released a new half-hour special for free on YouTube, called 8:46.
On the YouTube page for the video, released through Netflix’s comedy channel, there’s a simple note: “From Dave: Normally I wouldn’t show you something so unrefined, I hope you understand.” It also refers viewers to the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization spearheaded by Bryan Stevenson that works to end mass incarceration and the death penalty.
The special, a 27-minute set filmed on June 6 in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where Chappelle lives, is incendiary and brilliant — part sermon, part history lesson, part eulogy. Certainly compared to his most recent specials, where he has toyed with disappointing anti-trans rhetoric and refused to seriously contend with the ways in which he has downplayed Black women’s claims of sexual assault, 8:46 is a relief and a return to form. It is a heartening reminder of what Dave Chappelle does best: tell a great story. This story is one of unfathomable cruelty and injustice, but also resilience.
Evoking the undeniably surreal times we are living in, the special begins with footage of chairs and tables spaced apart in a field, marked with chalk for social distancing purposes. A diverse array of masked attendees get their temperatures checked before filing into the outdoor theater. As night falls, Chappelle comes out onto the stage, clutching a red Solo cup and an unlit cigarette.
“This is weird and less than ideal circumstances to do a show,” he says early on. “But the only way to figure out if this shit will actually work is to do the goddamn show.”
He spends a few minutes thanking the young people who have been protesting. “I’m very proud of you,” he says. “These kids are excellent drivers,” he adds. “I am comfortable in the backseat of the car.” It’s a great metaphor and an indication that Chappelle has been listening to the calls for celebrities to “say something,” and that he has been quiet by design. “Do you want to see a celebrity right now?” he quips later on. “Do we give a fuck what Ja Rule thinks? This is the streets talking for themselves. They don’t need me right now. I kept my mouth shut.”
Before he really starts the set, he makes a confession. “It’s hard to talk about George Floyd, so I’m not going to do it yet,” he says. He sits on a stool and lets out a heavy, bone-deep sigh, then consults his black book of jokes — another indication that this show is unpolished, less practiced. He pokes fun at a couple the camera doesn’t show us — two friends, one of whom is Black and the other white. “It’s going to be a quiet ride home,” he jokes. “Enjoy your riots!” he adds, with his signature twinkling grin.
The audience laughs, the first real laugh of the night.