(GUEST REVIEW by Jake Austen) I had a pretty amazing comedy-themed Memorial Day Weekend. Setting the table was the closing night of the Black Harvest film festival, featuring a preview of Whoopi Goldberg’s Kickstarted Moms Mabley documentary, I Got Something to Tell You, which will be on HBO eventually (hopefully before Black History Month). Goldberg, who once did a Mabley tribute show, does a wonderful job creating not so much a portrait, but a satisfying survey/appreciation of one of the greatest stand up comics in American history. Because the Mabley character was a coy construct and she did not break character in interviews, there is really not enough available material to present a true biography of Mabley a/k/a/ Loretta Mary Aiken, who (like Grandpa Jones of Hee Haw fame) was playing an elderly person from her youth and aged into the image. And because other than a few race movies, footage of Mabley is mostly from the last few years of her life when the presumed septuagenarian (her birth date is disputed) found a new audience on talk and variety shows in the late 60s and early 70s, Goldberg had to devise clever methods to play material from her excellent 60s LPs (with animation or animated text on the screen as the records spun), or have comics who came up in the 60s and 70s discuss her impact. Though not a problem exactly, what this does is skew the focus to her late standup career, when I personally want to know more about her vaudeville/minstrel circuit/Broadway career in the twenties and thirties. When Goldberg, as narrator, gives Mabley props for co-writing a show with Zora Neale Hurston and then doesn’t follow it up (I know she and Hurston played cheerleaders in a skit where Tim “Kingfish” Moore was a footballer, but not much more than that), it a bit of a tease. This is made more frustrating by the few interviews with survivors of that era revealing genuinely fascinating snippets of info about Mabley’s personal life (her offstage life as “Mr. Moms,” for example).
Goldberg, however, doesn’t let the gaps in Mabley’s history serve as pit traps, instead focusing on her material, particularly the bold political content of her humorous, scathing, critiques on American racism. Though she dressed in a house coat and funny hat, took out her dentures, and spoke in a relaxed, stammering drawl (perfect for lengthy raconteuring, though not always the best for sound bites, as this film demonstrates), she seemed safe and harmless, but her jokes about the absurdity of segregation, lynching, and racial epithets are all the more powerful because this sharp commentary is coming from an unexpected spokesperson. The comics and scholars interviewed who provide context and commentary include Cosby, Arsenio, Kathy Griffin, Bambi Haggins, Robert Klein (interviewed on the Apollo stage [?]), and a rare Eddie Murphy talking head (though his explanation of his elderly female Klump character being a Mabley impersonation demonstrates a coarse misunderstanding of Mabley’s bold take on female sexuality). But most impressive is the way deft editing of the sparse Mabley film footage advocates for her genius. Her earnest singing tribute to her slain friends MLK and Jack and Bobby Kennedy has been presented as a novelty record over the years, and seeing her perform it on Hugh Hefner’s TV show with Barbi Benton, Sammy Davis Jr, Paul Mooney, and various Playmates paying rapt attention could also be presented as silly or absurd. But here we see it as the artistic, soulful triumph it really was. And her terrible movie Amazing Grace is reduced to one scene of pleading oration that is presented as improvised, honest, and vital. In our house Mabley’s records get a lot of spins, so I hesitate to call her a forgotten figure, but for the countless folks who don’t know how awesome Moms was, this is a vital work.
I thought about Mabley’s coy stage character a couple of days later when Dave Chappelle took the stage headlining the Oddball Comedy Festival in Suburban Chicago. Even before walking off his TV show (close to a decade ago!) Chappelle had starred in a stoner comedy and certainly appeared half-baked during the introductions to his skits on his iconic program which tackled taboos and stereotypes with bold, unnerving recklessness. So combine an image of a guy who’s high and doing dangerous comedy with his mysterious exodus from the show, abandoning a huge contract to disappear overseas, and people started calling Dave Chappelle crazy. That his rare stage appearances over the last 8 years have been odd at times (unannounced appearances at the Laugh Factory where he spent hours talking intimately with the audience; theater shows where he seemed ill prepared) further fueled that reputation. And when he reacted to a disrespectful crowd in Hartford, CT two days prior to the Chicago show by basically walking off in disgust the legend of volatile, anything-can-happen Dave was further cemented. But watching Chappelle on stage, chain-smoking, mumbling profanities, raging against the Hartford crowd (he considered doing a “reverse Kramer,” and just yelling “Crackers!”) it certainly felt possible that the “Crazy Dave” persona was a smokescreen; like Mabley he was presenting himself in such a way that it made it so much more impactful when he made brilliant, deep-cutting commentary on profoundly disturbing, important subjects (such as referencing two ancestors both born of interracial couplings, “one from love, one from rape…but alls well that ends well!”). And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Hartford incident was a calculated stunt, I will say that if it was, it was incredibly successful! To start off a tour with the equivalent of punching out the biggest guy on your first day in prison could not have been more effective. Not only was the audience nervous and vulnerable in ways that left us primed us for laughter, but we were on some otherworldly good behavior. Signs were posted everywhere about not heckling, texting, or taking pictures or video during the show, and during Chappelle’s set I did not see a single phone out! When was the last time you were out a show where no one took a picture or video? And this is 17,000 people!
I had gone in with low expectations. A massive, outdoor comedy festival sounds like a nightmare to me. Comedy outside in a giant venue with the scale not allowing the performer to vibe with the audience seemed like a terrible formula, and the eclectic lineup seemed theoretically appealing, but inevitably disastrous, as so many of the drunk, mob-mentality masses would be disinterested in too many of the acts. But I was wrong. Though I missed the warm-up second stage with lower profile comics (overseen by Brody Stevens, perhaps the best crowd work comic I’ve ever seen), the main show, a well-paced four-hour extravaganza, was a rousing success. Emcee Jeff Ross had some decent jokes (I thought he had cornrows to address the black concertgoers coming to see Chappelle, but it was revealed on Memorial Day that it was to mimic James Franco’s Spring Breakers character for Franco’s TV roast). Opener Kristin Schaal came out in male drag as an offensive Gen-Y Diceman-type sexist comic, and was hilarious. Al Madrigal’s disaffected domestic comedy was sharp (you’re not going to get better piñata jokes). Westside comic Hannibal Burress destroyed the crowd with a killer, dynamic set, ending with a huge semi-coherent rap parody with lights, smoke, and ballet dancers. The only misstep of the night was making Dmitri Martin follow local hero Burress, but his low-key set was funny and warmly received. And co-headliners Flight of the Conchords certainly drew had a lot of fans of their acoustic folk-rap musical shenanigans, but a majority of the crowd who came to see Chappelle had no idea who they were, and despite thick New Zealand accents and absurdist juxtapositions of R&B tropes with mild tales of complimentary muffins and weekend parenting, the crowd was with them.
Then it was Chappelle time. My expectations for his set were also low, for while I would have loved to have been at an intimate five hour Comedy Store set, with stage and audience barriers breaking down and vulnerabilities exposed, that wasn’t going to happen here, and if he was going to come out ill-prepared his deficiencies would be magnified after 3 hours of exquisitely crafted comedy. And if such low-expectations were another trap Chappelle set, I fell into it, because he was amazing. Mixing old and new material, Chappelle’s 45 minutes were rock solid, his storytelling enchanting, his comic timing Redd Foxx-like, his fury at Hartford, and subsequent satisfaction with Chicago, functioning as the most successful “It’s great to be here tonight in (fill in the blank)” imaginable. He masterfully wove together stories of family life (a lecture to his son about it being OK to quit causing community repercussions; a Chappelle classic about his wife having to explain what “pussy” is to their young child), he fantasized about hiring Paula Deen as a private chef, and he playfully messed around with his deejay and a security guard. He addressed all the themes about Chappelle that fascinate and confuse us, and most importantly, he demonstrated that he is a masterful stand-up comic, and like Richard Pryor before him, whatever might be troubling him personally he is able to translate into electrifying energy on stage.
The bottom line is, Hartford hecklers aside, people deeply want to love Dave Chappelle, and when he’s this good he makes it easy for us. Stand up may be the best outlet for him, but anything’s possible (he seemingly mended bridges with his sketch writing partner Neal Brennan earlier this year by appearing at Brennan’s comedy night). In Hartford he had his deejay play Kanye West’s “New Slaves” as his early exit music, marking his state of mind that evening (he told us several times it was a miracle he continued the tour). In Chicagoland he recounted a funny anecdote about putting Kanye on TV for the first time (shortly after he’d been anointed by Jay-Z on the same stage Chappelle now stood upon) and when he exited it was to the joyous NWA/Watts 103rd Street Band “Express Yourself.” I’m anxious to see how Chappelle expresses himself in the future, and I’m thrilled to verify that he truly deserves to be considered alongside comedy heroes like Pryor, Foxx, Moms Mabley.