How much is mythology worth? It's not something you can buy, but that doesn't mean it's priceless. Dave Chappelle would have you believe it's not worth 30 million dollars.
"I didn't walk away from 30 million dollars," he said during the Irvine stop of Funny or Die's inaugural Oddbal Comedy & Curiosity Festival. "I still want it."
He went on about the bogus benefits of artistic integrity ("Let me feed my kids some integrity sandwiches") and the way most people will never understand what it's like to be offered 30 million dollars to do something. My initial instinct is to assume he's joking about the regret, because there are more jokes in it than talking about how you took a righteous stand against the fame machine. It just seemed like he left of his own free will and could get a show any time he wanted.
But he's right -- I can't fathom what a 30 million dollar offer means and what it feels like 10 years after turning it down. It's no small thing. So I can't assume that he doesn't mean the things he's saying.
At the same time, if he hadn't left his show, he wouldn't be the mythic figure he is now. But what does that amount to? He'd still be big enough to headline a comedy tour with Flight of the Conchords, but it wouldn't be a legendary return to the public eye. He still could have sold out the Verizon Ampitheatre in Irvine, but it might not have sold out as fast as it did. The idea of Dave Chappelle as a master comedian that won't dance when you tell him to, reinforced by his non-compliance at Oddball's stop in Hartford, has made him stand-up comedy's only modern day mythical figure. He would've been a hall of fame, headline comic like Chris Rock but now he could be anything.
But, still, 30 million dollars. I kept thinking about that trade off before & after the festival, wondering what's better, what matters more. It just comes down to waiting and seeing how his work will be remembered. Building a mythology is something that happens organically, and when everything comes together it's like a winning lottery ticket. But its value can only be determined in the far future. Perhaps it won't be worth the giant cash-in. Intangibles are hard to measure, and not everyone cares about maintaining a profile in the history of comedy.
Oddball was a great time, but, yes, odd. Stand-up comedy festivals can't work the way music festivals work. There's still more of a monoculture in comedy than there is in music, so you can't divide acts up into multiple stages and compete for the attention economy. There was a secondary stage, yes, but that wrapped up as soon as the big stage show began, which was a stacked line-up of Jeff Ross, Kristen Schaal, Al Madrigal, Chris D'elia, Jim Jeffries, Donnell Rawlings, Flight of the Conchords and, of course, Dave Chappelle.
I was initially annoyed that the advertised John Mulaney, Dmitri Martin & Hannibal Burress were not actually scheduled for the Irvine Show, but Dmitri & Hannibal ended up doing surprise, though abbreviated, drop-ins. I ended up liking their sets the most because they left us wishing we had more than their 10-or-so minutes. I gladly would've traded a couple minutes from everyone else to put into Hannibal Burress' excellent performance, for example, but hey.
Jim Jeffries is a comedian I'm not really that familiar with, but he was outstanding. He reminded me what dark humor really is: it's not about pressing buttons or doing taboo rape/abortion/dead baby jokes. It's talking about things that are set in uncharted darkness, like his extended bit about Oscar Pistorius' murder trial. That was dark and funny, and he was great because he talks about it and explores it, he doesn't just press a shock button.
Al Madrigal and Kristen Schaal both did the best set I've ever seen them do, which is great, because I like them and want them to be awesome. Chris D'elia is more confusing. He's not bad but the way he frames every joke as a universal experience is more bewildering than appealing. "You know how Russians always speak with their chin down?" and "You know how old Asian men always fall asleep outside of clothing stores?" and "Women are the only people who can almost throw up in the middle of the sentence and act like it's no big deal" are not really things I would frame as commonly understood, but he went with it, and we laughed. The laughs were mostly out of confusion and the fact that he makes funny sounds, but laughs are laughs. I just don't understand what he's talking about most of the time.
Flight of the Conchords were incredible, and I realized they have an easier time with live performances. Their writing process is probably difficult, but the fact that they occupy a space between a band and a comedian means they can tell old jokes -- old songs -- and people will still enjoy it. People want to see "Business Time" over and over in a way they might not want to hear even a great joke for the 4th time. They don't necessarily have the pressure to come up with a new hour every year, they can get by with 40 minutes of songs every 3 years if they wanted to.
My favorite musical comedy always leaves me wondering about the song & skit's origin. That's how I know it's good -- If I can't even conceive of how they came upon the concept and the continued escalating comedic beats. Flight of the Conchords does this repeatedly, especially on a new song called "Summer of 1353" which is really just a play on "Summer of '69" tunes but is absurd enough that I can laugh at just the concept for 5 minutes.
And then we got to the aforementioned Dave Chappelle. Because his reputation precedes him, the hype and anticipation leading up to his set was immense. At this point, it might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. He came out from behind a billowing white screen that highlighted his silhouette before raising and the crowd response was frenzied. Then he took a seat on a stool and then talked.
I've long heard comedians complain about being introduced with exciting fanfare like blaring DJs and overzealous hypemen only to have to bring the energy back down with talking, but the contrast was never more apparent than Dave's main event set. He leaned on a stool and casually talked about things on his mind with forays into set bits. And it was great.
He still has all the cultural savvy that made him such a lauded comedic commentator back when I was in high school, but this Dave Chappelle seemed to be devoid of a stand-up comedian's inherent neediness. That neediness isn't a bad thing, all artists that share their work (myself included) have that, but on this night Dave Chappelle convinced me that he was fine just being himself for an hour speaking in hushed tones about his kids. He relaxed, created an intimate atmosphere, smoked 3 cigarettes and leisurely walked us from bit to bit like we were 16,000 acquaintances. He even had to end his set in the middle of one of his jokes because of Irvine's strict rules.
It was a great show, but I'm torn about how to evaluate the festival as a whole. For $60, it was worth it just to see Dave & The Conchords, but in terms of hearty laughs per dollar, I probably get more at $5 and $8 comedy shows in Hollywood. At a music festival, I'll pay $100 if bands I have an emotional connection to are there in number. In comedy, that connection is rarer, I just want to have a good time and I don't need to know anyone to achieve that. It was also light on the "fest" -- there were booths and tents and free bite-sized Twix, but it wasn't the traveling circus I thought it would be. It was, really, just a stacked bill of comedy.
I'm also not sure if I'd go again. Dave Chappelle is quite possibly the biggest get they could have possibly booked, and that ceiling might have been raised too far. Imagine if Coachella started this year and booked Daft Punk. What are they going to do next year? The Killers?
Music festivals are everywhere these days. I just found out Levi's is throwing a small one at Union Station with Beck. Regional festivals like Coachella have been subdivided into smaller neighborhood-specific festivals like Lightning in a Bottle and FYF and Sunset Junction. They're an excellent source of income for artists and people are dying for something to do. But the good ones run on myth -- just look at the disappointment whenever a Bonnaroo/Lollapalooza/Coachella lineup is revealed that doesn't feature a blockbuster reunion. The biggest successses cash in on mythic appearances and resurfacing legends.
Dave Chappelle is pretty much the only one that fits that bill in stand-up among the 18 to 35 set. He may have walked away from $30 million ten years ago, but he deserves to make that back in sporadic, legendary appearances.