On Oddball Festival 2013

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.

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Before Getting Good

I don't yet fully understand stand-up comedy. I know what makes me laugh, and why I laugh, but I don't yet understand how the crafting of a joke works. My training as a fiction writer showed me that any kind of professional writing is deceptively simple. Although I know a lot of comics don't write out their acts, usually just bullet points to hit,they think in words and concepts the way writers do. We all have the same communicative muscles, they just do sprints and I learned middle distance.

Stand-up is one of those artforms that people like to point to as one of the rare original American arts. It's the simplest medium, resistant to the changing times, and that makes it seem all the more important. The styles and topics have evolved, but the core of it has been the same since vaudeville. It's a person using nothing but spoken words and force of personality to entertain an audience.

I like to go watch open mic nights as a way to engage in my fascination with stand-up. This is where everyone starts, at their very worst, working claustrophobic 3 to 5 minute sets in front of other aspiring comedians. The theory is that if you're good enough, you catch management's eye, and then they'll give you a spot on a show that people actually pay for. Every open mic I've ever been to has generally been unfunny but massively interesting. That's probably the worst possible reaction these upstarts could hope for, but I appreciate their evening's entertainment all the same.

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Reason, Gone Mad

You know, for all my talk about how much I love comedy, I've never been to a real stand-up show. I have a feeling that's common among people just coming into their adult lives. I don't know why. I imagine it's the same reason I didn't see a concert until Bright Eyes at the Grand Olympic Auditorium in 2005. It just never occurred to me that the people I like seeing on the hollowed tube of my television, I could also see in 3D. You hear about tour dates and visits, you see posters, but you never actually envision yourself there, lining up, sitting with other fans, and enjoying the live presence of a famous funny person. The difference is that most people come to accept concerts as part of their lives and possibilities for the night. Not enough of us realize the value and availability of solid jokes in every major city.

That, at last, changed a couple of nights ago when I was in Pasadena with Jimmy and Ray -- You know Jimmy and Ray -- with nothing to do. On a fluke, we stumbled upon a listing for Comedy Death Ray, a weekly night of high quality stand-up at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater that I had always heard about but never investigated. Much like all stand-up. I looked at the flier and recognized names worth the $5 and more.

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