SAN FRANCISCO — Controversial comedian Dave Chappelle's 11-city tour of a documentary about a series of comedy shows he did last summer is something of a bait and switch.
"I was expecting harsh, almost corrosive humor," said John Neil, 39, of San Francisco. "What I got was something deep about America that at times turned into comedy."
The evening definitely included Chappelle's laid-back delivery of raunchy, button-pushing and often beyond-the-pale jokes. There were nods to his so-called cancellation for his comments that gender is real, which have been decried by the transgender community.
But the focus was his documentary, "Untitled," centered on the more than 50 comedy shows he held in a cornfield in rural Ohio last summer, featuring a cavalcade of comedy stars including Chris Rock, Trevor Noah, Jon Stewart, Kevin Hart and David Letterman.
More: 'You will not summon me': Dave Chappelle on engaging with trans community; fired Netflix employee speaks
For those expecting a typical Chappelle comedy special, what they got instead was a film that captured the terrified, unsettled and anguished feel of the summer of 2020.
Chappelle tackles a summer of unrest
There was the fear of a disease that was killing thousands and the economic devastation it caused as businesses' customers evaporated. At the same time, America grappled with the awful, unvarnished sight of George Floyd's eight-minute death, the righteous anger it engendered and the impossibility of ignoring the racism Black Americans face every day.
“White people, how do you live with yourselves?” Chappelle, 48, asks from the stage.
The documentary is ultimately about how comedians – and all Americans – are trying to process the grief and isolation of the last year.
"It was fantastic," said Lynae Washington, 44, of Oakland, California. "I laughed. I cried. As a Black woman, I loved how he brought people together. It was powerful."
Perhaps most strongly, the film showed Chappelle's gift for creating opportunities for not just himself but dozens of other performers. The shows were held in the tiny "hippie" town of Yellow Springs, where the comedian grew up and where he now lives with his family.
Chappelle's "summer camp" had pumped more than $7 million into Yellow Springs' COVID-struggling downtown and brought dozens of performers to a pavilion in a cornfield where socially-distanced audiences of as few as 100 people saw star-studded, historic shows.
In a climactic scene, the local zoning board hears a petition to allow the shows to continue. It begins with nearby neighbors complaining about the noise and sexual language of the shows, but then waves of townspeople testify via Zoom about the hope, comfort, business and joy the shows have given them. The zoning board approved the call for a variance, allowing the shows to continue.
And then, in the random destructive nature of the pandemic we've come to live with, several staffers test positive for the virus and the show is shut down. As Chappelle observes, it was just like COVID, "you couldn't hug anyone goodbye."
The documentary is funny, moving, painful and thought-provoking. It is a time capsule that captures how that first summer of the pandemic felt — the fear, the economic devastation, the horror at George Floyd's death and America's reckoning with deadly racism."There is just no match for his courage and intelligence and activism," said Sara Anders, 38, a San Francisco Bay-area producer. "The film makes you look at the world and yourself differently."
No connection to 'Closer' controversy
What it is not is connected to the controversy of the past three weeks over Chappelle's most recent Netflix documentary, "The Closer."
While Chappelle has frequentlymade outrageous comments in the course of this 30-year career, the edgy comedian has faced outrage and backlash over his comments in "The Closer" about transgender people since the Netflix special was released on Oct. 5.
In it, he says “gender is a fact” and defends Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s statements denying the validity of transgender identity.
His transgender statements led to calls to boycott his work. Last month Netflix employees walked out and held a rally outside company offices in Los Angeles to protest his statements in "The Closer."
Netflix's transgender employees say executives at the streaming service dismissed their concerns that Chappelle's controversial comments, could they said could lead to violence against the trans community.
Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos has stood by the comedian and the special, but was forced to apologize after internal memos to Netflix staff defending "The Closer" were leaked to the public.
Despite concerns, the San Francisco event appeared to be entirely free of drama. More than a dozen police officers were deployed at the perimeter of the downtown Chase Center but they mostly chatted or handed out dog treats to local pooches. There were no protesters in sight.
While Chappelle himself makes much of how he's been "canceled" for his statements, it's far from the case. Thursday's event at San Francisco's 18,000-seat Chase Center was sold out, as was a show in New Orleans a week ago that Chappelle co-headlined with Joe Rogan at the city's Smoothie King Center, which holds 17,000 people, Nola.com said.
A screening of the film at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on Oct. 7 was also sold out.
The San Francisco show was the first in a tour with eleven stops in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Toronto and Atlanta, among others.
The four-hour evening began with several local comedians, then a showing of the documentary. Afterward, Chappelle came out in person for a short comedy set followed by a star-studded lineup of local musicians including Goapele, Raphael Saadiq, Too Short, and E-40.
As the evening drew to a close, Chappelle gave the audience one of his long, considering looks. "Be kind to each other," he said.
Contributing: Patrick Ryan
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dave Chappelle: 'Untitled' tour wows fans amid Netflix controversy
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