Archive for July, 2011

The Chappellologist At A Secret Show

Jul 26 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

For years Chappellologists have talked about Dave’s secret shows, the pop-up appearances. “Did you hear about the one in San Francisco that lasted six hours?” “He did a set in Tokyo?” “I heard he did a 5 a.m. show in Chicago.” We dream of catching a Chappelle stand-up performance because he was one of the best stand-up comedians of his generation and because of the sense of mystery that’s engulfed him after he suddenly left Chappelle’s Show in the middle of the third season. Like Lauryn Hill and Bobby Fischer, he abandoned the stage at the top of his game with genius and potential to burn, leaving behind so many questions. Why did he leave? Would he ever come back? No one knew, but maybe, if you could see him do stand-up, you could somehow find an answer. Or at least catch a glimpse of the great artist at work once more. And then someone whispered in my ear: “Dave might be at the Comedy Cellar tonight. The 1 a.m. set. Maybe.” Whoa.

 I’ve got two little kids who wake up every day about 6 a.m., so going to a 1 a.m. comedy show is a physical challenge. It’d be hard to remain awake that late, and I’d surely be a zombie the entire next day. Could I risk all that on a maybe? Yes. I had to try. I settled in at 1 a.m. and laughed at comic after comic.

But by 2:40 a.m. I wasn’t laughing anymore. My eyelids were so heavy that my eyes shut against my will, and my neck was soggy. Was he coming? Had I wasted a night and the next day for nothing? I would’ve been depressed if I hadn’t been so sleepy. And then the MC said, “Welcome to the stage a very special guest …” I snapped to. And there he was. My heart leapt.

He opened with an aside—“I’m so washed up”—then launched into a long story about a man in a spandex bodysuit and boots walking across the street from him. “I’m not a betting man,” Chappelle said, “but if I was I would’ve wagered that he was gay.” The man sees Chappelle looking at him and crosses the street, making a beeline for him. “I know who you are!” the man says. “You’re Dave Chappelle!” As an aside Chappelle told us, “I was once a famous dude.” We had no idea where the story was going, and we were on the edge of our seats. The man said, “I need your help, Dave!” He said he was gay and from the future and only Chappelle could help him. “You have to stop my father! He’s evil!”

“Who’s your father?”

Calmly, he delivered the punchline: “Tracy Morgan.”

The room exploded.

Then Chappelle laid back, bummed a cigarette and a light from audience members, and proceeded to meander through an hour-long set. Fellow Chappellologists, I am here to report that his comedy muscles remain cock diesel. His set was unpolished, he admitted as much. There was no theme and appeared to be no pre-planned order. He lurched from story to story and sometimes into improvisation with no reason for or momentum to his overall line of thought. But most of the stories he strung together were brilliant bits. He was letting us watch him practice, and Chappelle going through the motions is better than the vast majority of comics doing finished work. He moved through stories about recent news events—Anthony Weiner, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tracy Morgan—and then paused to ask the audience what he should talk about, almost letting them direct the show. Someone shouted out, “Who’s worse? Arnold or Tiger?” Chappelle absolved them both and then moved into a bit about Tiger. When someone brought up Casey Anthony he claimed to have not heard about her. The outline of her story was given. He said sarcastically, “Now, that sounds funny.” Then he said, “I’m gonna read up on that. Next time you see me I’ll have 45 minutes on her.”

His bit about Tiger was based around the idea that he could’ve done way more. He’s a billionaire. Anything you or I could imagine, he can make happen. “You know what’d be great?” Chappelle said from Tiger’s point of view. “If I could get an alligator to bite my balls. But with just the right amount of pressure.” Three calls later he’s got someone on the line promising he can deliver just such a thing. “How much?”

Chappelle-as-Tiger said, “OK. How long would it take you to train it? Three months? OK, I can wait.”

About Weiner he said, “What good is the Internet if you can’t send pictures of your dick to people?” He later said he was going to start a website called with pictures of, well, you know. “To level the playing field,” he said. “Because of the Net you can’t be judgmental of anyone because everyone’s stuff is right there. I miss that.” There’s Dave’s brilliance—the outside of the idea was juvenile, but at its core it was a smart concept, the impact of the Internet on shame in modern society and how the Net’s inability to forget anyone’s foibles makes it harder to laugh at other people. I’ve read fuller unpackings of that idea in articles in The New York Times Magazine and Wired.

In the spirit of practice, Chappelle sometimes gave us endings without bits attached. He said, apropos of nothing, “The punchline was: And I realized I was smelling my balls.”

In many of the bits his fame was referenced in passing or directly. One story had him receiving a package at home with a note that had one word on it: “Gotcha.” Inside was a VHS tape. He races around the house looking for a VHS player—who has one of those anymore? He finds one in a closet and pops in the tape. It shows Chappelle having sex with a woman not his wife before he was married. Chappelle looks at the clock. His wife would be home in 15 minutes. “So,” he said, “I quickly jerked off to the tape.” Natch. Then a week later another package arrives. Another VHS tape. It’s a tape of Chappelle jerking off to the first tape! “So I jerked off to that.” The bit killed—nearly all of his punchlines did—but there you could see his fame creeping into his psyche and you could see his paranoia about being watched. This, even while he’s able to have fun with the fruits of being stalked.

In one key bit he discussed talking to groups of kids. He was asked to give them a piece of advice from his life. He said, “Don’t quit your show. I don’t know how any of y’all get by without a show.” Is he truly regretful, or is that just the funniest thing to say about all that? I interviewed him shortly after his return from self-exile in South Africa, and he seemed very settled with his decision to exit Chappelle’s Show. No one had forced him out.

But for me the important point wasn’t whether he was being honest or just being funny in saying, “Don’t quit your show.” The most telling part of that moment is that now Chappelle cannot do comedy without discussing himself, without doing surgery on his image. He must mention the show and the mysterious exit and that he “used to be a famous guy,” and the characters in his stories must recognize that he’s Dave Chappelle and act on knowing that fact or it’ll seem false that they don’t know him. Or he won’t be taking full advantage of the comedic potential if they don’t recognize who he is and react to that. Chappelle has become part of his own act in a way that recalls no comic since Pryor after he set himself on fire.

Most comics come out and do sketches and bits and aren’t a part of their own act. Steve Harvey and Ricky Gervais can do an hour without talking about themselves. Bill Cosby talks about his life, but it’s normalizing, it’s about him being a regular guy. Chris Rock opened Kill the Messenger with a bit in which he takes his family to Africa for a photo safari and eventually realizes everyone’s pointing their camera at him. When Rock talks about Rock onstage, it’s almost always innocuous; he’s saying, “People notice me.” The same night I saw Chappelle, uptown at Caroline’s Tracy Morgan was performing. Nowadays he must take a break from his set to do a bit about himself because of his homophobic comments. But that will pass, and a year or two from now Morgan will be back to doing stand-up without doing bits about Tracy Morgan.

Chappelle will forever have to talk about Chappelle—and by that I mean “Chappelle,” as in the icon who’s larger than him, the person who exists in others’ minds, not someone he sees in the mirror but someone he sees when he looks at the sum of his onstage/onscreen persona in his mind. Becoming such a big part of your own act suggests, perhaps, unwanted self-scrutiny. Because deconstructing yourself can be psychologically painful. You want to avoid doing that too much because it can mess with your head. You want to know why you’re famous, why you’re connecting with the audience, and what they want from you, but too much reflecting on “you”—i.e., the person the audience and the media see outside of the real you—can cause you to flip out. It’s just too damn meta.

At 3:45 a.m., shortly after repeating, out of nowhere, “Don’t quit your show,” Chappelle let the show end. There was no big, hilarious finishing bit. It kind of petered out and he was gone, back to the shadows. At a recent show in San Francisco he talked about a comeback without defining what that would even mean. That night at the Cellar, the word “comeback” was never even uttered.

No responses yet

NY Times: Tennis By the Book: A Tournament of Tennis Writing

Jul 01 2011 Published by under Uncategorized


“Wow, what a tournament we witnessed this week, Johnny Mac! Before we came back on the air, we were both saying that we’ve been just flat-out blown away by the talent at this year’s Intertemporal Tennis Writers Classic. Some of the greatest writers in history came and competed and showed us what it means to write extraordinarily well about tennis. This tournament attracts the world’s sharpest minds because tennis is a global sport that’s steeped in tradition, and more, it’s a gentlemanly clash of wills where you’re out there alone, and the way you play reveals so much about who you are. Somewhere between chess and boxing lies tennis. So you have to be an elite writer to get through this tournament. That’s why no one was surprised to see Touré get knocked out in the first round. Sure, he’s done some nice stories, like his profile of Jennifer Capriati for Vogue, in which he hits with her. Do we have a clip from that? ‘The whole incident takes on the feel of intense aerobics mixed with a back-alley mugging, and you’re just deflecting and defending and, eventually, after eight or nine minutes, your arm starts to throb and your lungs start to shriek and each new shot racing at you is like a punch to the chest and you feel her inner bully.’ Touré’s a solid player, but in this tournament your forehand is your vocabulary, your backhand is your eye for detail, your ability to turn words into poetry and rhythm is your volley, your use of metaphors and symbolism is your overhead, and your deep understanding of the sport is your all-important first serve. Touré writes passionately and knows tennis, but some whispered that he might have gotten into the tournament only because of affirmative action. Maybe.

“Mac, at this year’s tournament, to get into the semi­finals your writing had to be beyond incredible. Some excellent people went down in the quarters — the novelist Barry Hannah, the sportswriter Frank Deford, the incomparable Neil Amdur and the unforgettable Red Smith, for whom the award for sportswriting is named! But it’s a little understandable when you look at who was in the semis. On one side we had the No. 2 seed, John McPhee, against the wild card Vladimir Nabokov. On the other we saw the eighth seed, Martin Amis, against the No. 1 seed, David Foster Wallace.

“McPhee wrote one of the best books on tennis ever, ‘Levels of the Game,’ about the 1968 U.S. Open semi­finals, in which Arthur Ashe defeated Clark Graebner. Here’s a clip: ‘A person’s tennis game begins with his nature and background and comes out through his motor mechanisms into shot patterns and characteristics of play. If he is deliberate, he is a deliberate tennis player; and if he is flamboyant, his game probably is, too. A tight, close match unmarred by error and representative of each player’s game at its highest level will be primarily a psychological struggle.’ The book takes us inside the players’ minds and is filled with lush, rhythmic language. McPhee explores the sociopolitical undercurrents that run through the match, which takes place at an epic moment in tennis history — when pros were finally allowed to play alongside amateurs in the majors, the start of the open era, the dawn of the modern age. ‘Levels of the Game’ is an exceptional and timeless work. So it was a total shock when McPhee, despite writing a great book, lost in the semis to someone who had done just a few pages on tennis. But then again, those pages are spectacular.

“John, ‘Lolita’ is considered by some to be the greatest novel of the last century. Midway through the story, as Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze are traveling across America, they stop to play tennis on courts by a motel. What emerges is some of the most delectable writing ever about the sport. Let’s go to the videotape: ‘My Lolita had a way of raising her bent left knee at the ample and springy start of the service cycle when there would develop and hang in the sun for a second a vital web of balance between toed foot, pristine armpit, burnished arm and far back-flung racket, as she smiled up with gleaming teeth at the small globe suspended so high in the zenith of the powerful and graceful cosmos she had created for the express purpose of falling upon it with a clean resounding crack of her golden whip. It had, that serve of hers, beauty, directness, youth, a classical purity of trajectory, and was, despite its spanking pace, fairly easy to return, having as it did no twist or sting to its long elegant hop.’ There you see imaginative descriptions of tennis’s small moments, twisted comedy and story-enriching symbolism that tells us more about Humbert, the panting predator, and Dolores, the trapped bird. The girl’s strokes appear lovely because he sees her as the most beautiful thing in the world, but those strokes are ineffectual because her wings have been clipped. Gruesomely. It’s some of the finest writing of the century — it just happens to be about tennis. But who would Nabokov and his few marvelous pages face in the finals?

“Some dreamed about seeing him face Martin Amis, since it would be so meta — largely because Amis once used tennis to compare the writing of Nabokov and James Joyce. Let’s see that now: ‘Nabokov was the more “complete” player. Joyce seemed to be cruising about on all surfaces at once, and maddeningly indulged his trick shots on high-pressure points — his drop smash, his sidespun half-volley lob. Nabokov just went out there and did the business, all litheness, power and touch.’ I think Nabokov had his own large coterie of trick shots — the man invented new shots constantly — and Amis’s work on tennis is as imaginative, insightful and intelligent as anyone’s. But alas, that dream date with Amis was not to be, because the British novelist got steamrolled by the monster of this sport. David! Foster! Wallace!

“John, here’s a guy with a huge vocabulary, a deep knowledge of science, a postmodern command of linguistics and an immense passion for tennis, a sport he grew up playing seriously. He brings all that to the table when he writes about tennis, which he once described as ‘billiards with balls that won’t hold still. It is chess on the run. It is to artillery and airstrikes what football is to infantry and attrition.’ In the finals, D. F. W. crushed Nabokov and reaffirmed his status as the greatest tennis writer ever. Just look at this clip: ‘Roger Federer is showing that the speed and strength of today’s pro game are merely its skeleton, not its flesh. He has, figuratively and literally, re-embodied men’s tennis, and for the first time in years the game’s future is unpredictable. You should have seen, on the grounds’ outside courts, the variegated ballet that was this year’s Junior Wimbledon. Drop volleys and mixed spins, off-speed serves, gambits planned three shots ahead — all as well as the standard-issue grunts and booming balls. Whether anything like a nascent Federer was here among these juniors can’t be known, of course. Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.’ That is awe-inspiring stuff, Mac. That’s the Federer of tennis writing, writing about the Federer of tennis playing. Giving you an in-depth look into the game’s soul and a glimpse at its possible future and even a sense of how it feels to be inside high-level tennis, where multiple calculations on the level of advanced geometry are happening every moment that the ball’s in play.

“Well, that’s all from here. Thanks for watching the Intertemporal Tennis Writers Classic. Here’s hoping all your serves are aces and your metaphors are unmixed. For Johnny Mac, this is Jim Smith signing off.”

No responses yet