In the years between 2003 and 2005, Dave Chappelle pretty much ruled the world of comedy. His sketch show on Comedy Central was both a critical and popular success. It not only made you laugh, but it made you think with his social commentary. It was consistently one of the best 30 minutes of comedy ever produced. Then, at the height of his popularity, Chappelle walked away from it all. He did so abruptly and at the cost of close to $50 million. One day, season 3 of the show was in production; the next, Chappelle had quit and headed off to South Africa, sparking all sorts of rumors about his mental stability and possible drug use. After 2005, Chappelle mostly disappeared from show business. He would make the occasional unannounced appearance at comedy clubs, but he mostly retreated from the public eye, only adding to the mystery of his retirement.
I was a huge fan of Chappelle’s Show back in the day and respected Chappelle for walking away from a lot of money. To me, it didn’t really matter why he did it. To walk away from that kind of stew, he had to have his reasons and I respected his convictions. I’d rather have two brilliant seasons of the show than for him to be doing it because he felt he had to. He didn’t owe anything to anyone.
Now, my interest would have most likely been piqued by the announcement that Funny or Die was putting together a comedy festival regardless of lineup; there really hasn’t been a traveling comedy festival of this kind before and the opportunity to see several comics at once is something that I would want to check out. But when I heard that Dave Chappelle was coming out of retirement to co-headline the show, the decision wasn’t if I was going to the Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival, it was when. The minute that tickets went on sale, I made sure that I was online. I had several options as to what shows were within a reasonable distance and opted for Holmdel, NJ since it was a Saturday show that wouldn’t necessitate taking time off from work or interfere with Sunday football. Chappelle was the main attraction, but with co-headliners Flight of the Conchords and a pretty stellar bill of some of the best comics working today, I was practically giddy with anticipation. Chappelle’s incident in Hartford only raised the stakes further for the show; now I was not only curious as to whether he would be rusty, but there was a legitimate chance that he could walk off stage if the crowd didn’t behave. I was a little disappointed when I realized that Hannibal Buress would not be playing my show, as I have been dying to see him live, but it wasn’t enough to damper my overall enthusiasm going into the show. Even feeling under weather was not going to derail this train.
In an attempt to prevent another Hartford, the festival and venue took extra security precautions. The use of cell phones was prohibited during the show and any attempt to take photo or videotape would be grounds for expulsion. Heckling of any kind would get you tossed as well. I didn’t have a problem with any of these limitations; if anything, it was nice to have an evening free of my obsessive habit of checking my phone. I didn’t even bring my phone into the venue, as I wasn’t sure from the wording of the policy if cell phones were banned entirely or just their usage. I didn’t want to get all the way to security, only to be turned away and by leaving the phone in the car I prevented any temptation. I was 100% in favor of the no heckling rule and I wish that more venues would take such strict stances. There is nothing worse than paying a lot of money to go see a show to have the whole thing derailed by some drunken idiot who can’t keep their mouth shut and thinks that they need to be part of the show. A bunch of people would bitch and moan on Facebook and Twitter about these restrictions, but they are just a bunch of whiners. The policy was clearly articulated – I even received an email from Ticketmaster before the show that drew special attention to them – and there were signs everywhere. The restrictions were shown on the big screens on stage, were on the back of every seat in the venue and were announced before the show. For people to claim that they didn’t know is complete bullsh*t.
I didn’t take in much of the extraneous entertainment that accompanied the festival; there were apparently sideshow performers in various tents around the main stage, but sitting in traffic resulted in me arriving closer to the headliners performing than I had originally anticipated. I did catch a few moments of the local comics on the second stage, but I was in a hurry to find my seat in the pavilion and get away from the crowds. This was my first time at the venue so I had to orient myself a bit, so by the time I got to my seat there was only about 20 minutes before the action started. Without my smartphone, I had to entertain myself the old fashioned way and engaged in some people watching. Checking out your fellow audience members is always a fun activity, but tonight the stakes were a little higher as I looked to see if any of these people looked like they would be rowdy and ruin the show for everyone else. For the most part, it looked like a pretty docile crowd, but you never know who is going to act the fool. So I was probably throwing a lot of unwarranted side eye at other people.
Keith Robinson served as the master of ceremonies and did a little bit of warm up for the crowd. He was the only comedian on the program that I wasn’t familiar with and while he was funny, I was glad that he was only sporadically on the stage. First up was Kristen Schaal, who many people may know from her work on The Daily Show and 30 Rock. She’s also the voice of Louise on Bob’s Burgers. Schaal is definitely something of an oddball; her specialty is offbeat and quirky characters so it was no surprise that her stand up was a little off center. She was amusing, but she’s not really my cup of tea in the world of comedy. She’s just a little too weird for me. I did, however, appreciate that she brought a female perspective to a mostly male dominated show (though it was hard to tell if her takeoff on The Vagina Monologues was really connecting with the audience of not). She ended with a funny bit where she recreated the famous dance scene from Flashdance, complete with the water, that lasted just a beat or so too long. She was on stage for about 20 minutes which seemed to be just the right amount of time; I like Schaal, but I like her in small quantities.
Next up was her fellow The Daily Show correspondent Al Madrigal. His stand up is more my speed and I had greatly enjoyed his recent Comedy Central stand up special Why is the Rabbit Crying? He tells a lot of jokes about his children and his family as well as his Mexican heritage. He’s very relatable and though some of his material I had heard before, it was still funny. I particularly enjoyed his story about bouncy houses being like baby UFC matches as well as the knockoff piñatas that you can purchase at a Mexican party supply story. He really does need some newer material, however; I found a version of that bouncy house bit on YouTube that he was doing in 2009. Still funny, but if I see him again I hope he’s not still recycling his material. He also did about 20 minutes on stage, which was just enough to get some flavor of his comedy stylings.
Madrigal was followed by John Mulaney, who I am most familiar with from his various appearances on podcasts that I listen to. I don’t know that I’ve actually seen him do stand-up before, so he benefited from me now recognizing any of his material. He very well may be doing bits that he had done multiple times before, but it was all new to me. I like his delivery overall and I thought his discussion of the phrase “don’t buy the cow when you can get the milk for free” and how it related to his recent engagement was very, very funny. Even though he just turned 30, he was kind of an old school comedian in that he was wearing a suit during his set, which I appreciated (Aziz Ansari, who wasn’t part of the festival, also dresses up on stage). I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for his specials in the future.
Comic Chris D’Elia had originally been slated to perform at the Holmdel show, but cancelled about a week before. I wasn’t too broken up over it, though I wondered what they were going to do with the extra time. I secretly was hoping that they would just have a shorter show, since I had a 3 hour drive home and wouldn’t mind getting on the road a little earlier. So when Mulaney wrapped up his set, I thought we were done except for the headliners. So I was extremely surprised when they announced that Sarah Silverman was doing a set. I would guess that my mouth literally dropped open at the news. I was totally flabbergasted and excited, since I really like Sarah Silverman and she doesn’t seem to tour much anymore. So this was a real treat.
Silverman was fantastic; she is crude and offensive, but in the best possible way. She is very relaxed on stage and interacted well with the audience. I don’t know that I can repeat a lot of her material – my mom reads this blog – but as someone that isn’t easily offended and thinks that she is quite clever underneath it all, I was totally charmed by her set. I don’t know that I’ll get the chance to see her again, so I was very appreciative of this opportunity.
After a brief intermission, it was now time for the first of the headliners. The Flight of the Conchords are a fun duo (Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement) that play music for a lot of their comedy. I was familiar with them from some of their comedy specials; they also had an HBO program that I never got around to watching but was pretty popular among a small segment of the population. McKenzie was the music supervisor for The Muppets and wrote several of the original songs featured in the film, winning an Oscar for Best Original Song in 2012. While the return of Chappelle received a lot of attention, the Oddball Festival also served as something of a reunion for Flight of the Conchords as well. The duo did a tour in their native New Zealand in 2012, but hadn’t toured in the States recently. They were really fantastic and played a mix of material during their hour long set. They started off with “Jenny” and worked their way through “Fuck on the Ceiling,” “Hurt Feelings,” “Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros,” “Father and Son,” “Inner City Pressure,” “The Summer of 1353,” “The Most Beautiful Girl (in the Room,” “The Humans are Dead,” “Sally” and “Back on the Road.” At one point during “The Most Beautiful Girl,” Jemaine came out into the audience to serenade a woman in the front row (much to the irritation of security, who didn’t appear ready for this to happen. Not to be outdone, Bret then climbed on the shoulders of a security guard and sang from there. The audience ate that up with a spoon, though from my vantage point I worried that McKenzie might get dropped on his adorable head. He didn’t seem all that secure, but thankfully a crisis was averted. I was super bummed when their set came to an end; the hour seemed to fly right by and I was hoping that they would get around to performing my favorite, “Business Time:”
Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be. But despite not playing my personal preferred setlist, they left me completely satisfied with their performance. I’ll definitely make the effort to watch old episodes of their show on HBO GO. Seeing them alone would have been worth the trip. But now it was time for the main event; Flight of the Conchords have their devoted fans, but there was no mistaking that the people in the room were anxiously awaiting Chappelle.
While the roadies broke down the Flight of the Conchords musical instruments, you could feel the mood of the entire arena change. There was suddenly this electricity in the air that hadn’t been there before, mixed in with a little agitation. We had no idea what we were about to experience. The next 60 minutes could be epic or terrible, depending on the mood of the performer and the crowd. Things could get ugly quickly; while you assume most people didn’t want to create a situation, there also people in the audience that may simply want to witness a Chappelle “meltdown” with little regard for the rest of the people there. I can’t say that I was scared, but there was definitely an uneasiness to the time we waited for Dave to take the stage. If this was going to go off the rails, we’d probably know quickly. I’ve never been in a situation at a show where literally ANYTHING could happen. The first few seconds when the curtain on the stage dropped and Chappelle walked out were a crazy mix of emotions. I can’t be sure, but I think I was holding my breath as Dave sauntered out on stage in a wife-beater and chain smoking cigarettes.
Chappelle immediately addressed the Hartford situation, much to the delight of the crowd. Perhaps there is some rivalry between Connecticut and New Jersey that I am not aware of, but the Holmdel audience appeared to take exceptional glee in Chappelle’s bashing of the Hartford crowd. Really, it is hard to imagine a crowd that was as in a performer’s corner as what I witnessed Saturday night. I need not have worried about the potential of people giving Dave a hard time; if anything, the crowd was overly enthusiastic to pretty much everything Dave did. Every word out of his mouth was greeted with fanfare and excitement. People were just so happy to see him on stage again that he probably could have just read the phone book and would have received a standing ovation. Though, to be fair, I’m sure that his interpretation of the phone book would be hilarious. That man can deliver a line.
I don’t know that Chappelle was at his top of his game – he still doesn’t surpass Louis C.K. on my list of best live performances – but even Chappelle a half step off is better than 99% of most working comedians. Though the crowd numbered 15,000, the show still felt somewhat intimate. Dave is really more of a story teller than a joke teller and he took us on an odyssey of what is uniquely his experience. He touched on leaving his show, his family and celebrity in general. He seemed to be having a really good time on stage, but there was some hint of weariness to him. He obviously loves being on stage, but I think the last ten years have taken a bit of a toll on him. He’s been through a lot.
Before I knew it, his set was over. It’s too bad – I felt like he was just getting started and then it was time to go home. Still, I can’t complain; an hour of Chappelle is still a rare experience and I laughed almost continuously through his performance. He was honest and vulnerable, but most importantly he was just straight up funny. While the standing ovation he received when he came on stage was a courtesy based on previous performance, the standing ovation he received at the end of the night was earned.
It was a tremendous night of comedy that spanned all sorts of styles and subjects; the name oddball festival was apt as while these performers don’t necessarily fit together, they somehow make the whole thing work. The festival is like a Whitman’s sampler – there was a little bit of something for everyone. Everyone was fantastic in their own way, but the night really belonged to Chappelle. He’s the reason I purchased a ticket and spent 6 hours in the car. If the Oddball Festival rolls into your town and you are a fan of comedy, I strongly encourage you to check it out. It’s worth leaving your cell phone at home.
The Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival has dates through September 22. Check out the festival’s website for more information.