AUSTIN — If there’s one thing I learned at Funny or Die’s Oddball Comedy & Oddity Festival yesterday evening, it’s that Austin, Texas is a really, really hot place to kick off a national tour if said tour is hosted outdoors in August. If there are two things I learned, it’s that Dave Chappelle is back.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Fourteen thousand people braved the heat and the abysmal traffic — the story of Austin’s life now, I think — to descend upon the Circuit of the Americas race car track, within which an amphitheater showcased the likes of Jeff Ross, Al Madrigal, Kristen Schaal, Hannibal Buress, Demetri Martin, the Flight of the Conchords and Chappelle. As you might expect from the lineup, the show became a four-hour onslaught of comedy in its most stylistically-diverse manifestation.
Ross helmed the show as MC for the evening, wasting no time before singling out lucky members of the audience for a quick roast. But with the sun beating down on the stage (and, for those who aren’t familiar with Texas, we’re talking a blazing hot sun accompanying 95+ degree temperatures), I’m sure Ross was thrilled to depart for a moment and yield the floor to Madrigal. The veteran comedian and Daily Show correspondent delivered a well-received set about the intricacies of writing shitty Yelp reviews that was somehow punctuated by a throng of booming motorcycles racing around the F-1 racetrack that enclosed the theater (really?).
Schaal took the stage next, coming out initially as a crass douchebag (her words, not mine) donning a neon green sweatshirt and a baseball hat and spouting salacious jokes about getting with the ladies. A bro, in other words. After a dramatic reveal, Schaal made quick note of the fact that she was the only female comedian on the bill (again, really?) and her clever disguise was a ruse to gauge the sexism of the crowd. Well-played, my friend. The strategy was almost as impressive as her closer, which featured the comedian further unzipping her wardrobe to reveal a bedazzled leotard and neon green leg warmers. And then she danced onstage to “What A Feeling,” Flashdance style.
Buress was next. He had the first dose of shade onstage from the setting sun— lucky duck. He made good use of the venue’s booming sound system, playing segments of reasonably well-known rap songs and deconstructing their lyrics. And, of course, this process led to Buress performance of an epic rap song of his own, which — and I may have missed some of the words — consisted of “Rap rap rap rap rapping” repeated ad nauseum.
The candor of the show shifted significantly when the soft-spoken Martin took the stage with his traditional one-liners, all well-delivered and well-received. His best line of the night came when Martin poked fun at himself: “Sometimes I feel like I’m being watched, but then I remember my show got canceled three years ago.” ZING. Also, awwwwww. After a brief intermission, Ross returned to the stage to deliver a short set, wherein he offered a few jabs that he anticipated throwing during Comedy Central’s roast of James Franco (premiering on Labor Day). Spoiler alert: watch the Roast. It’ll be good. I can tell you with absolute certainty.
Everyone’s favorite New Zealanders — Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, also known as the Flight of the Conchords — took the stage next with a slew of songs and stories from the road. It’s been rough for those guys: apparently they were stuck in an elevator for a while recently. Who knows how they were strong enough to pull that one out. Although their set was fairly brief, we were treated to some old favorites, including a version of “Song for Sally” that lapsed into a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.” And, of course, “Business Time,” which seriously augmented my already massive crush on Jemaine.
And now we’re back to Chappelle. Let me remind you that this tour is a high-stakes one for him. A few shows last year (which came after an infamous and lengthy hiatus) yielded a deeply polarized response: there were a handful of sets ruined by hecklers. Although last month he performed 10 packed shows in Montreal during the Just For Laughs comedy festival, breaking the fest’s attendance records. But last night was a big deal show for Chappelle, especially since it was the first date of a massive national tour. Fortunately, he delivered.
Chappelle dove quickly into material on where he’s been for the past several years, focusing on his family and his erstwhile career in show business. He noted how strange it was that it was easier to resign as Pope than it was to quit a cable show, a decision that yielded similarly strange responses from his buddies. Apparently one friend gave Chappelle a copy of The Secret, which — here’s the secret — advises you to visualize what you want to happen and it will happen. Of course, that strategy totally works when you’re someplace like Africa and see firsthand endemic starvation and general social turmoil, he noted.
What was particularly fascinating about Chappelle’s set was his willingness to tread into what was a dark part of his life and extract the humor from it. He pulled no punches in discussing moments when he was on the road and had “gone crazy,” nor did he shy away from discussing a controversy where he was labeled as homophobic after a performance in San Francisco. The quick shifts from heartfelt to irreverent were almost graceful, and the audience alternated between listening with rapt attention and laughing. Chappelle brought his set to an end shortly thereafter, but not before confessing, “I missed you guys more than you missed me.” I disagree. We’re thrilled to have you back, bud.
The Oddball Comedy & Oddity Festival runs through Sept. 22 throughout the country. Go here for details.