Dave Chappelle worked the stage at Mandalay Bay Events Center like a seasoned boxer on Friday night.
The scene was set by famed ring announcer Michael Buffer, who introduced Chappelle with all the fire and flair of a champion fighter, but one who defies weight division or any specific classification.
If Muhammad Ali hadn’t long ago coined the phrase, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” it would have applied to Chappelle. He worked the squared stage — his “squared circle” — like a young Ali, and was summoned to action by ring announcer Michael Buffer (who is also introducing the combatants in tonight’s Canelo Alvarez-Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. main event at T-Mobile Arena).
Whipping the crowd into a frenzy, Buffer summoned Chappelle to the stage as, “The heavyweight champion of the comedy world!”
Buffer also dropped an F-bomb from the stage, which I believe is a first for him in his announcing career.
By then, the crowd 11,000 was already standing as Chappelle was escorted to the ring (er, stage) with the same explosion of light and sound that accompanies a title fight. He wore his now-familiar, customized military-style jacket with “CHAPPELLE” stitched on the front. All that was missing was a superstar sidekick, similar to how Floyd Mayweather has strutted to the ring with Justin Bieber and Lil Wayne at his side.
The entrance was at about 10:30 p.m. for a show scheduled to start at 9, and included opening acts Ashley Barnhill (for about 10 minutes) and Mo Amer (for about 20). A DJ set in the corner of the events center repeatedly implored, “Who is here to see Dave Chappelle!” with the expected, roaring response.
What was produced by Chappelle onstage is largely left to memory. As repeatedly reported in the days leading to the show, Chappelle, banned all cell phones and recording devices from the venue. There is no actual recording of these shows, curtailing the chance to quote his act directly (anyone taking notes into a notebook would have been asked to leave, too).
Chappelle, who has just released a pair of Netflix specials that cover some of the material he unleashed Friday, made a direct reference to this edict when he halted before a stretch about Hillary Clinton. This was related to comments Chappelle made shortly after the election, expressing why he voted for Clinton and how he felt after her defeat. “I’m not going to repeat what I said … but who cares? You don’t have your phones anyway.”
That comment drew one of the loudest roars of the night.
Chappelle then went on a riff about his disappointment of Clinton’s election loss, comparing is vote for Clinton as having sex with Halle Berry — only to have that moment tarnished terribly. Chappelle also recounted how he was booed during a recent, unbilled appearance with Chris Rock, when Chappelle began joking about the Facebook shooting last month in Cleveland. This, so close to the event that Chappelle joked that the assailant was still at-large.
As Chappelle said, he was the guy who made 9/11 jokes on 9/12. What should we expect?
Chappelle also smoked a couple of cigarettes in the performance, the only person in the venue allowed to fire up, which only added to the show’s exclusive mystique.
Refreshingly, the absence of smart phones trained on the stage forced the audience to focus on the jokes. Thousands of those in attendance had slipped their phones into sleeves, or pouches, available at the arena entrance. The phones were locked away, disabled but not confiscated.
Chappelle’s performance marked the first ticketed Las Vegas show in which these pouches, developed by San Francisco-based technology company Yondr, have been issued. Thus, the night was an insular experience, with no video, photos or references to “intense Chappelle action” to be found on social media.
It was a shared, in-the-moment phenomenon. Chappelle is big enough to pull it off. If you weren’t there, find him on Netflix, where you can laugh and text and tweet to your heart’s desire.