“This is really not funny at all,” Dave Chappelle admits midway through 8:46, the short-form comedy special he surprise-dropped on YouTube on Friday morning. Chappelle’s performance, which was recorded six days ago at an outdoor show near Dayton, Ohio, was billed as “a talk with punchlines,” and while he’s a master of twisting painful truths until he can find the joke in them, the emotions that the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed have brought to the surface are too raw to process, let alone transmute into something resembling humor. “Normally I wouldn’t show you something so unrefined,” Chapelle wrote in the comments under the video. “I hope you understand.”
Although the topics Chappelle touched on during the show reportedly included his own Netflix specials and an account of his son getting tear-gassed during a protest, 8:46 immediately raises the subject of Floyd’s death, although Chappelle is of two minds about whether he should address it or even be on stage at all. He keeps fiddling with the strap on his Moleskine notebook, as if he knows that once he opens it, he won’t be able to shut it again.* He did the same thing with the video of George Floyd’s death, putting off watching it for a week, but when he finally did, he got why this particular horror had spurred more people to action than any of its many predecessors. “When I finally watched it, I understood,” Chapelle says. “Nobody’s going home.”
Chappelle opens with a thank-you to young protesters—“You all are excellent drivers. I am comfortable in the back seat”—and keeps circling back to his ambivalence about taking a piece of their spotlight, even as he’s heard the calls for people with platforms the size of his to speak out. “This is the streets talking now,” he says. “They don’t need me right now.” But he also keeps coming back to the number that gives the special its title, the eight minutes and 46 seconds during which Derek Chauvin watched George Floyd’s life ebb away while three other police officers stood by “with their hands in their pockets.” “Who are you talking to?” he asks them. “What are you signifying—that you can kneel on a man’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds and feel like you wouldn’t get the wrath of God? That’s what is happening right now. It’s not for a single cop. It’s for all of it. Fucking all of it.”
Chappelle mentions the names of black men killed by the police, some familiar, some almost forgotten. He gives special attention to John Crawford III, the man who was shot dead while holding a BB gun inside an Ohio Walmart, whose killing was then overshadowed by that of Michael Brown four days later. (It’s especially damning that there are more killings by the police than the national news cycle can even handle.) And he folds in the cases of Micah Johnson, an Army veteran who killed five police officers during a protest in Dallas, and Christopher Dorner, the LAPD officer who was fired after reporting his partner for using excessive force and subsequently killed several police officers and their family members. Chappelle doesn’t endorse their actions, but he treats them as symptoms, cracks in the surface of society that centuries of racial injustice have taxed to the breaking point. “This is the last stronghold of civil discourse,” Chapelle finishes. “After this, it’s just rat-a-tat-tat.”
For more of Slate’s culture coverage, listen to Working, where we interview creative people about their work.
Correction, June 12, 2020: This post originally misspelled Moleskine.