I grew up in Ft. Myers, Florida, a retirement town at that time, though the gorgeous beaches and bountiful fishing there might’ve tricked you into thinking Florida was America’s greatest state. The area was also bountiful with professional wrestling, which as a kid I loved. On its tours, the then-peaking WWF almost always filmed in Ft. Myers, and only on TV were belts lost, friends transformed into foes and new alliances forged, officially, for the world to see. And so, I was lucky to see Hulk Hogan himself fight in steel cages at least twice. I witnessed all two minutes and 30 seconds of the first-ever televised match by The Ultimate Warrior. I saw the Iron Sheik vs. Hacksaw Jim Duggan main event where, directly afterwards, police famously caught the two driving around, blackout drunk, snorting coke.
I offer this reminiscence as the only comparison I can make to the surprises that unfolded Saturday night at the first of three New Orleans shows on comedian Chris Rock’s Total Blackout tour.
Emotions had already been running high for Rock’s return. He hadn’t toured a new standup act in almost a decade. His new set reportedly detailed his divorce from his wife of 15 years—I say was, because I still haven’t really seen it, despite buying tickets. News reports have described the new set as maintaining his usual levels of funny, despite being decidedly… different. For a true fan, it’s not fun to think of Rock getting a divorce—though true fans surely saw it coming, given jokes like, “Only people who are married know what it feels like to love someone and hate them at the same time.” I was certain, though, that one of my favorite comedians could deftly navigate this sad territory.
And so I found myself lost in my feelings, sitting in the balcony of the gorgeous Saenger Theatre in New Orleans, a constellation of fake stars above me. I laughed at half of Eric Andre’s opening jokes, anxious to finally see Rock for my first time ever.
A muffled voice finally, suspiciously announced Rock’s name as if reading the title of some quiet storm slow jam. A giant set of letters blazed across a digital screen—”CR”—-and out onto the stage strode…
Dave fucking Chappelle!
A shock of energy blasted through the crowd, not unlike the group electrocution we all experienced when Hulk Hogan finally pinned his erstwhile tag-team partner Macho Man Randy Savage, right before our eyes, back in Ft. Myers.
“Tonight you are part of a social experiment,” Chappelle managed, pushing against waves of screams. “Chris is filling in for me in Austin tonight. By doing this we hope to answer the question, ‘Does it even matter?’’”
Or something like that; the venue had banned cell phones for the night, so no evidence exist but our memories. Attendees unaware of Rock’s (and Chappelle’s and Kevin Hart’s) participation in the movement to restrict cell phone usage from comedy concerts—so that anyone seeing them live would be totally surprised by their new material—were forced to lock their phones in small rubber bags that they carried with them all night until leaving the venue, when an usher would unlock the bag. The elaborate bagging process, explained to each individual patron, made for long lines; I wondered how much these bags had added to the price of my ticket. Throughout the night, I saw more than one person pull the little bag out reflexively to check their phones, make an embarrassed face, then put it away. Real fans, who knew damn well Chris Rock didn’t want his new jokes on YouTube—the name of his Total Blackout tour alludes directly to this—left our phones in our cars.
With only 2,700 of us watching, Chappelle launched into a fairly tight 20-minute set that directly continued the conversation he started last week by releasing his first new work in 13 years, in the form of two new Netflix stand-up specials. He expressed regret having been the first to ask America to give Trump a chance, on his great Saturday Night Live election-week episode. He crowed about Trump’s healthcare failure. He discussed his opinions of feminism. “Feminists, you are unequivocally correct,” he said, unable to hold back a critique: “If feminists were comedians, reading their audience would not be their strong suit.”
This spun into a show of honest insecurity about his new specials—particularly their reception. “The gays took it the best,” he said. “The feminists really didn’t like it. The rape jokes.”
I definitely loved Chappelle’s new specials, though I could probably watch him read the ingredients off a pack of K2 and remain entranced (his episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio is riveting). But I must agree with the chorus of people who disliked their transphobic jokes. Even to a real fan, he sounded like Sean Hannity on science: here’s my opinion though I know almost nothing about this. Sure, a comedian is bound to make missteps while constantly trying to push the envelope. But these jokes poignantly represent some of Chappelle’s first documented missteps.
Fortunately, he made no such missteps during his 20 minutes beneath Chris Rock’s logo. Then, almost as soon as I’d come to terms with Rock’s absence, Chappelle made another run at Trump and the man of the evening finally strolled onstage.
We all climaxed yet again as the two friends—many would say the two greatest comics in the world today—gave dap. “I bet you wish you had your phones right now!” Rock taunted the screaming audience.
The two began trading jokes and riffs, a true tag team. Chappelle seemed to be feeling himself a little more than Rock, and Rock happily let him run on. “Yeah, Dave? Why is that, Dave?” he repeated, the way he used to with Letterman. The two jammed loosely, but the audience’s glow of surprise never wore off for the entire hour and a half they stayed onstage together—a running time that gave both artists a lot of wiggle room to attempt this “social experiment.”
About 30 minutes into their sloppy, hilarious duet, Chappelle seemed to realize he was stealing the show a little. He finally asked Chris about his divorce, then slapped an empty stool down mid-stage and challenged his friend: “Talk it out, bro.”
I wanted this as well.
For most of the rest of the show, Rock threw out snippets and chunks of his divorce set, with Dave laughing his ass off (a show in itself) and providing commentary about Rock’s struggles, like a kind of Divorce Science Theatre 3000.
Rock discussed how his elaborate divorce, with three lawyers representing each side, made him feel like he’d finally made it: “You know Tone Loc’s divorce wasn’t so complicated.” When Dave asked how much money Rock’s wife got, Rock quipped, “Let’s just say Netflix can’t afford her.” (Chappelle made $20 million apiece for three new Netflix specials).
Their exchanges never got too self-indulgent; they clearly never stopped thinking of the crowd. But they did get personal, like when Chappelle asked Rock if at any point during the divorce he had cried.
“Oh. Wow,” Rock responded, stalling. “Yes,” he finally admitted. “During the custody hearing, when the kids were there. That shit will make you cry.” That probably wasn’t a part of Rock’s act, but he quickly returned to jokes: “When I have my kids though, I go hard now. I. Go. Hard. I want them going back to their mother saying, ‘Mama! At daddy’s house Lady Gaga made us grilled cheese sandwiches!’ ‘Neil DeGrasse Tyson helped us with our homework!’”
Rock rarely soloed for more than a couple minutes before returning to fuck with Chappelle. He did play one longer solo with the theme, “No one is gonna take your wife. Oh, they will fuck your wife. But they ain’t takin her. You think there’s some guy waiting in the wings looking at your wife saying, ‘I want you to turn me into a zombie just like you turned him into a zombie’? ‘I want you to yell at me like you yell at him?’ You think he’s saying to himself, ‘I want to listen to her. I don’t have enough opportunities to listen’? Nah. No one is taking your wife.”
Rock touched on the way his porn addiction, and other technology, along with his infidelity, had helped ruin his marriage: “A married couple can’t go anywhere now without keeping in touch with each other the whole fucking time. There’s no such thing as alone time.”
“Yeah, when I’m on tour,” Chappelle interjected, “every move I make is on someone’s Instagram. I’ll be out after the show and my wife will text me, ‘Who is that girl you’re standing next to right now?’”
“Right!” Rock announced. “It’s like, with my wife, I’d know every single thing she did every day! I saw pictures of what you had for lunch, and then you ask, ‘Why don’t we ever talk’? Bitch I gave you six ‘likes’ today!”
I don’t want to give away too many of Rock’s jokes since he goes to great lengths to maintain his element of surprise. I will say that race doesn’t seem to take center stage in his new act, though he did a great bit about running his kids through “white drills,” for when white people come after them.
“We do white drills in my house too. But my wife is Asian,” Chappelle added, “so in an emergency I just tell my kids, ‘Squint your eyes and go stand next to your mother!’”
A battle royale of once-in-a-lifetime exchanges flew around on stage. At this, their very first match, the duo did not prove themselves to be tag-team champions, or even a perfect Dream Team—á la Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage. Still, if this had this been billed as a Watch the Throne style duo show, we’d have all gladly paid a lot more money to bear witness.
When, near the show’s end, Chappelle confided in Rock for the audience to overhear, “I think this is the flyest shit I’ve ever been a part of.”
I screamed back, “ME TOO!!!”
Michael Patrick Welch is a writer based in New Orleans. Bylines include The Guardian,Vice, National Geographic, McSweeney’s and many other joints. He tweets about his goats, his daughters and his passion for fishing the Louisiana marshes @MPatrickWelch.