Sunday night at the Punchline is showcase night. Fifteen different comics get up, all doing 5-7 minutes each, except for the headliner, who goes longer. Last night, there were sixteen comics, because Dave Chappelle stopped by.
The headliner was cut short, and the host announced a "surprise guest". When they heard who it was, the crowds erupted. Dave walked to the stage, flanked by a cameraman and a minor security detail that was pointing out cell phone cameras in the crowd like Secret Service agents spotting handguns. A few enthused patrons gave Dave a standing ovation, which looks strange in a comedy club.
(Digression: It's really weird that they need to actively prevent cell phone photography of Chappelle, as if fans can't truly appreciate seeing Dave without preserving the moment forever with a crappy, low-resolution camera photo.)
Dave got up and proceeded to do his five-minute "set" entirely in a made-up language that made him sound like a Star Wars cantina patron. It was reminsicent of the Gibberish expert improv game, only without the translator. (Sample joke: "Tatanga bah? Shatanga banga tatang!") The crowd went from excited, to expectant, to confused, still waiting for the moment when Dave would revert back to English and deliver the sure-to-be-hilarious punchline that would explain the whole thing. That didn't happen. Just before he got off, Dave asked the crowd, "Awkward, isn't it?" Then he said, "That's the point," dropped the mic on the ground, and walked off.
It was indeed awkward, especially as actor-comedian Greg Edwards returned to the stage to close the show. It was awkward again when Dave walked back up to the stage to explain that he'd just seen Apocalypto, and that he "just wondered whether that would work for comedy". Then Greg sheepishly climbed back up to the stage to close the show for the third time, like the champ that he is.
I have a few opinions about this. First, I enjoy it when things are intentionally disappointing. The crowd thought they'd lucked into a random Chappelle appearance, and quickly went from surprised euphoria to extreme disappointment. People were willing to go a long way with his gibberish stuff, which shows you what kind of pinnacle Chappelle has reached in the comedy world. The crowd still laughed sporadically during his completely English-free bit, and I have no doubt that they would have given him more slack if he'd dragged the bit out longer.
Andy Kaufman would have been proud. However, I was glad to be a comic sitting in the back, and not a regular audience member. I'm pretty sure Andy Kaufman's gags were funnier if you were watching the audience, and not trying to be entertained by Andy himself. Maybe Dave was just seeing how far he could push it. Maybe he lost a bet. Maybe he won a bet. Maybe it was all for YouTube.
From everything I hear, Dave Chappelle is very generous to other comics, and a very valuable asset to the Punchline, and the SF comedy scene in general. At this point, he can do whatever he wants. My only objection is that, before Chappelle made his appearance, it was a very strong Sunday showcase, maybe the best I'd ever seen. Nearly every comic did well, some as well as I'd ever seen them do. But after the Chappelle gibberish set, no one went home talking about Moshe Kasher's killer set, or Clinton Jackson's great routine about grocery lines. For better or for worse, the night was defined by the five minutes of Dave talking goofy at the end. Shatanga banga, bitch!