Dave Chappelle's secret gig proves rude health of black British comedy
After his sellout shows with Jon Stewart, the US star hosted a free night in London featuring local acts and a raucous slew of close-to-the-bone material
“I see a white man,” said Dave Chappelle to the intimate audience at the Backyard Comedy Club, London, on Wednesday. “Two, three, four ... oh my God, 10 white people. I’ll start the bidding at £200.” The room erupted and it was clear just from seeing the crowd that this was going to be nothing like the two shows that Chappelle had co-headlined with Jon Stewart earlier in the week at the Royal Albert Hall.
The secret event was orchestrated by British comedian Kojo Anim, whose club Comedy Funhouse in the West End played a vital role in the development of the black British comedy in the 00s. It was also where Chappelle first engaged with the British comedy scene.
Earlier in the week, Chappelle had asked Anim if he could recreate the atmosphere he had experienced in London back then. Amin organised the show in two days, alerting contacts via WhatsApp that it was taking place. Tickets were free and all 250 were snapped up within five minutes.
“Seeing as the Royal Albert Hall Show was sold out, I wanted to give this as a gift,” Anim said. “There’s a lot of people that I send messages to about what I’m doing and they always come out to support.”
While Chappelle hosted the evening, the spotlight was firmly on the black British talent who performed on the night. This included a mix of rising and established names including Junior Booker, Axel Blake, Judi Love, Paul Chowdhry, Smash and Guz Khan.
“It’s very important for us to get that kind of approval from [Chappelle] saying, ‘I vouch for these guys, they’re good enough for me to host a show for them,’” says comic Babatunde, who performed on the night. “Everybody could feel that special was taking place.”
While Chappelle was undeniably the main draw, the audience left talking about the other performers, too.
Comedian Travis Jay, who was given a particularly strong endorsement by Chappelle after his set, believes that the black British comedy scene has been overlooked. “For a long time, it feels like we’ve been under the radar. My mum is Angie Le Mar, one of the pioneers of comedy over here” – Le Mar was the first black British woman on the standup comedy circuit. “In the 80s they had success around things like The Real McCoy, Get Up Stand Up and shows like this, but since then it feels like people have moved away from black comedy.”
With the recent success of Mo the Comedian, currently touring the UK with a new show due on Channel 4 in the New Year, that may be changing. But there is still a feeling that there is a lot of untapped talent out on the black comedy circuit.
“Mo’s got his show coming but where are the sitcoms, where are the sketch shows?” asks Anim. “His situation should be making people think, ‘Oh, we need more of this.’”
Shows like Wednesday’s may be small but have the power to galvanise change. “People aren’t getting the truth online any more,” Anim argues. “They’re coming to the live shows because that’s where people will be honest.”
Indeed, there was an abundance of honesty at the show. Along with the rolling laughs, there were moments of suspense as comedians made close-to-the-bone jokes about particular ethnic groups. One audience member also loudly vocalised her opposition to same-sex marriage, an uncomfortable moment that Paul Chowdhry manoeuvred around with wit and ease.
The unsanitised, unedited experience is a big part of the appeal for those working on this scene, and is something they want to protect. “People go to Dave Chappelle’s show because the awkward conversations are going to come up,” argues Anim. “They’re tired of going to politically correct comedy clubs where you can’t say your truth and that’s what’s ruined comedy.”
The show concluded with with a candid Q&A. Chappelle explained his motivations, saying: “When you’re a black man in America, it’s like being born with a gun to your head ... you never stop running.” Finally, an eager audience member asked him to clarify his marital status. Chappelle announced that he is married, then brought the Q&A to a close.
Both Chappelle’s presence and his insistence on unapologetically speaking his mind gave his fans and British colleagues a morale boost. As Jay concluded: “He’s unfiltered genuine energy, you can tell that he doesn’t care and he’s happy to deal with the consequences of his truth – and that’s admirable, especially in this day and age.”