If 1967 was the summer of love, then 2013 was definitely the summer of laughter -- at least in Denver. After absorbing three comedy festivals in four weeks, there must have been a lot of chuckle-trimmed abs that got another workout last night. Because closing out this season of the wit was Dave Chappelle's Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival, bringing Flight of the Conchords, Hannibal Buress, Kristen Schaal and several others to some bi-polar weather at Fiddler's Green Amphitheater.
The event carried the same stylish reverie of Chappelle's 2006 Block Party Tour (though without the Fugees reunion), in spite of some draconian rules in the form of a no-tolerance cell-phone ban that the tour has installed, most likely since last month's Connecticut incident. "I was getting booed by motherfuckers with alligator sweaters on," Chappelle said last night, referencing his East Coast debacle. "The next night I said, 'I hope nothing bad happens to America, but if North Korea drops a bomb on us, I hope it hits Hartford, Connecticut.'"
The evening opened with a second-stage performance by Denver's Andrew Orvedahl and the scruffy members of the Fine Gentleman's Club. While the souring weather was putting some of the crowd in a bad mood (including one profoundly drunk woman I was standing next to, heckling with intoxicated glee at 6 p.m.), the locals were a hit with large swaths of the outdoor audience. Orvedahl riffed on Fiddler's Green being the coolest place in the most boring part of Denver, Nathan Lund explained plans to replace his floppy soled shoes with new ones once he gets "my Oddball money," and Chris Charpentier waxed on the paradox of what to do with all that paranoia now that weed is legal. Combine that with a lot of Tebow booing and host Brody Steven's Klonopin endorsement, and it was a pretty solid opening act.
Mainstage host Joey Diaz was like the Dorian Gray painting of a clean-act comic, relating toe-curling stories about discovering reel-projection porn as a 1960s pubescent. Longmont native and Daily Show correspondent Kristen Schaal had an adorably adequate set, at one point delivering the memorable line: "I dance like no one is watching; but I make love like everyone is watching."
Hannibal Buress brought the welcome surprise of a multi-media component to the show, interjecting audio clips of Eminem and Chris Rock into his set while sporting some courageous, mid-'90s silver Billy Corgan pants (why cellphones were a banned nuisance and these trousers were allowed, I'll never understand). All of which came to an apex when Buress was joined by a dozen tip-toeing ballerinas for a "Gibberish Rap" extravaganza fit for the Flaming Lips.
Josh Blue delivered an excellent round of anecdotes about being married to a native Japanese woman while enduring cerebral palsy -- though his round at the mic was tainted by a wet blanket of rain and cold wind that momentarily swept through the amphitheater.
While all of these performers, along with the show-closing Chappelle, were an Easter basket of top-shelf comedy goodness that Denver should be eternally grateful to enjoy on a single bill, Flight of the Conchords rose above their touring compatriots and delivered a triple threat of video, storytelling and inconceivably witty pop songs.
There's little debate about this Funny Or Die festival being the hippest comedy caravan of the year, and yet while this contemporary genre typically thrives on cynicism and moral boundary-hunting, last night FOTC were as jolly as a pair of old men on a speed-walk through the mall. Performing crowd-pleasers like "Summer of 1353" and "Hurt Feelings," these New Zealand xenophiles delivered sincere heart and sincere irony in the same breath, drifting effortlessly from music to audience banter. At one point the duo had some fun with a nearby security guard, requesting a stage spotlight be drawn on him while Jermaine Clement pointed to an audience member and said, "Don't you dare text."
Security's anti-cellphone paranoia reached a fever pitch during the early moments of Chappelle's set, with dozens of uniformed authorities pacing up and down a single aisle, their eyes trained on the crowd like storm troopers ordered to detect and detain any droids they find. (Get it: Droids?...never mind). From where I was sitting. I saw at least seven ticket-holders ejected from their seats for daring to even ignite their faces in the glow of a smart-phone screen.
The venue was less to blame for this policy than the tour itself; reviews of shows in Camden and Chicago report the same strict ordinance. While there was something heartbreaking in seeing one girl weeping as she was physically removed from her seat for absentmindedly checking her Facebook earlier in the night, there was also something very novel and comforting about witnessing a visually stunning show without the lightning bugs of bright screens peppered through the audience. Unable to film the event, crowdmembers were forced to enjoy it in its present and ephemeral tense -- a rare thing to witness in 2013.
"You all are cheering me up," Chappelle said, slowly pacing the stage while chain-smoking American Spirits. "I've felt fucked up all week." Denver's audience was considerably better than what Chappelle had endured in Connecticut in August, though from where I was sitting there were a few moments of mind-bursting irony coming from the bro-co fans who saw no need to keep their requests or their rebuttals to themselves.
In the same moment that the reclusive star on stage mentioned how much he hates having old jokes shouted at him from the crowd, one beefy beer-ponger next to me shouted the Half Baked reference "Abba Zabba!" Still, this wasn't nearly as awkward as this fiercely caucasian man's next subtle salute to the black man on stage: "White Power!"
This seemed to mostly roll off Chappelle's back, though. Delivering a revival-worthy set of neck-punching jokes, he was relaxed and clearly enjoying himself, so much so that he fought for his last two minutes on stage like he was a child fighting for Halloween candy. "Hey, I know, I'm watching the clock!" he said to a stagehand, who had apparently been giving him the signal to wrap it up. "You said my hour is 10:45. It's 10:43. I know at 10:45 they going to shut the power off."
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For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.