‘Did Will Smith hurt me? He played Ali!’ – Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle live

M&S Bank Arena, Liverpool
They are arguably the two greatest US standups of their generation – and both topical for not always lovely reasons. Could this double-whammy possibly live up to the hype?

‘This is going to be one of the most legendary nights in comedy history!” raves the compere. But we’ll be the judges of that. You’ve got to pick through much myth-making to get to the meat of this rare Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle double whammy. But maybe the hype is justified. These are arguably the two greatest US standups of their generation, and both are hot-topical too, if not always for lovely reasons. Rock got walloped at the Oscars live on TV; Chappelle’s routines about trans people prompted a hundreds-strong staff walkout at Netflix. With background noise that loud, and the claims of their numerous hype men ringing in our ears, can the pair’s comedy possibly make itself heard?

It can – particularly Rock’s, with the caveat that much of it is rehashed from his recent Ego Death tour. He’s stronger here than in that solo show, with some of the lesser, domestic material culled and a tighter focus on his antic comedy and often nuanced thinking about socio-politics. His race material runs provokingly counter to current pieties, as he considers Meghan Markle’s naivety and, in a routine fruitfully developed since the spring, the Kardashians “loving black people more than black people love themselves”. A riff on dating post-#MeToo culminates in a very effective sketch demonstrating that “all sex looks bad in court”.

When addressing sex and gender, Rock’s outlook is not always the freshest. He admits as much here and makes an effort, I think, to soften the harder edges of his occasional chauvinism. Chappelle shares many of the older comic’s assumptions – women’s role is to spend men’s money, and be thankful – but makes no apology for it. Rock sees the funny side of male behaviour; Chappelle, the alpha ne plus alpha, celebrates and even solemnises it. See a closing routine in which, all joking apart, he holds up the Rock v Will Smith fracas as an emblem of maleness: “This is what men do.”

That’s Chappelle for you: no comic is so skilled at hanging you from their every word, none can switch so seamlessly from preaching to comedy then back again. But the charisma isn’t always backed up by strong material in this set bookended by visits the 49-year-old made to ex-boxer Floyd Mayweather’s Las Vegas “titty bar”. A story about a brush he once had with Russian mobsters is all skilled raconteurship and minimal content. A lot of the set draws its charge from Chappelle’s unsentimental honesty about his masculinity – the trips to strip clubs, the cheating on his wife, the beating meted out to the man who recently assaulted Chappelle on stage in LA. He knows you’re not supposed to take pride in this behaviour – but there are laughs to be had, if not the most savoury, in the knowing and the doing it anyway.

During a show that emphasises the affinities between the two acts by placing them side-by-side, both men address this experience of recently being attacked – their least likely affinity of all. Rock has fresh material on Will Smith (“Did that shit hurt? This motherfucker played Ali!”); Chappelle speaks about how his own assault was hijacked by Rock himself, leaping out of the crowd. Between Rock’s high-octane cultural commentary and Chappelle’s smooth account, there are reminders in this two-hander, albeit sporadic, of how good these comics can be when left to speak unmolested.

• At the O2, London, on 3 and 4 September


Brian Logan

The GuardianTramp

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