Why Dave Chappelle’s 8:46 is a masterpiece. And one of the few things that could actually change someone’s mind.

When nothing else can persuade, comedy might

On June 11, 2020, Dave Chappelle dropped an unannounced performance, 8:46, where he talks about the murder of George Floyd, police brutality, and the history of race in America. 

He did this because it’s important. Police brutality is out of hand, and Black lives matter (donate here). Despite the largest civil rights movement in history, there are still some people who don’t believe.

He was able to do this because he is an absolute master of his craft.

Dave Chappelle is a top comedian, well-respected but also often controversial. Why would 8:46 change someone’s mind when nothing else could?

“It’s hard to figure out what to say about George Floyd, so I’m not gonna say it yet.”

Chappelle opens with this line, and he’s already laying the groundwork for what comes next. Because even though his story seems to be about the NorthRidge Earthquake, he needs the audience to know that he’s about to talk about George Floyd. 

If you haven’t watched 8:46 yet, you should watch it before continuing. For many reasons.

This is the first step — to keep the audience’s attention. In a 1994 paper titled The Psychology of Curiosity, behavioral economist George Loewenstein described the idea of an “information gap.” When you tell people what you are going to tell them before you actually tell them anything, you can get people to pay attention. 

It’s part of what psychologists call the Zeigarnik Effect; if the information you have isn’t complete or you still need it for something, it sticks right in your head and doesn’t come out.

Chappelle does this in a lot of his work. Here are a couple of examples from his recent Netflix specials:

  • In The Bird Revelation: “I’ll tell you what happened, but I can’t say it directly. There’s a book to me that encapsulates my entire experience before I left the [Chappelle] show.”   

  • In Equanimity: “I picked one [punchline] for this special. It’s not an easy punchline to pull off. Are you ready? Here you go. The punchline is: ‘so I kicked her in the pussy.’ I haven’t finished the joke yet.”

Chappelle, in his particular, sometimes-controversial style, tells the audience exactly what’s going to happen next. But he doesn’t say how he’ll connect the dots, so people stay fascinated. 

Comment sections across YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit are all filled with statements like this.

What does happen next? 

Chappelle describes his terror during the NorthRidge earthquake. For the most part, this feels like normal storytelling — he describes where he is, what he was doing, how it felt to be there, and other details that help put you in the moment. 

Even here though, there are a few important elements before the payoff:

  1. The story has nothing to do with race, George Floyd, or Black Lives Matter. That lets him avoid any political gut reactions, and gets people to just listen. More on this in a second.

  2. He lists what he did (and thought) during the earthquake. Put clothes on, grabs his weed/pipe/lighter, picks up keys and money, and thinks that he’s going to die (but doesn’t want to scream). 

Why list everything? Because of the powerful next paragraph.

“That earthquake couldn’t have been more than 35 seconds. This man kneeled on a man’s neck for EIGHT MINUTES AND FORTY SIX seconds. Can you imagine that? This kid thought he was gonna die, he knew he was gonna die. He called for his mother. He called for his dead mother. I’ve only seen that once before in my life. My father, on his deathbed, called for his grandmother. When I watched that tape, I understood this man knew he was gonna die.” 

Even though Chappelle told the audience exactly what to expect, the switch to George Floyd is still surprising. Surprise (according to psychology research) is another way to get attention and make ideas stick in people’s heads.

Chappelle tells you what to expect, then surprises you anyway. Throughout the set, he sets up similar moments, and it’s part of what makes him so captivating.

What effect does it have on the audience?

Chappelle has won attention. He’s stopped the audience in their tracks. Next he needs to change their perspective.

Why is it so hard to change someone’s mind?

“A man with conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point. We have all experienced the futility of trying to change a strong conviction.” – Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter, 1956

You’ve probably tried to change someone’s mind and been frustrated. Family, a coworker, some random dude at the bar — even when their beliefs feel totally nonsensical and out of touch with the real world, they stand unwavering. 

Four ideas from psychology are important to understanding what beliefs are, where they come from, and why Chappelle might be able to change them: 

  • Belief perseverance, the idea that someone’s beliefs stick around for longer than they should. 

  • Moral foundations, rather than evidence/facts, as the emotional cause of someone’s beliefs

  • Group polarization, the tendency for a group of people to be more extreme than the individuals in the group (and get more extreme over time)

  • Reactance (in this case, the so-called Backfire Effect), the tendency for people to get defensive when their freedom or beliefs are threatened

A belief forms because of an underlying moral foundation (more reading here), like “freedom is important” or “it’s important not to hurt other people.” Once it forms, it’s extremely hard to change — even if the evidence that it’s based on is discredited, people will still defend their beliefs.

Reactance means that people get angry when they hear things that challenge their beliefs. Group polarization means that political beliefs are especially extreme and hard to change. 

You can argue with a belief all you want, but the person you’re arguing with will find some endless problem with your argument, your facts, and your evidence, because it’s not about your evidence. It’s about their beliefs. 

Why would Dave Chappelle be able to change someone’s mind if nothing else can? 

Look at this paragraph again. 

“That earthquake couldn’t have been more than 35 seconds. This man kneeled on a man’s neck for EIGHT MINUTES AND FORTY SIX seconds. Can you imagine that? This kid thought he was gonna die, he knew he was gonna die. He called for his mother. He called for his dead mother. I’ve only seen that once before in my life. My father, on his deathbed, called for his grandmother. When I watched that tape, I understood this man knew he was gonna die.” 

Introducing George Floyd with the NorthRidge earthquake is important because earthquakes aren’t political. Talking about Floyd might cause reactance, but starting with Chappelle’s own terror during an earthquake will keep people listening.

How does the rest of this paragraph (and in turn, the rest of the set) challenge belief perseverance? 

I cracked open my copy of Persuasive Advertising, a textbook that systematically goes through each psychological element of advertising and lists the research evidence related to it. In the chapter about overcoming “resistance” from existing beliefs, here are the first three methods:

  1. Distraction. Like quickly pivoting to George Floyd from a story about an earthquake.

  2. Perspective. Like making the audience consider a situation from the officer’s perspective, Floyd’s perspective, and Dave Chappelle’s perspective (more in a second).

  3. Stories. Like the earthquake story, the aside about Chappelle’s father, and all of the many stories that he includes through the set. 

If you’re curious, a few of the other methods that Chappelle uses are spokespeople (Chappelle is a celebrity), forewarning (he tells you what he’s going to say), and indirect conclusions (in lines like “they aren’t really riots, have you noticed that?” he leaves the audience to imply the conclusion). Along with a few others. 

The bulk of 8:46 is stories. Why, according to the textbook’s author J. Scott Armstrong, are stories so effective?

“First, they can convey powerful emotional images that are easy to remember. Second, they can put facts into a context that aids recall. Third, they lead people to think about the example, not the evidence. Fourth, and probably most important, because they do not directly attack a person’s beliefs, they are less likely to induce counter-arguing.

A story itself isn’t enough though. Chappelle does something really smart in just this one paragraph. How does he use this story to maximum effect?

  1. “Can you imagine that?” He asks the audience to put themselves in the cop’s shoes, and really feel how long eight minutes and forty-six seconds would be.

  2. “This kid thought he was gonna die” switches the perspective from the cop to Floyd himself. It makes you think — what must it be like to be suffocated over 8 minutes and 46 seconds?

  3. Adding his experience with his father is another perspective switch — now you know what it feels like to be Dave Chappelle and watch George Floyd be murdered by a cop.

In ONE PARAGRAPH, the first five minutes of the set, Chappelle gets you to take three different perspectives:

  • The cop who killed George Floyd

  • George Floyd in his dying moments

  • A Black man watching the murder of George Floyd

As mentioned about, perspective can change beliefs. Psychologists study how “perspective taking” can reduce racial biases (example one, example two, example three, of an entire field of research).

What does it feel like to be each of those three people? 

Chappelle puts you in their shoes. And once you’re in their shoes, especially after the story about a 0:35 second earthquake, it becomes a lot harder to defend the cop. 

When you picture kneeling for almost nine minutes, it’s hard to defend the cop. When you imagine yourself as Floyd, unable to breathe and calling for your mother, it’s hard to defend the cop. 

And when you imagine what it’s like to be Dave Chappelle and every Black person in the country watching a policeman murder George Floyd for eight minutes and forty-six seconds? 

It’s a lot easier to understand why people are protesting. 

Point after point, Chappelle uses the same techniques. 

He tells you what to expect and defies your expectations anyway. He tells stories. He forces you to take another perspective, and over the course of 27 minutes presents a picture, but not an argument, that explains why these protests are not only inevitable but long overdue. 

He shows you why “the streets are speaking for themselves”

I don’t know how much of this is intentional on Chappelle’s part. It may be the expression of a lifetime in front of crowds, as a master of storytelling and making his point. 

But I would bet a lot of it is on purpose. He may not be citing George Loewenstein, but masters usually consider every minute detail of their work. As he says in the set, Chappelle has talked about this before, and I think he probably deeply considered how he wanted to make his point.

Either way, the unannounced release is spreading quickly. 12,000,000 views in the first 24 hours, much higher since then, for a set that will probably be performed once and once only. 

It could change your mind, if it hasn’t already.

This is the first post of a new project that breaks down great work to understand the little details that make it so effective. Subscribe and you’ll never miss an update.