Chappelle taps Tampa comedian Matt Fernandez for Sarasota shows

A Q&A with Matt Fernandez, who opened for Dave Chappelle earlier this month.

Fun fact: All comedians love Dave Chappelle. White, black, gay, straight, Republican, Democrat or none of the above: They all respect his comedy, his stage presence and "Chappelle's Show," which gave us as many quotable sketches as he could pack into two seasons.

So imagine being a comedian and getting an invitation to actually open for him.

Tampa's Matt Fernandez got that invitation, and made the most of it at two packed shows at Sarasota's Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on Feb. 11. A local performer who's Twitter musings have been recognized by Playboy, Ellen (yes, that Ellen) and Jimmy Kimmel Live, Fernandez made the jump from local comedy clubs and bar gigs to sharing the stage with one of comedy's biggest names.

Fernandez told us about getting the opportunity, how Chappelle holds court backstage and what a police officer told him after he left a smoke-filled room:

Creative Loafing: How did you get the gig? He probably didn't call you up and say "Hey, you wanna open for me?" although it would be great if he did. So how did it go down?

Matt Fernandez: I knew the right person. His tour manager also books The Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival, and I’ve been on their side stage for the last couple years in Tampa, so he knew me. We exchanged emails and one thing led to another.

CL: Once you booked it, and you thought to yourself "I'm really going to open for Dave Chappelle in front of thousands of people," what did you do? Who was the first person you told?

MF: Much like the Grinch’s heart, my ego grew three sizes that day. I’d like to tell you I draped myself in an American flag and yelled my wife’s name. But in real life I’m not married, so I just sat and reflected on how it took seven years of work to get the opportunity to work with one of my heroes. It seems like it should’ve taken longer. I sent group messages to my Cigar City Comedy family, and my closest friends.

CL: What was the reaction from the local comedy community when they found out?

MF: Jealousy. Kidding! Everyone wished me the best and showed nothing but support. I love them for it.

CL: How much time did you do at each show? Did you change anything about your regular set?

MF: Ten minutes at each show, although I was a little looser at the late show. I added a couple bits to that set just because the early set is more strict on time. The venue has to have time to turn the room over before the next show. So the late show got a couple bonus minutes.

CL: Was there a point in your set where the nerves went away and you thought "OK, this is going to be fine?" Was there a specific joke that got a big laugh that put you at ease?

MF: As strange as it might sound, I wasn’t all that nervous about the set. [That] the green room stocked with Ketel One didn’t hurt. Plus, I entered a cheat code: I asked DJ Trauma to say I was from Tampa when he brought me up. I figured letting them know I was a local would get them on my side pretty quick.

CL: Did you meet Chappelle before your first set, or in between shows? What did he say to you? Did he watch your sets, and did he say anything to you about your comedy?

MF: I met him between shows. He introduced himself to me, which didn’t compute in my brain. He shook my hand and told me he thought I was funny, and that he’d heard about my sets at Oddball and to keep it up. Then he sat in a chair AC Slater-style and talked politics, race, and sports to a room of about 10 people while he chain-smoked American Spirits. No one said anything; we just listened. In that moment he was a presence instead of a person. That was something I’ll never forget.

CL: As a fan and a comedian, how did it feel to get compliments from Dave Chappelle?

MF: I don’t know how to answer that. Of course it was nice. I just rationalize it as one comic telling another comic "good job." It would’ve been cooler if he complimented something else. Like if he told me I had a great quiche recipe, or I smelled nice.

CL: Give us a peek at what the green room is like at a Dave Chappelle stand-up show. Who's there, what are people doing and what is the atmosphere like?

MF: The green room had a full bar, beers, sodas, and two whole, baked chickens that no one touched. Those birds died for nothing. There’s also music playing and the scent of weed everywhere you turn. Most of the time it was me, Donnell Rawlings (Ashy Larry), and DJ Trauma. The Thunder/Warriors game was on so it was almost like a sports bar atmosphere, except with weed and better music.

CL: After your second set, were you glad for it to be over, or were you sorry it was over?

MF: It was bittersweet. Of course I would’ve loved to do more time. But as soon as I was done, I walked right off stage, made a drink, and watched Dave’s set from about 20 feet away. It was like being in the pool with Phelps, or being on the field with Brady, or buying drugs with Amy Winehouse.

CL: Any funny stories or unexpected events that will stay with you?

MF: As Dave’s set was ending I was getting high in the green room, because a green room is like international waters and I knew I wouldn’t be able to smoke again for a while once I left. So I finish, and I emerge from the green room in a cloud of smoke like I’m Gozer. I also have weed in my pocket. I get about 20 steps and a police officer who was working security is walking by, stops, shakes my hand, and says “Great set.” Part of me wanted to test my newfound star power and see if he’d let me hold his gun or something. But I thought it better to leave while I was ahead.

CL: You're a working comedian who's already performed with some great names in comedy (Bill Burr, Doug Benson). You've got a long career ahead of you. But how the hell do you top this?

MF: I’ll let you know when I find out.

CL: Now that it's done, the shows must go on. When and where are you performing next and how can people find you on social media?

MF: On March 1 I’ll be at the Tampa Improv with that Doug Benson guy you mentioned; on March 11 and 12 I’m headlining Side Splitters Comedy Club in Tampa. On March 25 I’ll be at The Attic at Rock Brothers in Ybor City. You can follow me on Twitter: @FattMernandez, and find all my dates at

Michael Murillo takes comedy seriously. Follow him on Twitter and watch for regular comedy coverage here. 

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