In 2005, Dave Chappelle was merely the hottest comedian in America. Then he left his job and became a far more singular cultural figure: A renegade to some, a lunatic to others, but most of all, an enigma. Now he is making a kind of comeback — Mr. Chappelle headlines the Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival, a new 15-city tour presented by the Funny or Die Web site that begins Friday in Austin, Tex. — and what makes it particularly exciting is how he’s using his hard-earned mystique to make more daring and personal art.
Mr. Chappelle didn’t just walk away from a $50 million contract and the acclaimed “Chappelle’s Show,” whose second season on Comedy Central stacks up well against the finest years of “SCTV,” “Saturday Night Live” and Monty Python. He did so dramatically, fleeing to Africa and explaining his exit in moral terms: “I want to make sure I’m dancing and not shuffling,” he told Time magazine. Since then, he has been a remote star in an era when comedians have never been more accessible.
Mr. Chappelle hasn’t done any interviews (aside from a radio appearance in 2011) or appeared on podcasts or talk shows. He doesn’t even have a Web site. He joined Twitter last year, then quit after 11 tweets. But Mr. Chappelle has tiptoed back into the public eye over the last year. While he has stayed away from movies and television, he still drops in pretty often on comedy clubs and occasionally theaters, usually in surprise appearances that generate more rumors of a comeback. Beyond the Oddball Festival, Chris Rock has said Mr. Chappelle may join him on his stand-up tour next year.
Since seeing him perform at the start of the year, I have noticed an increased urgency in his comedy by the summer. A show I saw in San Francisco in March was charismatic if chaotic: freewheeling, improvisational and full of crowd work. But when I caught three of his shows in June down South, his act was very different: polished, thematically unified, less work in progress than test run. His characteristic laid-back delivery and pinpoint timing were in service of jokes that were more dark, intricate and revelatory than his stand-up from a decade ago. Seeing Mr. Chappelle evolve onstage was a reminder that he didn’t leave comedy so much as return home to the live form he has practiced for a quarter-century.
Mr. Chappelle might have left television, but that departure has become the wellspring of his comedy now. He only needs a microphone and a stage to lay claim to greatness. When Mr. Chappelle walked onstage for the first of two shows in Richmond, Va., in June, he appeared frazzled. “I almost didn’t make it,” he said, explaining that he showed up at the airport before buying a ticket. “I didn’t plan,” he said, adding that he “used to have people” do that. “Now, not as many people do.”
Mr. Chappelle has always introduced jokes with a deceptively offhand style, cannily establishing a connection with his listeners while also teasing them. Sidling up to the audience with the soft-spoken warmth of an old friend, he likes to stop midsentence to confess he probably shouldn’t go on, or look around conspiratorially as if he is about to divulge a secret.
But as his public profile has changed, he ingratiates in new ways. An eccentric who lost the spotlight, Mr. Chappelle presents himself pointedly as melancholy, a little in turmoil. He begins jokes by putting you inside his tortured mind.
“I’m in one of those bad moods,” he said at the top of one story. In another, he asked, “Have you ever felt bad about yourself and then projected that on someone else?” Before describing a hostile encounter on Father’s Day, he said he was feeling paranoid and crazy, playing into rumors about him.
In something of a topic sentence of his new act, he rubbed his bald head, worrying he no longer had a message to relate. Then Mr. Chappelle froze, holding out his newly muscled arms with his palms up as if he had hit on an epiphany. “Maybe my message is one of hopelessness,” he said.
Don’t get the wrong idea: Mr. Chappelle isn’t all gloom and doom. He still earns consistent laughs but the most explosive ones build off this sober mood. Mr. Chappelle has always been deft at this two-step. In his last stand-up special, “For What It’s Worth,” from 2004 on Showtime, he describes going to a high school to tell students that the only way to get out of the ghetto is to focus and stop blaming white people. Then he strategically stammers before leaning into the joke:
“And you’ve got to learn how to rap or play basketball or something,” he says. “Either do that or sell crack.”
What’s changed since that special is that his jokes now always seem to circle back to his infamous exit from Comedy Central, explicitly or, more often, implicitly. For instance, Mr. Chappelle acts out a joke that comes off like an elaborate multi-act play about how his son, following his advice, left an after-school program he didn’t like. “Son, sometimes, it’s O.K. to quit,” was the title he coined for his parental lecture.
This counsel has unintended results when his son’s classmate also quits, upsetting his father, a Roman Catholic named O’Malley worried about Mr. Chappelle’s influence. He confronts the comic at school one morning saying: “O’Malleys don’t quit.” Taking cartoonish umbrage, Mr. Chappelle responded with alacrity: “Well, Chappelles do.”
The crowd roars at the subtext of this line then more so, in the next scene, when Mr. Chappelle says he heard on the news that the pope had resigned, inspiring a revenge fantasy come true. “Heeeeey O’Malley,” he says gleefully, running across the stage. “Tough break about your spiritual leader throwing in the towel.”
Mr. Chappelle may be fixated on the past, but the style of his comedy is increasingly distinct from a typical comedy club set, forging his own way forward. Mr. Chappelle has always preferred ambling yarns to quick jokes, but his new material stretches the limits of stories, telling long, herky-jerky tales propelled by quick pivots in tone and perspective. An extremely patient comedian, Mr. Chappelle is now making a commitment to establishing scenes, mapping out descriptions of characters that are almost literary in their detail.
An epic 10-minute story about a charged exchange with a homeless man he meets outside his upscale Manhattan hotel had the poetic weight of an August Wilson monologue. Since San Francisco, this morally engaged story has become more ornate and moody, the jokes emerging from meticulously sketched vignettes.
Mr. Chappelle explicates the story’s emotional shifts mostly by describing the homeless man’s eyes. At first, he sees “recognition, pleading, a glimmer of hope.” Mr. Chappelle slows his voice down, enunciating, stopping his comic momentum to linger on an image. Then he pauses and, out of nowhere, yells at the man — “You stink!” — then returns to his eyes, which are “angry,” revealing a “spirit broken.”
Mr. Chappelle then flees the scene. “Instantly,” he said, “I … felt … better about my problems,” he says, to huge laughs.
In these shows, Mr. Chappelle describes lashing out or quitting as a wonderful relief — at first. Then come the repercussions. After escaping the homeless man, Mr. Chappelle feels regret upon seeing his reflection in a door. He realizes he shouldn’t have insulted the man and left. When he asks for forgiveness, the homeless man accepts in a voice that seems surprisingly confident and authoritative, a gravelly, baritone telegraphing virtue. Mr. Chappelle, who has been shopping and eating at posh spots, gives the man a gift: A Sean John sweatsuit. (On “Chappelle’s Show,” Puff Daddy — now Diddy — who owns Sean John, was portrayed as pure show-business decadence.)
The homeless story is about a rich but unhappy Chappelle panicking and running away, but one that explains the context of his actions. He was unhappy, in a confused state of mind, taking advantage of his wealth and fame. After returning, he sees he has mistreated the homeless man. But he ends on a slightly cynical twist since even the dignified-sounding homeless man gets excited when he sees the Sean John outfit.
If such a close reading sounds like a stretch, Mr. Chappelle invites such interpretations. In his second show, he begins with about 20 minutes of different material about movies. He brings up “Into the Wild,” and proceeds to describe its plot in a way that sounds almost like a introspective parable. He says it’s about a guy who burns a huge pile of money because he just wants to get away from everything and be free. “The worst part,” Mr. Chappelle says, “is he keeps telling his dream to older people and not one of them tells him: Hey kid, that’s a … terrible dream.”
In early 2006, Mr. Chappelle did interviews on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Inside the Actors Studio” and told a story about the struggle to be free in Hollywood. “I’m going to find a way to be myself,” he said on the latter show in one of his most compelling moments. His tone now is less defiant, occasionally even contrite. In one story, after struggling to come up with some life advice to give students, he settles on: “Don’t quit your show.” Instead of explaining himself, he dramatizes his own confusion, then makes it funny.
All great stand-up is the expression of a personal voice, no matter if it’s from a confessional, observational or prop comic. Mr. Chappelle has never been an exhibitionist onstage but his new material, even when oblique, seems revealing.
His stories wander but their baggy structure provides a nice frame on which to hang jokes. Part of the pleasing unpredictability of his delivery is that Mr. Chappelle would rather seem to stumble into punch lines than be guided by them.
In that same “Actors Studio” interview, the host, James Lipton, who has become friends with Mr. Chappelle, says that Richard Pryor’s wife felt that legendary comic had “passed the torch” to Mr. Chappelle. Like so many comics, Mr. Chappelle owes a debt to Pryor, and his career has in many ways retraced his steps. Both worked clubs in the Village and received big breaks from Mel Brooks (Pryor was a writer on “Blazing Saddles”; Mr. Chappelle appeared in “Robin Hood: Men in Tights”) before moving on to their own sketch shows and soul-searching trips to Africa.
Pryor cemented his reputation among many as the greatest stand-up of all time with the 1982 special “Live on the Sunset Strip,” only a few years after he accidentally set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. He transformed a near-death experience into transcendent art. Mr. Chappelle has different demons and is a more elusive storyteller. What he burned up was not his body, but his career. Pryor located comedy in tragedy, but Mr. Chappelle deftly finds it in mystery.
article by Jason Zinoman via nytimes.com