Photo via NY Times.
Dave Chappelle returned to New York last night with a triumphant opening night for his string of shows at Radio City Music Hall. Turning in an extended set that revealed an older, wiser…maybe a bit mellower comic, Chappelle was muted at times, and noticeably lacked the sense of urgency and restless tension that marked the energy of his stand-up as a rising star. By the time he warmed up, however, we got a Chappelle who was, if anything, more effusive, more confident in his handling of the crowd and ability to reel off new material off the top of his head, a true master of the form.
The stakes and expectations for Chappelle’s first night could not have been higher after his dramatic departure from TV, a decade away from the comedy mecca of NYC and a slow-building year of touring that included appearances both brilliant (Chicago) and disastrous (Hartford). That anticipation was clearly felt–and heard–in the line outside. Though the RCMH staff was nothing less than military in their efficient direction of traffic, planning could not totally dispel the club-line hysteria of the crowds outside and not all the ushers could keep a subtle note of panic out of their cries of “ALL TICKETHOLDERS PLEASE PROCEED TO THE SOUTH ENTRANCE!” Jon Oliver and his wife were behind me in line at will call, the first indication that much of the opening night crowd would be celebrities and colleagues who, as recounted recently, are almost universally Chappelle superfans. Later, Chris Rock and Aziz Ansari sat together to watch the show a few rows behind me as Marlon Wayans found his way closer to the front.
Hot 97′s Cipha Sounds–the original Chappelle’s Show DJ, as he didn’t hesitate to remind us–played a mix of Snoop, Biggie and Montell Jordan-era old school that had many guests throwing up their hands and bopping in the aisles in their hood finery like this was their big night out–and at 2 day’s pay per ticket, it probably was for many. Mixing weird pop records (“Gangnam Style”) with some racial humor that showed his own comedic chops, Ciph’ built the music to a climax that was then comedically deflated when the towering visage of James Lipton (Inside The Actor’s Studio) appeared on large video screens to deliver the final warning that cellphones had to be turned off and failure to do so would result in “confiscation of the motherfuckers” in his trademark Shakespearean baritone. A 2nd fake-me-out occurred when the real, regular-sized Lipton emerged onstage to introduce the opening set from “Dave’s favorite comic” DC’s Tony Woods, who worked the crowd for close to an hour, getting the best reception any comedian who was not Dave Chappelle could possibly expect to at that point.
After an intermission, Chappelle himself took the stage as a gigantic (and newly musclebound) backlit silhouette, lit a menthol and instantly received a standing ovation–possibly the only comic out right now who gets a standing O just for showing up. He immediately downplayed his own hype, describing his year as “the shittiest comeback in history. It was ill-timed, ill-conceived and I took some nasty spills along the way…” then launched into a retelling of his 2nd night at Hartford after bombing miserably, a feeling he described as “mousetrap pussy.” This set the tone for the first third of the set, as well as what appears to be the winning post-web strategy Chappelle is working into his stand up. In an era when sets are regularly recorded on cellphones and punchlines are shared and tweeted out in near-real time, Chappelle has struggled with (and bitched about) the inability of an established comic like himself to develop and hone material on the road. The result is he has often been going out on a limb, freestyling, engaging hecklers and trying out untested jokes–and if those tactics bomb, the story of the bomb becomes part of the next set.
The newer material, not surprisingly, touched on matters of race and racism including Donald Sterling and Paula Deen, as well as other headline bits on Flight 370 (“It landed on Tupac Island”) the US v. Ghana World Cup match and even the self-castrating Wu Tang Clan affiliate Christ Bearer. There were some of the anecdotes–the “wife comes to the club” nightmare, the “Chinese having Mexicans” bit and stories about his kids–that have become part of his regular set on the road, but often backed into with new punchlines, callbacks and memorable asides (“being a rich black dude is like an itchy sweater; it keeps you warm but it’s never…quite…comfortable.”). A new strain in his humor seemed to include coming to terms with gayness — approaching equal marriage rights, trans-man pregnancy and Chaz Bono — with a surprising open-mindedness (from the man who almost greenlighted a Chappelle’s Show skit called “Friday Night Sissy Fights”). He did so without ever losing his fresh and refreshingly sophomoric perspective, openly wondering which rally black gay men would attend if a pride parade and the Million Man March happened on the same day. He closed with “if it was a rally defending the right to fuck what I like fucking, I would be showing up to the end of the Million Man March in booty shorts like, ‘sorry I’m late!’”
However, it was when he had seemingly exhausted both new and old material–and kept going, running far over his 2-hour set time–that Chappelle truly showed his genius. In an extended talk about the strangeness of having a black president only a few years after the idea was (literally) a joke–his joke, in fact–it felt as though we were talking to the real Chappelle about real things, listening to him chat extensively with an audience member from Costa Rica and talking about the new New York (“I went to Brooklyn last night and I was like, ‘damn this city’s gone soft.’ I remember when Brooklyn was horrifying! Even the white neighborhoods in Brooklyn were horrifying…for black people”). Stories from his real life were shared without being elaborate set-ups for a callback to the phrase “pussy juice” and though they were always funny, he seemed utterly sincere and spontaneous, lacking in comedic calculation. In this mode he recalled less the keyed-up characters of his hero Richard Pryor and moreso a millenial Lenny Bruce; philosophizing, thinking out loud and riffing on real issues but in a way that was always, almost accidentally, sardonic and hilarious because that is simply the way he thinks and the voice he speaks in. “I’m just doing this so I can make enough money to disappear again…,” Chappelle told the crowd about 2/3rds through the set. “You got to save up for them shits. You can’t just disappear with saving up.”
In the end, the expectant crowd left feeling less that they had received the hype and spectacle they shelled out good money for and more like they had a genuine conversation with a comic genius–an experience much harder to put a price tag on. The end of the show was low-key and friendly and as the people walked out, Cipha Sounds rocked dead prez – “It’s bigger Than HipHop” just for old times’ sake. Stay tuned for more on next week’s shows featuring musical guests that include The Roots, Nas, Janelle Monáe, DJ Premiere and Erykah Badu.