A herculean shadow formed against a sheer backdrop as the DJ boomed, “Ladies and Gentleman, Dave Chappelle!”
The curtain rose and there he stood. A steady stream of smoke crept upwards from his lit cigarette as he patiently waited for the vociferous applause to die down. Above, screens on either side of the stage displayed a spinning “C,” painted in the green, red and black of the Pan-African flag.
It was a salient reminder of the revered comedian’s exodus to the continent eight years ago. But now he was back, in the flesh, taking the stage for the first of nine performances at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall.
The reunion was exciting and strange. It felt as if all 6,000 in attendance were rekindling a relationship with a long lost love. We were imbued with cocktail of emotions: nervousness, anticipation, elation and, most palpably, hope.
We hoped to see the same man who once so-captivated our hearts and minds with "Chappelle’s Show." We hoped to learn that Chappelle’s unrivaled knack for transcending cultural and generational divides was fully intact.
We hoped to witness the same man that made Rick James relevant to a generation that had absolutely no reason to care appear before us.
That man was present Wednesday night, but he was buried deep beneath a fresh new layer of bulging muscles that seem like an allegorical coat of armor, shielding his fragile psyche.
Though subdued and clearly uneasy at times, Chappelle was more-or-less brilliant. He just wasn’t the Chappelle we once knew and loved.
New Jokes for a New Era
What made Chappelle so wonderful was his innate ability to bridge social partitions.
Then, he utilized a devilishly sharp wit and piercing insights across the social spectrum to package humorous commentaries that were universally relatable.
The talent is still there, but the jokes just aren’t contextualized the same way as before.
Much of Chappelle’s routine focused on his trials in fatherhood and marriage, which were funny, but not directly applicable to the lives of younger audiences who fueled his meteoric rise to international stardom.
Yet, when the monologue shifted to current events, a glimmer of Chappelle’s old self shone through.
When turning to Donald Sterling, Chappelle quipped “They had a tape of an 80-year-old white man being racist… did not see that one coming” and suggested that when his young ex-girlfriend went down on him, it must have been like "tasting history, five wars and a depression."
But Sterling wasn’t his only target. Chappelle fantasized about hiring Paula Deen as a personal chef and dressing her up as Aunt Jemima. He suggested that the missing Malaysian flight didn’t crash, but rather landed on “Tupac Island.”
These moments would have translated beautifully in a sketch format, leaving little doubt that if he ever wanted to revive "Chappelle’s Show," the magic could be rekindled.
But Chappelle made it abundantly clear that it will never happen.
When someone in the front of the audience shouted, 'Bring back 'Chappelle’s Show,'' he shot back, “Yeah, right after I make 'Half Baked 2.' That’s when you’ll know I’m really broke.”
Referring to his long-awaited return to stand-up comedy, he later added, “I’m just making enough money to disappear again. That sh*t’s expensive.”
This latest iteration of Chappelle is clearly uninterested in recklessly storming back to prominence. He knows all too well what happens when you blow up too big, too quickly. This time, he’s being careful.
"I'm too famous to speak my mind,” he noted. “Unless I'm at the Illuminati Christmas party."
Chappelle’s New Look
On the surface, everything about Chappelle appearance seems changed. Dig a bit deeper and it becomes clear that the transformation extends well beyond his physical form.
The comedian’s slender, gangly frame is a relic of the past. Now strong like bull, Chappelle no longer gleefully dances across the stage when a punch line hits its mark.
Instead, he remains permanently planted to the floor in front of his mic stand, delivering his jokes in a precise, monotone stream. It is a tone that mirrors his physical maturation.
The youthful glow that once matched his effusive styling faded away over the years he spent in relative seclusion. Once childlike, Chappelle is now clearly a matured adult.
Despite spending most of the past year performing sets across country, he never seemed comfortable in his own skin.
It was a discomfort that suggests that Chappelle is still wounded from the public backlash and ridicule he endured after leaving $50 million on the table walking away from his show, leaving a passionate fan base and Comedy Central scrambling to make sense of what happened.
Glimpses of the Old Chappelle
It was immediately clear that Chappelle’s passive new style was not a product of nerves, but rather a deliberate creation conceived by a matured, less kinetic comedian.
A deep silence filled the room after each burst of laughter, the crowd clinging to each syllable escaping Chappelle’s lips, afraid to miss a high-pitched howl or exaggerated accent that might provide a glimpse into the performer’s former self.
The patience ultimately paid off, when roughly a third of the way through the set, there was a brief moment when the wiry, spastic, broken-radiator-voiced Chappelle reappeared.
“I’ve written at least 50 jokes that end with the punch line pussy juice,” he exclaimed. From there he recited one after another, playfully owning each joke’s predictable outcome.
It was more than refreshing.
For the first time that evening he shot across the expansive stage space, transforming into Lil Wayne as he had Rick James and Lil Jon years prior, turning the rapper into a CSI investigator examining... well, pussy juice.
We were witnessing a “Chappelle’s Show” sketch play out before our very eyes.
A Diverse and Noble Audience
The walk through Radio City’s main lobby had the pre-match feel of a heavyweight bout or series-deciding playoff game. Dave Chappelle, the man who once had a stranglehold on comedy, was back in New York City with either something to prove, nothing to lose or a strange combination of the two.
The audience was about as diverse as crowds come, though Chappelle indicated that he noticed a pittance of black people in attendance.
The diversity of the crowd, however, is a product of Chappelle’s comedic grandeur, earned through his distinctive ability to transcend culture and tap into universal perceptions through humor.
Each of Chappelle’s lines evoked thunderous roars of laughter and applause, so perfectly on queue that they could have been rehearsed. The crowd was intent to demonstrate its unwavering support for the comedian and his return to glory.
It’s something that Chappelle has not always seen during his staggered “comeback.”
Last August, while performing a show in front of roughly 30,000 in Hartford, Connecticut, Chappelle ended his show prematurely when the audience devolved into the most unruly crowd he’s ever faced.
From the very start, the hostile Hartford crowd called out lines from Chappelle’s Show-era skits, derailing the act completely, unwilling to give the new Chappelle a chance.
Chappelle now uses that infamous night as material, never shy when it comes to expressing his feelings for Hartford’s citizens. He might have mentioned that know he hopes everyone that everyone who attended that performance all die in car crashes or that a nuclear bomb somehow finds its way to their city.
Love the Curtain Call
Attending the show, we’d hoped to see Dave Chappelle circa 2003-2006. But that Chappelle is gone.
This is not something to lament. That Chappelle will endure through countless reruns of "Killin’ Them Softly," "Half Baked" and "Chappelle’s Show" on Comedy Central.
But the Millennial generation, whose zeal for the comic emboldened Comedy Central to offer him $50 million, needs to open its minds and hearts to accepting this newest iteration of the Chappelle.
He has moved on and so should we. The relationship isn’t over. It just needs to evolve.
Now that he's returned to us, the world should be eager and ready to see what the new Dave Chappelle has to offer in the years to come.
Photo Credit: WENN