Here’s a question: Was Dave Chappelle more popular during the 28-episode run of Chappelle’s Show or more popular after he decided to quit and leave all that money and fame behind for farm life in Ohio? Not so easy, right?
There are two Dave Chappelles, it seems. There’s the Dave who captured our hearts as the incisive comedian extraordinaire for 30 minutes every week on Comedy Central. That Dave, with his sly grin and sharp insight, brought us shoulder-bopping crack fiend Tyrone Biggums, the hysterically on point Racial Draft, the whacky musings of blind white supremacist Clayton Bigsby, Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Story, re-introduced a mostly young college-aged audience to Paul Mooney, perhaps one of the greatest jokemen to ever do it, and gave us the thigh-slapping brilliance of Rick James—bitch! This was the Dave that taught us “keeping it real” may not always be the best solution to life’s various conflicts. Just ask Brenda Johnson or Vernon Franklin.
And even now, ten years later, we are still in awe of Wayne Brady’s infamous rejoinder. Because this was Wayne Brady and Wayne Brady, the black man white America adored, would never say anything like that. You know the line, the words familiar and hilarious even after all this time—”Is Wayne Brady gonna have to choke a bitch?!” This was the genius of Dave Chappelle. His comedy inspired others, but more importantly it helped us make sense of just how absurd and messy race, politics, and pop culture could be. This was the Dave we knew would never betray us, because why would he? We more than loved him—we worshipped him. And when you love somebody that much, they don’t just up and leave.
But then he did.
Beyond any public reasoning at the time, he quit Chappelle’s Show in 2005. And then almost instantly this other Dave appeared. This Dave, the one we barely recognized, rejected a $50 million contract at the height of his celebrity. This was the Dave who escaped to South Africa or some faraway land because he couldn’t take it anymore. This was the Dave who cited “creative control” issues with Comedy Central executives and decided he rather live quietly with his wife and kids in the Midwest. This was the Dave who appeared on Oprah, then the biggest daytime talk show, ten months after he fled his show only to have her wonder if he was “crazy” for doing so. This was the Dave who then went on Inside the Actor’s Studio as more rumors swirled about his departure and, recounting a conversation he once had with his father about wanting to become an actor, told host James Lipton: “[My dad] said, ‘Name your price in the beginning. If it ever gets more expensive than the price you named, get outta there.’”
And he went silent for years. No interviews. No TV appearances. Nothing. But then in 2011 he emerged out of hiding and decided he would start doing pop-up sets at comedy clubs in Los Angeles and San Francisco and Portland. This was the Dave, embracing the spotlight once again, who went on the Late Show With David Letterman two weeks ago and cleared the air once and for all: “Technically I never quit,” he said, “I’m seven years late for work.” This Dave, post-Chappelle’s Show Dave, is the man the public has been trying to reckon with, trying to understand and untangle since he left our TV screens all those years ago (despite quitting the sketch-comedy series in 2005, Chappelle’s Show aired its final season in 2006; the three episodes were dubbed “The Lost Episodes”).
But now he’s back. Yes, really and truly, back! Well, ok, maybe he’s back. At least I think he’s kinda sorta back and, uh, hopefully for good this time?
“You don’t know what it’s like to be missing for ten years,” Chappelle began last night. He was standing on stage at Radio City Music Hall in his second-to-last performance before ending an 11-show stint in New York City. “People keep asking me, ‘Dave, why did you come back?’ And there are two reasons. One, I love entertaining people and it’s what I should be doing with my life. And two,” he paused for a beat because he knew the timing had to be just right, “I got some bills due!” The audience erupted into wild laughter. The hiatus was over.
Ever the comic rebel, Chappelle puffed a cigarette as he paced the stage in a black suit. “This is a new performance art piece I’m trying out; it’s called doing things white people can’t do.” The awkward confidence was all there, just as I remembered: the easygoing delivery that makes you feel like it’s just you and Dave and a few friends shooting the shit back home, the unexpected punchlines that burst from seemingly nowhere, the way he twists and turns singular anecdotes into surprisingly universal experiences, the pop culture references that let you know he hasn’t missed a beat.
Throughout his hour-long set Chappelle weaved through subjects spanning drug-loving Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, the recent election in India, Donald Sterling’s racist remarks, marriage, the abduction of the 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria, the LGBT movement, fatherhood, and rehab. Retelling the time he read a story in Newsweek that speculated his use of crack—Chappelle had considered the publication a credible source of news—he joked, “Damn, do I smoke crack?”
The importance of Chappelle’s truth-telling was evident as I sat among the packed audience. He had returned not because he needed us, but because we had needed him. Dave had been sent here to heal us. This was therapy and damn if it didn’t feel good (Chappelle’s Show co-creator Neal Brennan has referred to Chappelle’s stand-up sets as “seances”). And isn’t that the true power of comedy, really: to help soften hard times, to help alleviate private burdens—even if only for 30 or 40 minutes. All the greats knew this: Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor, Flip Wilson, Redd Foxx, Paul Mooney, Eddie Murphy, Bernie Mac, Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence. Executed right, comedy cures.
Early on in the night Chappelle told a joke about Flight 370, the Malaysian Airlines plane that went missing in March. “I was seeing all these images of Asian people crying—and, you know, they could’ve been crying for any number of reasons.” Reading the audience’s reaction, he sensed the punchline didn’t quite stick the way he’d hoped. “I’m warming up,” he said, “I told y’all I’m warming up.” The music hall suddenly filled with applause and cheer. Chappelle understood. We weren’t going anywhere. There was more healing to do.
[Photo via Getty]