Cousy of New York Times
A Comic Quits Quitting
Dave Chappelle Returns to Stand-Up, With Stories to Tell
By JASON ZINOMAN
Published: August 15, 2013
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.
John Parra/Getty Images; Comedy Central
Now he is making a kind of comeback — Mr. Chappelle headlines theOddball Comedy and CuriosityFestival, 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 quar-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 article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: August 16, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated the Funny or Die Web site’s role in the Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival. Funny or Die is presenting the festival, not producing it.