You know you’re at a Dave Chappelle show when the venue is plastered with signs prohibiting the audience from “texting, heckling, yelling out anything, talking, or [using] cameras [or] recording devices of any kind.” Luckily, the only noises coming from the crowd at Radio City Music Hall on Wednesday night were endless streams of laughter and applause for one of the most respected and misrepresented comedians of his generation.
The show, the first of an eight-day run at the legendary venue—half of which will include musical performances from artists including Janelle Monae, Nas, The Roots, and Erykah Badu—featured Chappelle chain-smoking menthol cigarettes for the duration of the evening while he switched between prepared jokes and loose, unscripted riffs with the audience.
Chappelle hasn’t played a show in New York City for nearly 10 years—at least not in any official capacity. He has done a few unannounced routines at the Comedy Cellar, including a now-legendary evening that featured Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, Bill Bellamy, and Marlon Wayans. But all of those were warm-ups compared to the Radio City gigs. Now he is doing a weeklong headlining spot in a town that helped launch his career—and in front audiences that hopefully know how to handle themselves during a performance (Chappelle is betting they do; all fans in attendance on Wednesday received free T-shirts.)
Last year, Chappelle spent an evening on the Oddball Comedy Tour in Hartford, Conn., being heckled and booed off stage. Audience members were reportedly yelling “White power!” quoting Chappelle’s Clayton Bigsby sketch from the since-defunct Chappelle’s Show. Luckily, there was no heckling last night. The crowd was there to listen to Chappelle riff on everything from the Wu-Tang Clan to Barack Obama to gay rights.
Well, almost the entire crowd. During the show, I spotted two button-down shirt-wearing bros who were more concerned with trying to get photos of/looks at Chris Rock and Aziz Ansari, sitting a few rows behind them. For those who did pay attention, they witnessed a few terrific exchanges between Chappelle and some of the fans in the front row. At one point, he chatted with a man from Costa Rica about why the guy hadn’t proposed to his girlfriend of seven years. Later, Chappelle spoke to a fan from Australia about the World Cup. Both conversations were loose in tone and funny, closer to a discussion between two friends and not between a world-famous performer and a random spectator.
Chappelle even brought up topics that he rarely discusses in public, including his family and his religion (he converted to Islam in 1998). He recalled one incident where he was walking down the street in Ohio with his sister, who was wearing a hijab. Soon enough, a group of teenagers began throwing snowballs at them. When Chappelle approached them, one of the kids threw a snowball at his face and called him the N-word. Chappelle wasn’t happy, of course. However, he was surprised that, because of his status and who he is, the police actually took his complaint seriously.
That juxtaposition between the power he holds and the pressure that comes with it is something Chappelle seems to be finally coming to terms with. Back in 2005, those two factors contributed to him quitting his television program and leaving behind $50 million. People said he was crazy. But turning down that dough saved his dignity, his message, and, most importantly, his comedy, allowing him to get back up on stage and continue doing the thing that he loves most.
“There’s a method to my madness,” Chappelle said last night, regarding the end of Chappelle’s Show. “It was dramatic, but I feel better.”
He not only feels better, he looks better too. He has transformed himself from skinny Chappelle into in-shape, jacked Chappelle. Just look at the current poster for this Radio City run, which shows him wearing a sleeveless shirt, holding a lit cigarette in his hand, with his muscles bulging.
Unfortunately, no matter what physical and mental changes he goes though, he is still going to have to accept the fact that there will always be some folks out there who consider him nuts. Still, he has no plans on appeasing them—nor anyone else expecting the “status quo.” Chappelle has never been about that. That’s why you’ll never see new Chappelle’s Show episodes or Half Baked 2 down the road.
“When you see Half Baked 2, make no mistake about it, I have completely run out of money,” he joked. Even then, I am not sure Chappelle would do that film. We already saw what happens to him when a conglomerate attempts to give him massive amounts of money. If he’s going to make a living, he’d rather be doing it on his own terms—and hopefully sticking around for more than a few years.
“I am just back out here to make enough money to disappear again,” he said. The audience laughed, and prayed he wasn’t telling the truth.