SAN FRANCISCO — Around midnight on a Thursday in the Mission District, Dave Chappelle was standing onstage in a converted church called the Chapel when a member of the packed audience yelled, “Why make a comeback?”
Looking fit in a casual black shirt, Chappelle, a 39-year-old father of three, repeated the question, took a drag from his clove cigarette and leaned into a punch line with emphatic exasperation: “Private school is expensive!” Then he flashed a sneaky grin, clunked his microphone on his belly and scampered upstage the way he used to in the opening moments of his old series, “Chappelle’s Show.”
Later in his magnetically compelling set, which ran almost two hours, he returned to the subject with a more sober perspective. “I don’t need to come back,” he said, pausing. “But why not?”
After mocking a drunk woman who requested that he perform old characters, he struck a wearier tone. “This is a hard context to be funny in,” he said. “What’s the point?”
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To the general public, Chappelle seems like the J.D. Salinger of comedy. Since he quit his Comedy Central show after two brilliant seasons, walking away in 2005 from a reported $50 million contract, his mystique has grown as his public profile has shrunk. He rarely gives interviews or makes television appearances. It’s been many years since he released a movie or taped a comedy special. Persistent rumors of a high-profile return have grown louder.
Seeing Chappelle here revealed him as struggling with some of the issues that led him to leave the spotlight. It’s also an exhilarating reminder of what we’ve been missing: the laid-back delivery pivoting into explosive bursts of energy; the sideways insight and deadpan gravitas; how every joke seems as if he came up with it on the spot. If there are comics with more onstage charisma than Dave Chappelle, I haven’t seen them.
Perched on a stool, he talked to his listeners as if they were old friends, so at ease that they frequently talked back. This became a dialogue that often turned raucous, but even when the room spun out of control, the heckler earning angry responses, Chappelle looked calm, even pleased with the comedic possibilities.
“It’s like flying coach in here,” Chappelle said, in one of many knowing jokes that skewers his success.
He even poked fun at his own Hamlet-like thought process.
“I was talking to Mos Def,” he said in an aside, “and I knew he wasn’t listening because I was talking about my comeback.”
A reason Chappelle has not lost a step is that he’s nowhere near as reclusive as he seems. He just performs only on his terms: in small rooms, on short notice. But he’ll headline the Funny or Die Oddball Fest with acts Flight of the Conchords,
In February he showed up at the Comedy Cellar in New York, performing with Chris Rock. As reported by the website Comic’s Comic, Rock said he needed time to prepare his set, adding: “Dave’s like: Let’s just do it Wednesday. Unannounced.”
Like Bill Cosby, another stand-up who likes to sit down, Chappelle has an eccentric delivery so distinctive and a persona so appealing that he doesn’t need to tell jokes to get a laugh. But instead of abusing this gift, he exploits it.
The highlight of the evening was a story about visiting New York during the Occupy Wall Street protests. “I had my own protests,” he said. “It was called ‘Occupy Luxury Suite.’ ”
Then, after confessing that he was feeling down, he said he saw a homeless man outside his hotel digging through garbage. He lingered on this image, describing it in vivid detail, explaining that this man was attacking his job with such intensity that it was as if he were searching for “the next big thing.”
Then the homeless man saw Chappelle, and their eyes met, a connection. It was then, Chappelle said, that he realized that he was the next big thing. The instant after this sentimental moment, he shifted into panic and yelled wildly at the homeless man, “You stink!” and ran away.
It’s tempting to read this tale as a metaphor for his career (with show business as the searching homeless man), but what matters more is that it was a funny story beautifully told. And it was only the first act of an involved set piece that included sharp self-parody, suspense and the casual poetry of a born storyteller. Let’s hope its real meaning is this: Dave Chappelle is just getting started.