Forget about the jokes for a minute.
Don’t get me wrong: the fact that we still find ourselves quoting “Player Haters’ Ball” and that Sesame Street segment from Killin’ Them Softly speaks more towards Dave Chappelle’s incredible material than anything I can ever say. But throughout his celebrated career, one of Chappelle’s strongest (and most overlooked) weapons was his stage presence, that kind of intangible comedic timing that manifested itself every time he broke away from one of his jokes to slap his microphone to his knee or crack up with the audience.
It was there when he was making fun of Lil Jon’s liberal usage of “aww, skeet skeet” during Chappelle’s Show (seriously, peep the video and notice the amount of times he just basks in own jokes, a childlike enthusiasm shining through), and it was there when he was discussing the ingredients of “purple drink” during his “For What It’s Worth” special (fast-forward to the 20:40 mark of this video).
Sunday night, in front of a packed crowd outside of Detroit, it wasn’t there.
The comedian has had a tough run lately, for reasons that you’re probably aware of. His actions in Connecticut cast a large cloud over what was supposed to be his re-introduction to the national spotlight: Chappelle, along with Flight of the Concords, Dmitri Martin, Hannibal Buress* and other funny people, are ringing in the fall as a part of Funny Or Die’s “Oddball Comedy And Curiosity Festival.”
Throughout the evening, festival-goers displayed a wide range of emotions in regards to the Connecticut incident, and the show that they were about to witness. The sweeping majority viewed their beloved comedic hero as the victim of some deviant heckling; others thought that he needed to toughen up a bit; more than one person I talked to were hoping for a similar incident to occur. Still, a sense of unity prevailed: we were all there to witness something special, a joke-cracking phoenix rising from the ashes of a self-imposed purgatory.
What we got was something a shade underwhelming. From the moment Dave walked on stage, one American Spirit clinched between his index and middle finger, another firmly lodged behind his ear, something seemed a bit off. He came out with a five-minute bit about Connecticut that had people in attendance dying (“Do you know what it feels like to get heckled by some motherfuckers with crocodiles on their sweaters? Terrible.”), a savvy PR move that assured that, if nothing else, Chappelle wasn’t going to leave us at the altar like he did the audience in Hartford.
Still, as the adrenaline wore off, and his jokes were told, and his cigarettes were smoked, the tone of the set never quite got off the ground. Gone was the spark that made the crux of his career so incredible to witness; in its place, a pensive and somber safety net, one that always seemed to prevent Dave to dive completely into his material. He’d get on a role, start feeding off the energy of the crowd, smile, then stop. Take a drag of his cigarette. Think. And then keep going. This wasn’t the same guy that we all came for. Not a carbon copy, anyways.
And that’s fine.
Over the course of his career, Dave Chappelle has proven to be, if nothing else, human. Anybody who tells you that his rapid departure from the public eye was for one specific reason needs to educate themselves; if you make an earnest attempt at understanding his complexities, there is little fault to be found. Not for stopping production on one of the funniest shows that has ever graced the airwaves, not for several embarrassing on-stage meltdowns, and definitely not for taking time to rediscover what his voice is as a stand-up comedian.
The show ended on an incredibly awkward note. Chappelle made a joke about getting old (“I’m so old, I’ll be jacking off, and just stop in the middle. Like, f*ck it.”), then mentioned something about having places to go. He thanked the audience as they were still reeling from his last joke, heading off the stage mid-laughter. Dave was greeted by the event’s MC, Jeff Ross (still wearing the corn-rows from Comedy Central’s James Franco roast), who pushed him back up to the mic, where Chappelle shouted out Jalen Rose, who was in attendance.
It was odd, rushed, forced, and an incredibly disappointing way to end a set from a man that the majority of the audience had probably waited a very long time to see.