Strangely-buff Dave Chappelle performs for sell-out crowd in San Francisco

(old picture, not from this event, in case that was unclear)

Dave Chappelle at Cobb’s Comedy Club in San Francisco, April 16th, 2011

I know this post isn’t strictly movie-related, but then, when has this site ever been strict about anything? And anyway, plenty of people seem to be interested in what Dave Chappelle is up to these days, so why shouldn’t I be the one to bring you the first-hand report? Don’t answer that, just go with it.  So, did Dave really go nuts? Is he actually a Muslim? Is he planning a comeback? Is he still funny?  READ ON, FOR POSSIBLY DEFINITIVE ANSWERS TO ALL THESE QUESTIONS AND MORE!

Chappelle dropped in to Cobb’s Comedy Club on short notice this past Friday, and a friend of mine (one of the more generous ones, luckily) who’d just happened to be perusing the club’s website that afternoon, was able to procure me a $70 ticket (they started at $55, I hear). The line outside the club 40 minutes before showtime was evidence that Dave doesn’t need much time (an hour, reportedly) or any press to sell out a show, even at double what most other comics charge.  At least, not in a town where he filmed one of his more famous specials.  Starting his 10:30 show (the second of the night) a little before 11 (insanely punctual by Chappelle standards), Chappelle’s opener, a big black guy whose name escapes me (TJ something?), performed for about 15 minutes. When he was finished, he told the crowd that Dave would be coming up shortly, said that he would be trying out some new stuff.  In the nicest way possible, he warned any A-holes who might be in attendance not to shout requests for famous bits or yell dumb crap from The Chappelle Show (this will come into play later).  The opener then exited stage left, leaving an abandoned microphone while a DJ played tracks over the PA.  If leaving an empty stage between performers seems normal for a concert, it’s something I’ve never seen at any comedy show I’ve either performed at or attended, including past shows at Cobb’s (Jim Norton, Bill Burr) or the last time I saw Chappelle five or six years ago.  Like the old HBO tagline, it all had an air of “This isn’t comedy; it’s Dave Chappelle.”

Dave came up about five minutes later, looking, as you might’ve gleaned from the headline, strangely yoked (the most recent picture I can find of him is on the right).  Granted, our nearest point of comparison is of a disturbingly-thin dude believably portraying Prince and an itchy crackhead, but I’d say, conservatively, that he’s packed on at least 25 pounds of muscle since I last saw him.  With his bulgy, veiny biceps pushing out the sleeves of his charcoal t-shirt, he looked to be going about 190, 195.  It shouldn’t be surprising to see him looking so healthy, but it’s easy forget that the guy’s only 37, just two years older than Tosh.  He didn’t say what workout regimen he’s on, but it’s definitely not yoga.

There was no huge entrance as Chappelle wandered into his set, casually delivering pleasantries, lighting up a cigarette. When, a few minutes in, he chucklingly told us that he had no material and asked what he should talk about for the next 45 minutes, it didn’t feel like artifice.  For the next hour, he demonstrated the lackadaisical style and improvisational genius that make him both a brilliant prodigy and an occasionally frustrating performer.

It takes an incredible amount of comfort onstage (and yes, hubris to spare) to emerge from hiding, sell out a $70-a-ticket show, and basically wing it for the next 90 minutes without exhibiting any outward signs of stress, no pressure to live up to anyone’s expectations. Excluding sociopaths, only a guy who’s been performing since he was 14 could manage that, and only as genius a performer as Chappelle could manage it without it turning into a Charlie Sheen-level disaster.  But Chappelle did it, and the audience loved him for it.  He’d turn things they shouted into pretty damn decent improvised bits, complete with ruminations, multiple tags, and even callbacks.  At one point early in the show, Dave asked the crowd to name one real thing, one thing that proves reality exists and that we’re all experiencing it together (yes, pretty existential for an improvised comedy bit).  Some guy yelled “PUSSY!”, which launched Dave into a series of observations, and provided an impromptu theme for the evening: “Pussy is the Anchor.” Slightly vulgar, deceptively profound, apparently by accident — sort of a microcosm of the evening.

He touched on his fame, joked about having “screwed up his whole life” — it was less dark than it sounds, I promise — and mentioned some kind of “comeback” four or five times throughout the show (more in a casual, self-deprecating way than in a sad, Charlie Sheen way, I thought).  By way of explaining what he was doing there, he talked about sitting at his home in rural Ohio thinking to himself, “Dammit, I am hilarious. …The world needs to know about this!”  Which led to a few phone calls, putting together a show, chartering a flight, and then, by the time he was in a plane over Denver, wondering if he had made a terrible mistake.

Were there lulls?  Oh my yes.  At times, Dave would sit down on his stool, take a drag from his cigarette, rub his face with his palms, saying nothing, and things would get downright awkward.  But the contrast between the low-energy valleys, and the peaks, where something would spark a bit (either remembered from past shows or fleshed out in his mind en route to this one), made you really believe that Dave was actually just making this shit up as he went along.  It gave his more coherent material, the stuff you’d imagine someday tightened up and re-ordered to make a comedy special, an air of spontaneity, a feeling like the audience was, in some small way, witnessing history being made, rather than “an act.”

Truly improvised or not, some of his best bits were dead-on hilarious, with the air of social commentary that made him famous.  At one point, he talked about not being in any movies for a while, and being upset with the way Hollywood tries to compartmentalize films as “white films” or “black films.”  Miming a telephone, he illustrated his point with a story about the kind of movie offers he typically gets.  “Hello?  Oh, hey, Master-P.  So you say it’s going to be low-budget?  Mm-hmm.  Okay.  And Mystikal is in it?  Alright.  Uh-huh.  And they think we did it?  Right. And then we kill everyone and get the money. Okay.”  Adding, “I love those movies, I just think we might need to evolve a little bit.”

Pretty sharp observation for a guy who looks like he’s just BSing this whole thing, which, obviously, is the beauty of Dave Chappelle.  (Incidentally, this led into a bit about why Into the Wild is the kind of movie there should be more of, his anger that no one told black people about Into the Wild, and a delightful improvisation of what it would’ve been like if Eddie Vedder had wrote a whole soundtrack about Precious the way he had Into the Wild. Awesome, but… you kind of had to be there.).

If Dave would’ve ended it 20 minutes sooner, it would’ve been a perfect show.  Chappelle is famous for performing for six straight hours to break Dane Cook’s record at the Laugh Factory, so long shows have become sort of his “thing.”  But let me say this: excluding the first time I saw Braveheart, there isn’t anything in the world that I want to watch for more than two and a half hours, and even with the best comedians in the world, if it’s just a guy and microphone, 70 minutes is pushing it.  Dave went 90.  Towards the end of his set, he resorted to a strange format in which his DJ would cue up a snippet from a random song, which would either remind Dave of something funny or… not.  An off-hand comment about inviting some musical act to a hypothetical Chappelle Reunion Show led to easily the most obnoxious moment of the evening, where audience members (now drunk, presumably) would shout the names of musical acts (ERIKAH BADU!  THE ROOTS!  THE EXPLOITED!) as if to say, “I LISTEN TO COOL MUSIC TOO! PLEASE VALIDATE ME DAVE CHAPPELLE!”

This only went on for a minute or two, but it was irritating to the point that it almost got a girl a few seats away stabbed to death with her own chunky eyeglasses (be it at the hands of yours truly or some other good Samaritan).  It’s a strange phenomenon of either Dave Chappelle’s fame, coolness level, or his casual style (which leaves long and frequent periods of silence during his sets), that invites people sitting 12 rows back to blurt responses to Dave’s rhetorical questions as if he was eagerly getting to know them at a coffee shop, or shout random… topics? Suggestions?  Word associations? …as if Dave was inside their head, following them on whatever silent mind tangent they’d been on for the past five minutes.  Apropos of nothing, an older guy behind me shouted, “THE SESQUICENTENNIAL OF THE CIVIL WAR!”  This led Dave down a path of debatable importance about the value of the word “sesquicentennial.”

Suffice to say, it could’ve, and should’ve, been a bit shorter.

But to answer those burning questions: is Chappelle crazy?  No.  A little self-indulgent, definitely, which is part of what makes him so good, but probably not nuts, at least, not for a comedian.  His social commentary is still sharp as a razor blade when he latches onto something, and his delivery, as always, seemingly effortless.  Is he planning a comeback?  Who the hell knows what that even means?  For now, he has a couple more shows scheduled tonight and tomorrow (Tuesday and Wednesday) at Cobb’s.  No word on whether the guys who shouted “PUSSY!” and “SESQUICENTENNIAL!” will be there though, so your results may vary. And honestly, if a great stand-up is doing live shows, who gives a shit whether he gets shoehorned into TV and movies?  That’s a question for his accountant.  I could identify eras of my own life based on their corresponding Chris Rock comedy specials.  A Chris Rock movie?  I might watch it on cable if I’m somewhere without DVR service.

I digress, but to answer that all-important question: Is Dave Chappelle still funny?  Yes, yes he is.