To many, Dave Chappelle has been missing in action; the beloved comedian has been hard to come by since the end of his Comedy Central sketch show "Chappelle's Show" in 2006. But as he took to the stage of Hollywood's Palladium on Thursday night, the 42-year-old made it clear that this wasn't a comeback.
"People always say, 'Where have you been?' " he said at the start of the show. "I never stopped working because I didn't get the money."
The crowd erupted in laughter and applause of approval. Such a response would characterize the entire set: hundreds of people cackling along — alcoholic beverages in hand — pumping their fists and reveling in what's been called comedic genius, so much so that no one seemed concerned that their cellphones had been locked away in magnetized pouches.
But surely in the back of the sold-out crowd's mind was whether Chappelle still had it.
Controversy once swirled around Chappelle's name following his much-talked-about exit from television in the midst of his show's third season and subsequent "spiritual retreat" in South Africa. While reports alleged that he and the network clashed over finances and creativity, he told People Magazine in 2014 that wasn't the case. He just wanted to raise his family without the constant spotlight of celebrity.
"I never stopped being onstage. What I did was step off of the main stage," he told the magazine, "because those lights were hot, and I was trying to do other things with my life."
The comedian continued to do stand-up routines and pop-up shows at comedy clubs across the country. Most recently, he made multiday appearances in cities including Portland, Ore., Seattle and Milwaukee.
Chappelle, in fact, is on a tour of sorts, but not one necessarily planned out months before. The way it works: He decides he wants to do a show, announces it a week in advance and watches as the tickets sell out in the blink of an eye.
The Palladium set was the first of six, two-a-day shows through Saturday and his first formal concert in Los Angeles since the end of his television show.
When Aaron Voorhees, 37, heard it announced on the radio last week, he and his wife immediately called to get tickets. As longtime fans, since Chappelle co-starred in 1993's "Robin Hood: Men in Tights," they wanted to see whether his comedy was still on par with what they once knew.
Voorhees arrived at 5 p.m. for the show scheduled to start at 6. Seating was first-come, first-serve and all tickets were will-call, so he wanted to be there early. But the line was already wrapped around the block.
An hour and a half later, he made it to the front of the line, where wristbands were being handed out. Posted signs prompted audience members to turn off their cellphones. At the door of the entrance, all phones were bagged in magnetic cases, to be unlocked only at the end of the show. Chappelle recorded the show. No word yet on whether it will end up on the large or small screen. He's taped three performances thus far. Needless to say, expectations were high.
As red, blue and white lights filled the room, the show began with three opening acts: comedians Jay Pharoah, Chris Spencer and Donnell Rawlings. Each delivered sets that brought the crowd to its feet by the end. And then it was Chappelle's turn.
The venue DJ began a medley of tracks as his introduction. With the crowd already on its feet and cheering, DMX's "Party Up (Up in Here)" and "Ruff Ryders' Anthem," Nelly's "Ride With Me" and Montell Jordan's "This is How We Do It" filled the room as Chappelle walked onstage to a thunderous roar. And from the jump, the audience started laughing and kept doing so for the hour or so he was in front of them.
"I literally got a headache from laughing too hard," Voorhees said. "He surpassed my expectations."
The comedian delivered the unapologetic, politically incorrect set characteristic of his former, more visible days, and no one was off-limits. He defended Manny Pacquiao's homophobia, said he "misses" Bruce Jenner and called Bill Cosby "the Steph Curry of rape." Presidential candidates Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton also were targets as well as terrorist groups, male feminists and O.J. Simpson.
Liz Heron, who also attended the 6 p.m. show, appreciated its provocativeness.
"I'm glad he still pushes the boundaries and is unapologetic," she said, noting that she did groan at some of his sexual assault jokes. "He's got a real unique voice and a real unique perspective in comedy. I've missed it."
Heron said that she wasn't aware that Chappelle had been touring and doing shows as often as he had, but that it definitely shows in his comfort level onstage. Voorhees agreed.
"Dave seemed to be comfy," he said. "No rust, right in the flow with his normal stage presence. That's refreshing being that most comedians don't recover from breaks in work or social falls."
When the set ended, the crowd stood once more, the cheering drowning out the Kendrick Lamar track "Levitate," which played as Chappelle took a bow. The comedian came back to pay tribute to comedian Garry Shandling, who had died earlier in the day, and rapper Phife Dawg, who died Tuesday.
As the audience filed out of the theater, someone could be overheard saying: "Back like he never left."
That's because he didn't.
Get your life! Follow me on Twitter: @TrevellAnderson.