At Radio City Music Hall on Wednesday night there was a sense of nervous anticipation about Dave Chappelle’s return to the stage after nearly a decade in self-imposed exile. “I just hope he finishes the show,” said Jason Santos, 32, from the Bronx. “I just hope he doesn’t freak out.”
Adding to the momentousness of the occasion were T-shirts handed out to audience members reading “Dave Chappelle NYC 2014: I Was There.” The overall sense of anxiety was heightened by signs posted throughout the Radio City listing behavior forbidden during the show, which included texting, talking, “yelling out anything” and heckling (the last was underlined and written in extra-large font, lest anyone miss it).
But Chappelle and his fans needn’t have worried.
After a video introduction from Chappelle’s unlikely buddy James Lipton and a raunchy and well received warm-up by comedian Tony Woods, Chappelle finally took to the stage about 9:30, welcomed with a hearty standing ovation.
Although Chappelle, now 40, looked slightly different — more than a few audience members could be overheard remarking on the once rail-thin comedian’s newly muscled physique — he otherwise seemed unchanged.
Halfway through his nearly two-hour stand-up set, chain smoking throughout the performance, Chappelle told the audience, “I’m just back out here earning enough money to disappear again.”
Chappelle, who began his career as a stand-up while still a teenager and was the star of many a failed TV pilot in the ‘90s, broke through to the big time in 2003 with “Chappelle’s Show” on Comedy Central. The sketch-comedy series was known for its copious use of the N-word and fearless takes on race (in what may be its most celebrated moment, Chappelle played a blind white supremacist). It became a cultural and commercial sensation, breaking DVD sales records at the time and earning its star a deal with Comedy Central worth a reported $50 million.
But just weeks into filming of the show’s third season, Chappelle abruptly quit the program and fled to South Africa. His dramatic and mysterious departure fueled wild speculation about a possible drug problem or mental breakdown. But the truth was less sensationalistic: Chappelle had grown weary of his own success.
He’s spent most of the last decade at home with his family in rural Ohio, fueling comeback speculation with the occasional unannounced stand-up gig. Chappelle’s dramatic retreat from fame has, fairly or not, earned him a reputation as a genius recluse akin to J.D. Salinger or Harper Lee. Although Chappelle headlined a comedy tour last year, including a gig in Hartford, Conn., at which hecklers drove him from the stage, his Radio City gigs are a little like Salinger suddenly showing up for a marathon book-signing session at a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan.
Wednesday’s show was the first of a whopping eight shows he’ll perform at the storied venue. For the final four performances, Chappelle will be joined by musical guests including Nas, the Roots and Janelle Monae. The spotlight-shunning comedian has spent much of the last week in tireless promotional mode, crashing the set of “Today” and appearing on “The Tonight Show” and “Late Show.”
He began his Radio City set in self-conscious fashion, discussing his past year on the road staging what he called “the [worst] comeback in the history of showbiz” (though he used more colorful terms). He cracked jokes about his now-infamous show in Hartford, and throughout the evening repeatedly voiced his ambivalent feelings about wealth, celebrity and Hollywood.
He thoroughly dashed any remaining hopes of a “Chappelle’s Show” revival, saying it was about as likely as a sequel to “Half Baked,” his 1998 pothead comedy, even if he’s not sure he did the right thing by abandoning his Comedy Central show in the first place.
“I’m too famous to just say everything that I think and feel,” he said early in the show. “The only place I really feel comfortable talking is, like, the Illuminati Christmas party or something like that.”
But if Chappelle feels inhibited by his fame, it was hard to tell from his comedy, which, much as it did on “Chappelle’s Show,” lingered at the tricky intersection of race, class politics and sexuality.
He feigned surprise over the scandal involving Clippers owner Donald Sterling. “Via secretly recorded conversations, it was revealed that in America, there is an 80-year-old white man with racist tendencies,” he said, pausing. “Didn’t see that coming.”
He was also similarly unperturbed by the brouhaha over celebrity chef Paula Deen and her long-ago use of the N-word; he seemed more impressed that someone had patiently waited 30 years to mete out revenge against the former Food Network star, and shared a fantasy of hiring her to cook apple pie and fried chicken for his family (at twice minimum wage).
Chappelle tackled other taboo-fraught subjects, including the difficulty of being black and gay (“How are you going to prioritize your rage?” he wondered), the rise of the transgender movement (Chaz Bono had successfully “made the transition from a woman to a fat dude”) and even male rape (white victims would be more likely to report the crime, he reasoned).
In what seemed to be an indication of his good spirits, Chappelle breezily interacted with members of the audience, including one man who was in attendance with his girlfriend of seven years (long enough to be a “Shawshank sentence,” he quipped) and another from Australia (a country he deemed “America light”).
Chappelle even provided a few glimpses of his day-to-day life as an average, albeit rich and famous, family man — getting yelled at by his wife for taking bites from his kids’ school lunches while stoned and wondering why his son’s private school is, like a crack addict, “always asking for more money.”
“Being a rich black dude is like wearing an itchy sweater — it’ll keep you warm but it’s not as comfortable as you’d like it to be,” he said during an anecdote about being the target of a racially motivated snowball attack near his Ohio home.
Fittingly for a star whose comedy is so concerned with racial identity, Chappelle wrapped up the night with a riff on President Obama. In yet another reference to his absence, the comedian noted that he’s been “gone so long the president of the United States has been black for, like, six or seven years.” He even shared a (most likely apocryphal) story of Obama calling and asking him to remain out of the limelight in order to help the campaign.
After a cue from offstage, Chappelle reluctantly brought his set to a close after more than 100 minutes at shortly after 11 p.m. Having been away for so long, apparently he wasn’t quite ready to leave.
Follow @MeredithBlake on Twitter.