With eight years of laying low, it was hard not to be consumed with questions about what exactly we were in for. Does Dave still have it? Has his time out of the spotlight dulled his comedic skills? Will this show be a triumphant return to form or a spectacular trainwreck? By the end of Chappelle's hour-long set of brand-new stand-up, I can safely say that we were fools to ever doubt him. Not only is Chappelle on-point as ever, but he's as funny as he was at his peak — if not funnier.
After half an hour of 101.1 The Beat's DJ Dolewite dropping heavy-hitting crowd-pleasers like A$AP Rocky's “Fuckin' Problems” and King L's “Val Venis” from the stage, unannounced opener Hannibal Buress came on stage to warm the crowd up for the main event. I caught Hannibal last time he blew through town for a two-night stand at Zanies last year and while the crowd wasn't totally onboard at first, by the time he was joking about how easy it is to throw a parade in New Orleans — “in New Orleans for $300, you can fuck up traffic on a day's notice” — he was killing. If you don't know Hannibal already, get with the program. He's gonna be huge.
And then, after a 10 minute break without introduction or fanfare — save for Dolewite dropping some more hotness — out strode Dave Chappelle.
“There's a sign backstage saying you can't smoke onstage. Not even Johnny Cash could smoke onstage,” Chappelle told the crowd while twiddling a single cigarette. “I brought one cigarette for Johnny. Truth be told, I don't even smoke. But I do like that San Quentin record.”
And with the light of that cigarette, Chappelle dove into an hour of expertly written stand-up — tackling Lincoln, the pendulum swing of hope and hopelessness represented by Oscar Pistorius, living on a farm in Ohio, how over it he feels about being a celebrity, Internet comments, being the "old guy at the club" and more. Every story was built, brick by brick, to lead your expectations down one direction before completely destroying them at the last minute. It's that kind of build-up and tear-down that Chappelle has always excelled at, and these stories were on par with his classic Killing 'Em Softly special. For real.
But the real strength of Chappelle's act was in how he acknowledged and used the crowd's borderline lurid curiosity about what he's been up to for the past eight years. Most of his stories began as if he was imparting something he shouldn't let loose — “I shouldn't tell you this story, but I already started so I'm not gonna stop,” he said at one point in the show. He knows that information about his life since Chappelle's Show is at a premium. He knows that the people who'd put down $55 to see him are craving those stories. And so, he lets us have it. It's doubtful that he wasn't going to tell these stories — about confronting a homeless man in New York, for example — but the suggestion that we were hearing something we weren't supposed to is seriously powerful. It wasn't hard to notice that in his set.
Truly, every joke Chappelle told could have been a closer. Although he admitted later in the set that it's “hard to make a comeback when you're hemorrhaging material on YouTube,” it didn't look like he was having any trouble on Sunday night. But, then again, this is the same guy who did a six-hour show at The Laugh Factory in Los Angeles in 2007. He's nothing if not capable of producing new material — and with eight years to work from, the only thing stopping him from returning at the top is himself.
The night began to wind down after 40 minutes of drawn-out bits, when Chappelle announced “I know when it's time to get off stage when one of two things happens: a Lil Jon impression or someone shouts out 'I'm Rick James, bitch.'” To Nashville's credit, which Chappelle acknowledged, the crowd managed to maintain enough self-control to not shout decade-old catchphrases at him. It's that kind of nonsense that drove him away in the first place. And, if we're lucky, he'll stick around this time.
From My Notebook:
- On Comedy Central and cellphone videos: “It's good to be back, but I don't want you selling that [video] to Comedy Central so they could piece together another one of those episodes.”
- According to Ryman marketing director Brian Wagner, they came close to booking Chappelle two years ago. Much like this round of shows, it was put into the works two weeks before the show but plans apparently fell through. Also, Chappelle has gone full Bill Murray — eschewing management, an agent and other entertainment business folks and booking gigs himself.
- The “heckler of the night award” went to a guy who asked the most genteel question ever shouted at a comedy show: “Tell us what's to come for you.”
- Despite repeated warnings from the venue, Dolewite, Hannibal Burress and Dave himself, one dummy got himself kicked out for trying to film the show on his camera phone. C'mon, son. You paid $50 to get bounced before the first joke.