Friday, August 16, 2013

Dave Chappelle Returns

"I want to make sure I'm dancing and not shuffling," he says. "What ever decisions I make right now I'm going to have live with. Your soul is priceless." The first two seasons of his show "had a real spirit to them," he says. "I want to make sure whatever I do has spirit."
New York Times:
In 2005, Dave Chappelle was merely the hottest comedian in America. Then he left his job and became a far more singular cultural figure: A renegade to some, a lunatic to others, but most of all, an enigma.

Now he is making a kind of comeback — Mr. Chappelle headlines the Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival, a new 15-city tour presented by the Funny or Die Web site that begins Friday in Austin, Tex. — and what makes it particularly exciting is how he’s using his hard-earned mystique to make more daring and personal art.

Mr. Chappelle didn’t just walk away from a $50 million contract and the acclaimed “Chappelle’s Show,” whose second season on Comedy Central stacks up well against the finest years of “SCTV,” “Saturday Night Live” and Monty Python. He did so dramatically, fleeing to Africa and explaining his exit in moral terms: “I want to make sure I’m dancing and not shuffling,” he told Time magazine. Since then, he has been a remote star in an era when comedians have never been more accessible.

Mr. Chappelle hasn’t done any interviews (aside from a radio appearance in 2011) or appeared on podcasts or talk shows. He doesn’t even have a Web site. He joined Twitter last year, then quit after 11 tweets.

But Mr. Chappelle has tiptoed back into the public eye over the last year. While he has stayed away from movies and television, he still drops in pretty often on comedy clubs and occasionally theaters, usually in surprise appearances that generate more rumors of a comeback. Beyond the Oddball Festival, Chris Rock has said Mr. Chappelle may join him on his stand-up tour next year. Since seeing him perform at the start of the year, I have noticed an increased urgency in his comedy by the summer. A show I saw in San Francisco in March was charismatic if chaotic: freewheeling, improvisational and full of crowd work. But when I caught three of his shows in June down South, his act was very different: polished, thematically unified, less work in progress than test run.

His characteristic laid-back delivery and pinpoint timing were in service of jokes that were more dark, intricate and revelatory than his stand-up from a decade ago. Seeing Mr. Chappelle evolve onstage was a reminder that he didn’t leave comedy so much as return home to the live form he has practiced for a quarter-century. Mr. Chappelle might have left television, but that departure has become the wellspring of his comedy now. He only needs a microphone and a stage to lay claim to greatness.

Don’t get the wrong idea: Mr. Chappelle isn’t all gloom and doom. He still earns consistent laughs but the most explosive ones build off this sober mood. Mr. Chappelle has always been deft at this two-step.

In early 2006, Mr. Chappelle did interviews on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Inside the Actors Studio” and told a story about the struggle to be free in Hollywood. “I’m going to find a way to be myself,” he said on the latter show in one of his most compelling moments. His tone now is less defiant, occasionally even contrite. In one story, after struggling to come up with some life advice to give students, he settles on: “Don’t quit your show.” Instead of explaining himself, he dramatizes his own confusion, then makes it funny.

All great stand-up is the expression of a personal voice, no matter if it’s from a confessional, observational or prop comic. Mr. Chappelle has never been an exhibitionist onstage but his new material, even when oblique, seems revealing.

His stories wander but their baggy structure provides a nice frame on which to hang jokes. Part of the pleasing unpredictability of his delivery is that Mr. Chappelle would rather seem to stumble into punch lines than be guided by them.

In that same “Actors Studio” interview, the host, James Lipton, who has become friends with Mr. Chappelle, says that Richard Pryor’s wife felt that legendary comic had “passed the torch” to Mr. Chappelle. Like so many comics, Mr. Chappelle owes a debt to Pryor, and his career has in many ways retraced his steps. Both worked clubs in the Village and received big breaks from Mel Brooks (Pryor was a writer on “Blazing Saddles”; Mr. Chappelle appeared in “Robin Hood: Men in Tights”) before moving on to their own sketch shows and soul-searching trips to Africa.

Pryor cemented his reputation among many as the greatest stand-up of all time with the 1982 special “Live on the Sunset Strip,” only a few years after he accidentally set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. He transformed a near-death experience into transcendent art. Mr. Chappelle has different demons and is a more elusive storyteller. What he burned up was not his body, but his career. Pryor located comedy in tragedy, but Mr. Chappelle deftly finds it in mystery.

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