He jokingly dubbed it "the shittiest comeback in show business," but from the moment that Dave Chappelle swaggered out on to the Radio City Music Hall stage, on the sold-out first night of a nine-date residency at the venue, you could tell that he had stepped back into the spotlight with a clear goal. Long before he became famous for playing Prince and Rick James on his sketch-comedy show Chappelle's Show, before he walked away from a multimillion contract, before he decamped to South Africa and became a semi-recluse, Chappelle was a stand-up comic — one who could rival Louis C.K. for the best-working-comedian crown. And his aim was fairly clear early on: He wanted to remind the crowd that telling jokes — usually filthy, often racially tinged, always funny — is what he does best.
For some of the later shows in his Radio City run, Chappelle is bringing out musical guests like the Roots, Janelle Monae and Nas, recreating the funky, neo-soul-revue vibe of the 2004 block party he threw in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. (The 10th anniversary of the event isn't until September, but given that his tour ends here in New York, why not celebrate it early?) Last night, however, he kept the focus on comedy; other than a brief intro from a characteristically gushing James Lipton and a short-ish opening set from D.C. stand-up Tony Woods, this was 100% Chappelle's show. And despite a momentarily worrisome start — he quickly went into a postmortem about his infamous Hartford, Connecticut gig from last August, bringing to mind memories of Lenny Bruce reading his court transcripts aloud onstage near the end of his career — the comic found his groove and kept it for a largely tight, well-constructed set.
"I'm too famous to speak my mind…unless I'm at the Illuminati Christmas party," Chappelle quipped, before speaking his mind on a number of topics and tearing his targets to shreds. He took on Donald Sterling ("They had a tape of an 80-year-old white man being racist…I did not see that one coming"), imagining the chastened owner informing the Clippers of his transgression in a locker-room powwow and how, when Sterling's girlfriend gave him a blow job, she must be "tasting history, five wars and a depression." He fantasized about hiring Paula Deen to cook for him, forcing her to dress her up as Aunt Jemima. The Malaysian flight that went missing didn't crash, he said; it simply landed on "Tupac Island."
But the topical stuff took a backseat to more traditional material that was given an edge thanks to Chappelle's eloquent way profanity, a particular racial epithet and a popular P-word euphemism for female genitalia. After a hilarious riff on a 50 Cent lyric about "beating on the pussy," which quickly turned into a post-bout boxing interview conducted with a vagina (Chappelle's panting as he answered a sports announcer's questions were a nice touch), his strongest bits were about marriage and family. He talked about his wife and kids being angry at him over an old sex tape that was delivered to his house, about counseling his son after a fight at school, and taking revenge on his wife via an impromptu comedy-club set — only to unexpectedly see her and one of his children glaring at him from the back — in a manner that might have brought to mind an older Borscht-belt comedian, if said comedian didn't just work blue but cobalt or dark navy blue. The notions were carbon-dated to 1962; Chappelle's delivery, clockwork timing and choice of language made them seem dynamic without letting the curse words obscure the observations.
The crowd ate it up, and you could see Chappelle was in his element, puffing cigarettes on a stage and soaking up laughter. This wasn't going to be another Hartford debacle; even when the topic of him abandoning his show inevitably came up at about the halfway point via a yelling audience member, Chappelle didn't let it phase him. "It was dramatic, yeah," he said, referring to his hiatus from public life. "But I'm happy now." Another person screamed out "Bring back Chappelle's Show," to which Dave replied, "Yeah, right after I make Half Baked 2. That when you'll know I'm really broke." Later, when the topic of returning to stand-up came up, he joked, "I'm just making enough money to disappear again. That shit's expensive!"
Chappelle clearly does not want to disappear. He wants to tell jokes about Lil Wayne being a guest star on CSI and hosting a cooking show, both of which end with the punchline "pussy juice." ("I have 40 jokes involving Lil Wayne that all end in the phrase 'pussy juice.' I could keep going like this for days.") He wants to start off with a dodgy bit about transgender politics and tragedy, and then stick the landing by lambasting the person for owning an answering machine. ("How can your body be so far in the future and your technology so far in the past?!?") He wants to get laughs with a road-tested, solid 90-minute set that seemed professionally polished and mostly ramble-free without feeling like it been bled dry after being done for so many months on tour. And then, after he'd clearly come to an end point, Chappelle wants to stay on stage for another half hour, freewheeling through some bits he'd had in his back pocket and bringing out more Lil Wayne jokes.
In other words, Dave Chappelle does not want to be the Howard Hughes of comedy. He wants to be a working comedian, the kind of top-shelf professional stand-up that a lot of us comedy nerds pinned our hopes on prior to him having people yell "Rick James!" at him everywhere and melting down. And if nothing else, the Radio City Music Hall residency should prove that, first and foremost, is what he is. He may not be rich, bee-yotch. But he's certainly back.