Arts

Showdown

Dave Chappelle's comeback and what really happened at his infamous marathon show
dave chappelle WANTED MAN: Dave Chappelle performs Saturday at the Wild 94.9 Comedy Jam,after a comeback fueled solely by surprise appearances in small clubs.

AFTER PRACTICALLY DISAPPEARING from the face of the Earth, the funniest man alive is making a comeback. And considering that Dave Chappelle was just six years ago the most popular and visible comedian of his generation, he's done it in a way nobody expected: with tiny club shows announced at the spur of the moment—usually the same day as the show—a lot of them right here in the Bay Area.

That's the good news. The bad news: Dave Chappelle froze my face.

Before I explain, let me say that to understand how this comeback works, all you really have to do is understand supply and demand. There is simply not enough Dave Chappelle to go around, in a world hungry for the comedic genius that delivered 33 episodes of Chappelle's Show in the early 2000s. After starting as a cult phenomenon, it blew up into the coolest thing on TV, the show every college kid in America (and eventually, most everybody else) had to watch. From the most popular recurring bits, like his satirizing of Rick James and Wayne Brady, to the meatier stuff like his crack addict character Tyrone Biggums, or the mind-blowing"Reparations" sketch, there hadn't been anything this crazy and funny since the early days of SNL. And Chappelle's Show didn't fade away—it burned out in the most spectacular way possible, and so did the man at the center of it. Tired and disillusioned, Chappelle walked away from it all during production of the third season. He split for South Africa in 2005, and after the Michael Gondrydirected Dave Chappelle's Block Party in 2006 (which was filmed in 2004 anyway), he seemed to quickly disappear from the pop-culture landscape entirely. When he headlines the Wild Comedy Jam this week at Shoreline, it'll be the first big show I've heard of him doing in years.

Meanwhile, the blogosphere has been salivating over these tiny club shows, fueling the comeback talk. Everyone on the Internet was hearing about them, but few were actually getting in to see them. Recently, I even read one blogger writing about Chappelle's "legendary six-hour San Francisco show," and he sounded like he would have given anything to be there.

Here's the thing: I was there. And it was nothing like that blogger thinks it was. It wasn't hours and hours of Chappelle doing an act, or even of Chappelle doing jokes. It was the most bizarre thing I've ever seen onstage in my life—and this from a man who's seen a Genitorturers concert. And it's where Dave Chappelle froze my face.

Keep in mind, when I say that this show was a nightmare—and it was—Chappelle is the first person who'd agree with me. He said onstage near the end (for the record, five and a half hours after it started, not six) that it was the second-worst show he'd ever done. God, I'm glad I wasn't at whatever show he ranked lower. Also, nightmares are the things that stick with you the longest after you wake up. I'm certain no one who was at this show will ever forget it.

On April 29, Chappelle announced he'd be doing two shows that night at the Independent in San Francisco. Through various machinations, I got into the late show. The early show ran a little late, Chappelle was onstage for a little over an hour, I think. Our show got going around 11, and after an opener, the man himself took the stage.

The first hour was as funny and fresh as expected. Chappelle riffed on current events like Tiger Woods and such, and occasionally came back to the topic of his show, and why he walked away from 50 million dollars. (His advice to younger comics seemed to be: Take the money, do the show).

Then things got weird. One crazy lady in the audience was shouting out random things about how his muscles looked great and he must be working out. Instead of ignoring her or taking her out with a snappy comeback, he engaged. Gradually, other audience members began to pile on with random questions on completely unfunny topics, and he answered them, too.

This was also about the time that he complemented one of the waitresses on her body, the moment that he would later pinpoint as the one where everything went wrong. I don't know if it really was (she didn't seem nearly as upset about it as he thought she was), but something certainly shifted in that second hour.

From then on, the man who had earlier been slinking around the stage like a cat burglar, a reminder that his comedy reflexes were lightning quick, sat in a chair almost completely motionless. He gradually let the audience lead more and more, taking excruciating silent pauses when no one had a question to ask.

Around three o'clock, things took a turn for the paranoid as he claimed there were plants in the audience, put there by some unknown sinister force (apparently Comedy Central) to catch him off guard. He kept accusing the audience of not asking deep enough questions, and told us we had to "peel back the layers."

It's possible of course, that this was all an act, some kind of comedy-meets-performance-art thing. But I doubt it. In fact, the most remarkable thing about those early morning hours was how Chappelle suddenly seemed to be doing an anti-act, trying to strip himself down to the bone psychologically right there on stage. He wrestled with his demons over leaving the show and losing his career. Though he did go off on some hilarious tangents every now and then, it wasn't so much funny as it was mesmerizing.

On the other hand, it was also like getting invited over to your friend's hotel room for a late-night "party," only to have everyone sit there uncomfortably while he has an emotional breakdown. Everyone in that room, maybe a hundred or so of us in all, was thinking "Can I leave now?" at some point that night.

And yet, very few did. It was clear that, for better or worse, this was a once in a lifetime thing. Chappelle flat out refused to leave the stage, even though he kept getting the "cut it" signal from management. I've never seen a performer yawn onstage, but Chappelle did that night—twice. Around four, he put a sign-up sheet onstage for anyone who wanted to ride motorcycles down to Santa Cruz with him the next day. I was thinking something along the lines of "I'm not sure I ever want to see this guy again in my life," so I declined.

By 4:34am, we were free at last, and I had to laugh on the way out. How could I even explain what had just happened to anyone? But Chappelle had the last laugh on me, as I woke up the next morning unable to move half my face. Diagnosis: Bell's palsy! Cause: extreme lack of sleep! Luckily, it went away quickly, but for a few days I definitely had an Elephant Man "don't look at me!" thing going. Thanks, Dave. I still think you're the funniest guy around, but from now on, it's always going to be the early show.


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