Comedian Dave Chappelle is back in action, which on one hand is great news. Arguably the funniest person in America during the Bush II era, Chappelle went from being a stoner comic lingering in B-movies to suddenly a household name with his genius-streaked, sketch-comedy program “Chappelle’s Show” (2003-’04). He was a valuable criticizer of racism in America, and a soothsayer about hip-hop, even giving Kanye West his first TV performance. And then, he was gone.
Chappelle slammed the door on showbiz in 2005, citing a need to preserve his artistic and human integrity. His contract was worth a rumored $50 million, which made the departure hard for fans to process.
But a lot of them gave him the benefit of the doubt. Case in point: He sold out five shows here last October and performs 10 sold-out shows Monday through Friday, Oct. 13-17, at the Neptune Theatre.
In its time, there was a creeping feeling that “Chappelle’s Show” was too good to be true — he has said he always kept jokes rawer than Comedy Central executives wanted — and creating it must have been emotionally exhausting. Comedy is difficult on its own, and so is talking about racism in constructive ways, but there was also mutiny in the ranks. After Chappelle quit, his co-comedian friends hosted episodes of unfinished sketches, diminishing his art and flouting his wishes.
So, we still love Chappelle. But on the other hand, who is he now? And who are you a fan of: the performer we used to know, or the one which currently exists?
Back in his late 20s and early 30s, Chappelle was wily and waggily. He has emerged at 41 muscled, rigid and chain-smoking. And where he was once fluid, a halting rhythm has entered his material now, like he’s taking the temperature of the room. His lethal side-eye is gone, it seems, replaced with a moderately stunned look. His recent interviews and stand-up shows have revolved around him explaining why he left. It’s a bummer chapter.
We Chappelle fans are in the position of asking for a third act. This may be too much. Who among us has that capacity in our own, less challenging careers? Does Chappelle have another chamber of creativity to access? Another persona to inhabit? We can’t just be watching a stay-at-home dad on stage talking about nothing.
But maybe that’s part of what’s ahead: Maybe the next phase for Chappelle is like what Ira Glass did with “This American Life.” Small, exquisitely told stories. Chappelle’s best bits were always drawn-out narratives — not punchlines, though he can do those well, too.
Who knows what the future holds for this gifted star? We’ll see. For now we’re grateful he’s here, and also hanging in a weird state of relief and nervous expectation.
7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, Oct. 13-17, Neptune Theatre, 1303 N.E. 45th St.; sold out (877-784-4849 or stgpresents.org).
Andrew Matson: firstname.lastname@example.org or @andrewmatson