If you wanted to define the modern American comedian, you’d find a pretty good example in Dave Chappelle. He’s got every skill that you need to be one of the kings of the game, as you would expect from someone who’s considered the personally chosen successor of Richard Pryor (Dave modestly denies this). And the first night of his first proper UK gigs – not counting a freewheeling ten-minute Brixton comedy club set in 2007 – showed off the talent that has taken him from walking off the set of ‘Chappelle’s Show’ in 2006, to hosting the 150 episode of ‘Inside The Actors Studio’ – where he interviewed the perennial host, James Lipton – to returning to stand-up in 2013 and be doing international tours within two years. This wasn’t a flawless gig by any means (Chris Rock still holds the crown there), but for a first night in a new country, it was a solid performance from a much-loved performer. Here’s what I learned from seeing one of my favourite comedians live:
1. Dave is still willing to say some outlandish shit most people wouldn’t say
“Al-Qaeda is kinda like Jah Rule…. neither of them have had a hit in a while.” This line not only killed it for sheer ridiculousness, but it was also a nice nod to his older material for the heads - which is to say, most of the audience. Back in 2004’s ‘For What It’s Worth’ show he’d already commented on MTV speaking to no less a cultural commentator than Jah Rule about 9/11.
2. Dave still doesn’t care if he looks bad – as no comedian should.
The greats of comedy share things that people who have regular jobs, good relationships and a need for adoration that is within accepted psychological norms would hide with every ounce of their being. Things that we all do, but would never, ever admit. Dave, it turns out, likes feet. I mean, he LIKES feet. “Only an honest man can fuck feet!” he said, later intoning, “You can’t rape a foot, nigga!” to much hilarity (perhaps too much from the guy next to me, if I’m being honest.
3. The Chappelle take on race is still something unique and wonderful.
His take on a black president was excellent, but let’s be honest, it’s all about Black White Supremacist:
But this routine has a new take on racism – he reminds us where to us, Kramer from Seinfeld made some racist comments when he was being heckled in a club, but to Dave, as a fellow pro, that was just a really bad gig. Though we then go on to Paula Deen (“who as someone on a cooking show has the easiest gig in show business”) and Donald Sterling, who was such a racist that he harangued his girlfriend for hanging out with Magic Johnson and didn’t even mention his AIDS (“You have to be a serious racist when AIDS is a secondary concern for you.”)
4. He’s still willing to take on the sacred cows of the day.
Back in the day it was spot-on pisstakes of Oprah, Prince and Puffy:
Now, though, Dave’s taking it up a notch, addressing the Cosby allegations in his first few minutes: “As a Black American comic I didn’t want to believe it, but when it turned out there were 30 odd women and we could be talking about hours and hours or rape, I mean, if you take into consideration 8 hours of sleep involved when he drugged these women on these ancient rapes...”
As he intoned throughout the act, “I know what I’m saying is wrong”. And it is, but we allow him to take us to these worrying places because he’s that charismatic a performer. Who else could make a joke about Caitlyn Jenner, saying, “You guys over here don’t know what a huge sports star Bruce was in the States! It’s like if Michael Jordan did that – would you still wear your Jordans? I would, but I’d be wary each time…I’d be unsure if I wanted to endorse that kind of lifestyle!” With just one silly look and one simple putting-on-a-shoe mime, Dave makes himself and his insecurities the joke, not Caitlyn and her transition.
5. He’s willing to be honest about his own limitations as a performer and as a man.
Early on he addressed his recent choking at a gig in Detroit, saying that when confronted with demands he refund people’s tickets, he replied, “I’m like Evel Knievel , motherfucker, I get paid by the attempt!” And he even joked about his long absence from comedy, telling a story of how he once, as an inhabitant of swing state Ohio, got a phone call from a yet-to-be-elected Barack Obama. When Obama asked for his help, he said “Sir, I’m just a dirty nightclub comic, what can I do?” “Well, you can stay out of the public eye for a while, Dave…” was the reply, leading even an old pro like Chappelle to smile ruefully, as he basically told himself off for our amusement.