The first time I met Dave Chappelle, it was by complete accident.
It was the summer of 2000, and my two younger brothers and I were sitting on the edge of a queen-sized bed in a Holiday Inn in a suburb of Allentown, Pennsylvania, hiding from anyone with our same last name. Underneath our room was a collection of family-reunioning Pearsons from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the worst place — Long Island.
The edge of that bed was our only solace.
As we watched Chappelle’s 2000 HBO special Killin’ Them Softly, we laughed about weed-slinging babies and high Sesame Street characters, thrilled by our unexpected new friend’s arrival. We were 15, 13, and 10, wearing the three thickest pairs of glasses this side of Harry Carey, but, for that night, we were the baddest white boys in the hotel.
Before Chappelle took the House of Blues stage last night, I thought back to that Holiday Inn, and I hoped the man who brought us to our skinny knees — that insane, borderline-solipsistic man — would do the same 12 years later. Nearly two hours later, he’d raised the bar on what comedy could accomplish, and forced the audience to question what that word even means.
He riffed on rape, Sfuzzi, and Coachella, then took 10-second pauses to collect his thoughts. Plowing through seven menthol cigarettes in less than two hours, he turned to the nicotine when the thoughts weren’t flowing; his lighter was kicked by 10:30. This wasn’t as much a comedy set as a symposium by a comedian — part joke, part reflection, all Chappelle. At the top of the set he said the show would be about honesty, and that topic led him to 10-minute speeches about his wife and children, ones that veered to funny but could’ve easily crashed into self-destruction. He toed the line like a man wondering his next step: am I a comedian, or am I just Dave Chappelle, the man who used to be paid millions to be funny? And does the difference even matter?
No, it doesn’t.
Like a preacher going off-topic, Chappelle welcomed us into the Church of Dave, allowing us to take from his words whatever we wanted. After leaving the show, I didn’t once hear how funny Chappelle had been, though there were doubled-over moments (his crystal meth addict bit was classic Chappelle, in both words and motions). Instead, the crowd hummed with excitement over seeing a man ripped raw, pondering his next move. He was funny, yes, but it was more than that. He mentioned his house in China, his house in Ohio, his motorcycle. He made jokes about them, but he was struggling with their place in his life. What does it mean to be rich, but not able to do what you want?
Nearly 10 years ago, I was a college freshman and Chappelle was about to become the most famous comedian in the United States. Chappelle’s Show was required viewing for college boys, as evidenced last night by the out-the-door men’s room line, and the get-in-and-go women’s line. Ten years later, my life was made richer by a man I paid $62 to see. Chappelle the comedian may be gone forever, but Chappelle the preacher — with jokes and emotion in equal measure — is now here.
Photo: Comedy Central