Dave Chappelle, for the most part, has always played by his own rules.
He played by his own rules in April 2005 – a year after signing a $50 million contract to continue “Chappelle’s Show” – by abruptly walking off the set, effectively disappearing and ending the series’ run on Comedy Central forever.
So it should come as a surprise to no one that he played by his own rules during his sold-out stand-up show at Belk Theater on Friday night. An hour and 15 minutes after the advertised start time, there was still no sign of the 39-year-old comic, and even the emcee seemed a tad nervous.
“Enjoy the music. The show will start,” then, after a brief pause: “Sooner or later.”
Shortly thereafter, Chappelle finally emerged, wearing a grey T-shirt, jeans, a Nike sleeve on his right forearm, and Carolina blue Air Jordans he said he’d bought for the occasion, and drawing a long pull from a cigarette (it’s legal for performers to smoke on the Belk stage, for those who were wondering). “I’m surprised I made it, too,” he quipped.
The crowd – which was populated with plenty of both black and white faces, and an inordinate number of baseball caps for a Blumenthal production – roared. All was forgiven.
Charlotte is the third stop on a nine-city tour of the South for Chappelle. Tickets for Friday’s show, which went on sale just a few short weeks ago, sold out faster than you can yell, “I’m Rick James, b----!”; he then proceeded to sell out two added Saturday-night performances at a similarly brisk pace.
Chappelle clearly has bulked up since his string-bean days on Comedy Central. He looks slightly more weathered, slightly more hunched. But his comedy hasn’t lost a step. His outrageously inappropriate jokes still will send tears streaming over your cheeks, his irreverent storytelling technique is still astonishing in its ability to misdirect and surprise.
“It’s not that I don’t care. I do care. I know it’s wrong. That’s why I say these things,” he said, before launching into a hilariously bizarre story involving a homeless man and an epiphany in New York City.
Sometimes, it seemed like Chappelle was making the whole thing up as he went along. His routine lasted an hour and a half (a virtual eternity for a comedy set), and the majority of it was him recounting “f----- up” stories about everything from attempts to cheat on his wife to run-ins with parents of his children’s friends to – most memorably – his meltdown.
They’re vivid. They feel authentic. Yes, they can be frustrating as he works his way through them. But his process also is fascinating, light years more interesting than watching a lesser comic recite the exact same set night after night.
His show even has an unconventional finish. Most comedians try to end with a huge laugh, by tying their final joke back to a theme or something funny they did or said earlier in the night. Chappelle’s show, on Friday, just kind of ended.
Then he broke one last rule. And this time, it was his own. Prior to the show, his emcee stated about 47 times that the use of cellphones was strictly prohibited – that if security saw one light up, the violator would be expelled.
Before his final bow, Chappelle donned a bucket hat, pulled it down over his eyes, and said, “If you want to take a picture ... I’m done now – I don’t give a f---.”
There could not have been a more fitting ending.