Review: Chappelle proved that comedy still needs him

Dave Chappelle

Photo by AP Photo/Stuart Ramson

Dave Chappelle

In 2006,  Dave Chappelle left the hit  'Chappelle's Show' and a reported $50 million on the table.

Stuart Ramson/Associated Press

In 2006, Dave Chappelle left the hit "Chappelle's Show" and a reported $50 million on the table.

As if a phantom, comedian Dave Chappelle materialized in Memphis on Tuesday night, making a rare concert appearance. Chappelle's performance at Downtown's Orpheum theater was part comedy show, part confessional, and all chaos -- due largely to a crowd that seemed to think it had come for a gladiatorial spectacle rather than to witness a stand-up set.

It speaks to Chappelle's enduring popularity that even after years of semi-retirement he was able to fill the 2,500-seat venue on such short notice (the show was announced June 5; the $50 tickets went on sale June 6, and sold out within hours).

After a solid opening set by local comedian Prescott, Chappelle walked onstage without fanfare and almost immediately acknowledged the elephant in the room -- namely, his decision, in 2006, to leave the hit Comedy Central program "Chappelle's Show" and a reported $50 million on the table, walking away from the spotlight at the height of his fame.

The public fascination with this has lingered partly because Chappelle has never clearly explained the reasons for abdicating his title as comedy's lineal champion (a tradition that stretches backward to Chris Rock to Eddie Murphy to Richard Pryor).

At times, Chappelle came off as morose and uncertain about his decision -- though, that too, may have been part of the performance. He managed to make light of the continuing interest in his quandary: "It's 'cause I had a good job," joked Chappelle. "Nobody ever asks why you quit a (expletive) job."

Working largely without the crutch of new material or a true "act" -- there were only a handful of set pieces during the entire concert -- Chappelle's rhythms were especially languid, as he paused frequently to summon a new thought or direction.

Unfortunately, the crowd interpreted these spaces as an invitation to become part of the show. A third of the way through, the whole theater was reverberating with catcalls and shouts from the audience.

He opted to engage the crowd, answering a stream of questions while noting, "This is like a press conference."

For a time, the set was hilariously fueled by this interaction, as he used the outbursts as a springboard to move, if not quite seamlessly, between improvised observations about celebrity, politics, race and art.

At a point the audience began to turn on itself, as those talking were shouted down by others, exhorting them to "shut the (expletive) up!" Ever nimble, Chappelle even managed to make comedy out of such squabbling.

For all its flaws, for all its awkward moments, and despite the tiresome chatter of the crowd, Chappelle's concert was a triumph, if only to remind us of his mastery of the medium.

Any lesser comedian under similar circumstances would've been swallowed up whole within minutes, but Chappelle managed to thrive and create, delivering a low-key, high-wire act that was never less than entertaining.

In a moment of candor near the end of the concert, Chappelle thanked the crowd for coming, acknowledging genuinely that, "I still need an audience."

While that may be true, Tuesday's performance also proved that comedy still desperately needs Dave Chappelle.

© 2012 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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