Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Dave Chappelle Is Alive and Well (and Playing Las Vegas)

By DAVE ITZKOFF
New York Times
November 27, 2005

LAS VEGAS

IN a cavernous corner of Caesars Palace, flanked by six giant television screens broadcasting three horse races, two basketball games and a hockey match, a massive electronic board provides precise odds on the most doubtful propositions. A one-dollar bet, for example, would earn you $75 if the beleaguered New York Knicks should win the N.B.A. championship, and $200 if the lowly Green Bay Packers could somehow win the Super Bowl. And if you knew whom to ask, and promised to use the information for entertainment purposes only, you could obtain odds on an even more uncertain outcome: that Dave Chappelle would actually show up to his Nov. 19 gig as a headliner of the city's three-day Comedy Festival.

He clearly had the support of the locals. "I'd say it's a thousand to one in favor that he'll make it," said the casino's chief line-maker, Chuck Esposito, two days beforehand. "Dave is an overwhelming favorite. It's a lock."

Bob Crestani, the festival's chief executive officer, seemed just as certain. "He's our anchor position," Mr. Crestani said. "He gets the punch line to end all punch lines."

Just six months ago, Mr. Chappelle seemed dangerously close to becoming a different kind of punch line - starring in the kind of spectacular career flameout normally reserved for philandering clergymen and disgraced politicians.

In August 2004, with his Comedy Central series, "Chappelle's Show," surging in the ratings and a first-season DVD compilation of the program on its way to becoming the best-selling television-to-DVD release of all time, he signed a new development deal with Comedy Central that could have yielded him as much as $50 million.

But at the end of 2004, with several episodes' worth of material for "Chappelle's Show" already completed, Comedy Central was forced to push the series' premiere back three months, amid rumors that its star was suffering from either writer's block, the flu or walking pneumonia.

Production resumed again in the spring, but on April 28, Mr. Chappelle disappeared from the set. He resurfaced a few weeks later in Durban, South Africa, where, he said, he was on a spiritual retreat. As the rescheduled premiere date of his show came and went, and Comedy Central began replacing promotions for the program with advertisements for other coming series, it became clear that "Chappelle's Show" was no more.

Then, as abruptly as he had departed, Mr. Chappelle returned. On June 1, he performed a pair of unannounced sets at two stand-up clubs in Los Angeles, the Improv and the Comedy Store, where he riffed on his recent troubles and thoroughly startled the clubs' promoters, who had had less than a day's notice. "Boy, I'd love to take credit for it, but all I did was answer the phone," said the Improv's director of talent, Erin Von Schonfeldt. "What happens is, when Dave wants to do something, I just say, 'O.K.' " In the weeks that followed, Mr. Chappelle took on a full calendar of stand-up dates, performing across the country in everything from 325-person nightclubs to 14,000-seat college auditoriums.

Yet the reasons for Mr. Chappelle's dramatic reappearance remain even murkier than the reasons for his departure; he declined to comment for this story, as did several of his former "Chappelle's Show" colleagues. His friends and associates who speak about him tend to choose their words carefully, but what emerges from the accounts of those who have seen Mr. Chappelle since his return from South Africa is a portrait of a performer who, at least on the surface, appears unfazed by the controversy he created and invigorated by his newfound freedom.

"Right now he seems pretty happy," said Jason Steinberg, a talent manager who has known Mr. Chappelle for more than 15 years. "He seems like he's trying to figure out exactly what he wants to do, and put it out there the way he wants to." Without the obligations of a television series, Mr. Steinberg said: "He could say, 'All right, I'm going to play tonight in San Francisco,' and it will sell out that moment. To decide that and know the place will be full of fans coming to see you, it's such a powerful thing."

But another confidant, the rapper David Banner, wondered if Mr. Chappelle might still be struggling with the consequences of his drastic professional choices. "He looked better than he ever looked to me," said Mr. Banner, who appeared with Mr. Chappelle in a series of Hurricane Katrina benefits. "But he's the one who decides whether he can look at himself in the daytime. The one thing you have to understand about comedians is, the more they make people smile, the more pain that they usually feel inside."

At an HBO-sponsored charity poker tournament the evening before Mr. Chappelle was scheduled to perform, comics spoke with less hesitation. Jeffrey Ross, one of the hilariously vulgar talking heads from the film "The Aristocrats," was unqualified in his admiration for Mr. Chappelle, a longtime friend. "He chose art over commerce," said Mr. Ross, who had affixed himself to an hors d'oeuvres table. "He decided the quality of his emotions was more important to him than a fear of burning bridges."

Bill Maher, the acerbic host of HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher," was more skeptical about Mr. Chappelle's motivations. "He certainly created a huge sense of anticipation among people for his performance," Mr. Maher said. "I don't think anybody ever was angry with him - except maybe his network."

Jon Stewart, almost unrecognizable in a T-shirt and slacks, joked that he and other Comedy Central stars had formed a support group to help them cope with the loss of Mr. Chappelle. "Me, the kids from 'Strangers With Candy' and 'Mind of Mencia,' we meet every Sunday and have brunch, and we cry," he said. Then, in a more candid tone, he said: "People have the wrong idea about that dude. He's just a normal, nice, thoughtful guy."

If anything, Mr. Chappelle's recent notoriety has deepened his mystique and burnished his image as an unpredictable, iconoclastic artist. Upon being introduced to Mr. Chappelle the night before his show, even the formidable talent manager Bernie Brillstein could only muster a "hello." "I really don't like people who bother people," said Mr. Brillstein, who was walking through the Caesars Palace lobby in a blue-and-yellow tracksuit. "And who knows what Dave has on his mind?"

As the possibility that Mr. Chappelle might finally answer that question drew tantalizingly closer, speculation about his show became commonplace. At a question-and-answer session, Chris Rock said that he had heard that Mr. Chappelle's show would be three hours long. "Only if he talks very slowly," Jerry Seinfeld replied.

At the Mesa Grill restaurant in Caesars Palace, at least one veteran comedian was still skeptical that the concert would happen at all. "I think the greatest thing he could do is not show up," said George Wallace, a former writer for "The Redd Foxx Show." "Wouldn't that be something? It'd be the greatest press he ever got."

There was no doubt, however, in the minds of the more than 4,000 fans who were assembling at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace for Mr. Chappelle's sold-out 11 p.m. show. "Look at what a diverse crowd he can draw," said Jarod DeAnda, 27, who drove more than 300 miles, from Gilbert, Ariz., to see Mr. Chappelle. "You've got stoner rock 'n' roll dudes and you've got guys in dreads."

On a stage built expressly for Celine Dion's standing engagement, the dynamic young comedian Al Madrigal, who is of Mexican and Sicilian descent, was the first to take the microphone, joking that he and his half-Korean, half-Greek wife were "the interracial 'Blade Runner' couple of the future."

At midnight, Mr. Madrigal left the stage. And there in his place appeared Mr. Chappelle, a lanky exclamation point of a man, in a green zippered sweater, black jeans and sneakers.

"Thank you very much for welcoming me back to America," he said, as his first standing ovation of the night subsided.

"In case you haven't heard about me, I'm insane."

In a move that would set the tone for the rest of the evening, he opened with remarks that seemed to address his conflict with Comedy Central, but elliptically, and in racially polarizing terms. "Whatever you do in your life," he said, "do not stand up for yourself, because these white" - let's just substitute the word "people" here - "will beat you down."

But then he slowly backed off from the fight he had picked, joking about how his recent career maneuvers had put a strain on his marriage ("Don't think you can walk away from $50 million and your wife will be cool with it"), before segueing into a long riff about marital fidelity and the temptations he faced as a comedian on the road.

Mr. Chappelle is gifted with a wonderfully elastic, childlike voice, but it comes with several adolescent fixations, and he peppered his routine with extended bits about masturbation and gynecology. They got laughs, but they seemed like filler, coming from a man who can brilliantly tease out the racial overtones in the language of television newscasters or the remake of "Planet of the Apes."

For as much as Mr. Chappelle appeared to be tackling issues of race head-on, he was often keeping them, and his audience, at a distance. When he spoke about his experience watching "Hotel Rwanda," he was really talking about an embarrassing bathroom encounter he had at the movie theater and how it made him giggle inappropriately during the film. And to the extent that he discussed his retreat to Africa, he was trading in old stereotypes. " 'You know what you should always remember, Dave?' " said Mr. Chappelle, impersonating a local who tried to comfort him on his trip. "What's that, Mbutu?," Mr. Chappelle asked him. The response: "I ate a dog today."

Perhaps Mr. Chappelle feels he must soften his identity as an astute, slightly radical observer of politics, who already has his eye on a potential presidential match-up between Hillary Clinton and Condoleeza Rice ("You know who's going to win? Ralph Nader by a landslide"), and who essentially agrees with the controversial assertion of President Vicente Fox of Mexico that Mexicans would work jobs that not even African-Americans would take.

By far, Mr. Chappelle's most illuminating observation of the night occurred as he was discussing the rap star Kanye West's nationally broadcast remarks that President Bush does not care about African-Americans. "I don't know if you agree with him or not, but give it up for him," Mr. Chappelle said. "I've got a lot of respect for him. And," he added, "I'm going to miss him." Then, almost as an aside, he continued, "I'm not risking my entire career to tell white people obvious things."

It's a wise calculation. After all, it is only when he confronts the subjects he knows intimately that he has an act worth staking his professional reputation on. That's when he has the greatest capacity to be incisive and even poignant. The room went almost completely silent when he mentioned that his mother was half-white, and again when he said that his wife was Filipino, and a third time when he added that "our kid is Puerto Rican, somehow." That last line, the audience eventually figured out, was a joke.

Mr. Chappelle really did risk his career this year. But as he smoked his way through a pack of American Spirit cigarettes, he never really discussed the factors that led to the disintegration of "Chappelle's Show," which in any given episode was more daring than his current routine. He did not explain what ultimately compelled him to travel to Africa, except to say that it was a childhood dream, and he never expressed so much as a hint of remorse about how his actions might have affected the lives of former colleagues who did not have producing fees and DVD royalties to fall back on. After performing for almost exactly 60 minutes, Mr. Chappelle wrapped up a surreal bit about having sex with a woman who was wearing nothing but a motorcycle helmet, thanked his crowd, and bid them goodnight.

In typical Las Vegas fashion, most audience members filed out of the auditorium as quickly as Mr. Chappelle had departed it, though a few remained in their seats, as if they expected him to come back onstage and send them off with a parting insightful thought. But Mr. Chappelle did not return this time. Once again, comedy's most visible invisible man had eluded them.

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