Mercurial comedy superstar Dave Chappelle packed the Atwood Concert Hall last night, smoking continuously (they allow that in the PAC? Maybe just for Chappelle?) and performing a two-hour set for an enthusiastic audience.
If you were to break down Chapelle’s set, it would be:
- 20 percent jokes about Fairbanks (which -- surprise -- the crowd loved)
- 20 percent career drama (quitting his incredibly successful TV series, a disastrous show in Connecticut)
- 25 percent marriage (his family lives on a farm in Ohio)
- 25 percent meandering reflections on the socio-economic subtleties of racial dynamics in America today
- 10 percent Lil Wayne jokes
“You got to watch what you say,” Chappelle would frequently remark, taking a drag on his cigarette before launching into a long, especially shocking anecdote, often about the, um, pursuit of physical intimacy with women. (If you’re familiar with Chappelle, you know that much of what he says can't be published in a newspaper. If you’re not, you might want to check your sensibilities against Youtube before going to a two-hour show).
Chappelle spoke at length about the what he called “a real nasty spill” and its aftermath last August in Hartford, Connecticut. After too many hecklers and people shouting “Rick James,” a reference to a catch phrase from his TV show, Chappelle stopped his set and stayed on stage but refused to tell jokes.
“I got boo’d by 30,000 people. The worst experience of my life,” Chappelle said. “Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve hated 30,000 people?”
After the upset, rumors flew that Chappelle was having a meltdown, which he dismissed as a baseless media frenzy.
“I think deep down people want to see a comedian like me freak out. I would,” Chappelle said. “It’d be like seeing Siegfried and Roy the night one of the tigers bite them. That’s why I go to the tiger show, I don’t go to see somebody be safe.”
The audience on Wednesday seemed to be on their best behavior. Anchorage, after all, rarely (if ever) gets comedy stars as prominent as Chappelle. It’s somewhat mysterious why he chose to come here at all (requests to his management team for information were politely and promptly denied).
People were warned repeatedly against heckling or recording, and ushers pounced quickly on those who brought out their smartphones during the performance. But aside from some shouts of “We love you Dave!” and a “Connecticut sucks!” things went smoothly, and Chappelle turned in a two hour show with no breaks -- with opening act Byron Bowers from Georgia, it was two and a half hours in total.
That seems to have been the case in Fairbanks as well. Chappelle described Fairbanksians as hospitable people who are also gun-toting, unkempt pot smokers. In one joke, a resident pulls out an enormous bag of marijuana. “‘Is that legal here?’” Chappelle asks. “We don’t know,” the resident responds.
“There’s not enough [women] in that town,” he said. “If there were a thousand more women, then those [Fairbanksians] might brush their teeth, tuck their shirt in.”
Other segments focused on courting his wife and living with his family in Ohio. And there was an extended anecdote about going shopping in a fancy part of New York City after yelling at a homeless man. These may sound like wholesome stories; they are not. Chappelle’s on-stage persona is of someone acutely aware of the subtleties of beauty and hardship in the human condition -- the flicker of lightning bugs over a field, the fading hope in a homeless man’s eyes -- but who is either crass or canny enough to always bring it around to acting out fixations on sex, money, class and drugs.
Did Alaska get a surprise seat for Chappelle’s backwards come-back tour? After all, this is a star who walked away from a many-many-multi-million-dollar TV deal ($80 million, he clarified). The Atwood is great, but Chappelle could command enormous arenas.
Chappelle didn’t address that directly, but in the wake of touring after Hartford, he made the observation that his work is in some ways “like being a stripper.”
“You think the hard part about being a stripper is taking your clothes off in front of other people. And that’s hard, but I don’t think it’s the hardest part. What I think is the hardest part is this right here,” Chappelle said, crouching over the stage and pantomiming picking up dollar bills off the floor, clutching them to his chest.