Mercurial comedy superstar Dave Chappelle packed the Atwood Concert Hall Wednesday night for the first of two sold-out shows, smoking continuously (it's allowed, apparently, if you're Dave Chappelle) and performing a two-hour set for an enthusiastic audience.
If you were to break down Chappelle's set, it would be:
• 20 percent jokes about Fairbanks (which -- surprise -- the crowd loved);
• 45 percent career drama (quitting his incredibly successful TV series, a disastrous show in Connecticut) and discussions about married life;
• 25 percent meandering reflections on the subtleties of race, sex and class dynamics in American culture today;
• 10 percent Lil Wayne jokes.
"You got to be careful what you say," Chappelle frequently remarked, taking a drag on his cigarette before launching into a long, especially shocking anecdote, often about the, um, pursuit of physical intimacy with women. (As those familiar with his work know, much of what Chappelle says can't be published in a newspaper).
Chappelle spoke at length about the what he called "a real nasty spill" and its aftermath last August in Hartford, Conn. After too many hecklers and people shouting, "Rick James" -- a reference to a catchphrase from his TV show -- Chappelle stopped his Hartford set, staying on stage but refusing to tell jokes.
"I got booed 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, stories 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 bit 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 its best behavior. Anchorage, after all, rarely (if ever) gets comedians 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). Byron Bowers, a comedian from Atlanta, Ga., opened.
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 "Connecticut sucks!" things went smoothly, and Chappelle turned in a two hour show with no breaks.
That seems to have been the case in Fairbanks as well. Chappelle described Fairbanksans as "very nice" and hospitable people, who also happen to be 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 (Fairbanks residents) 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 upscale part of New York City after yelling, "You stink!" at a homeless man. These may sound like wholesome stories; they are not. Chappelle's act betrays an acute awareness of the beauty and hardship in the human condition -- the flicker of lightning bugs over a field, the fading of hope in a homeless man's eyes. He also has devastating timing and enthusiastic crassness when it comes to discussing sex, money, class and drugs.
Why did Alaska get a seat on what seems to be a deliberately understated comeback tour? After all, this is a star who walked away from a multimillion-dollar TV deal ($80 million, he pointedly clarified). Even after 10 years, Chappelle can sell out 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."
"People 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.