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Comedy superstar Dave Chappelle makes an unexpected visit

Toben Shelby
Photo by Erin Patrice O'Brien

It's easy to use the word "enigmatic" when talking about comedian Dave Chappelle, but it's also very, very fitting. There aren't a lot of comedians around with the profile of Chappelle who've so publicly shunned fame the way he did when he bailed on his hit Comedy Central show and millions of dollars in 2005. After years of staying off the grid, or at least out of the general public's eye, Chappelle officially returned to stand-up touring and the spotlight in August. Less than two months after resurfacing, he's bringing his comedy and baggage to Alaska, for shows in Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Chappelle rose to fame thanks to his work in the New York comedy circuit, TV appearances and films ("Robin Hood: Men in Tights" and "Half Baked") in the '90s. He cemented his status as a major comedic force with "Chappelle's Show." There, he was able to mix his humor -- which focused on racial issues, politics, drugs and pop culture -- with a sketch comedy format. The show burned bright, with Chappelle tackling characters like a blind, black KKK leader and musician Rick James ("I'm Rick James, b***" becoming a catchphrase among fans). Chappelle left as a third season was in the works -- citing burnout, interference with his stand-up career and creative concerns.

Perhaps unsurprisingly to anyone who's followed Chappelle's career, his return has been marked with some strangeness and not much in the way of public comment. Neither he nor those helping arrange his shows are up for talking much -- major TV interviews have been few and far between since he left "Chappelle's Show" and inquiries about his Alaska visit were quickly rebuffed -- perhaps because the line of questioning would certainly address his exodus to Africa after leaving "Chappelle's Show," his quiet return and stories over the past few years (beginning in 2011) of sets being abandoned after hearing hecklers or one too many shouts of "Rick James" from the crowd.

If he wanted to, though, he'd certainly have a platform to express his views. Imagine how well-received a long form chat on Marc Maron's podcast would be; think about how many people would follow Chappelle on Twitter for his thoughts, 140 characters at a time (the answer is more than 400,000, which is the following Chappelle garnered after abandoning Twitter in 2012 in less than a week). But that's just not the way Chappelle does things -- at least for now.

He is willing to share parts of his story, but it's going to be his way -- on stage. From late August through late September, Chappelle co-headlined the multi-city Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival with comedy music duo Flight of the Conchords. Reports of festival shows from the first few days told of his winding narrative, laid-back approach to humor, peppered with insight into his personality and history. That included the split with Comedy Central and the fallout from it. While his on-stage admissions might indicate he's over the drama, Chappelle's sometimes awkward relationship with his audience hasn't entirely subsided. His first appearance for the festival in Austin was met with a standing ovation, Entertainment Weekly's PopWatch reported, and a winking joke about not having any material garnered a shout of "I still accept you" from a thrilled audience member.

Just a few days into the festival, though, the tide turned during a stop in Hartford, Conn. Firsthand accounts spilled in on Twitter that Chappelle had found the audience too loud and stopped his set several minutes in. He spent the rest of his time smoking, telling a story about the legendary Richard Pryor walking off during a set, making small talk and even reading a book. He carried on that way as boos flooded the stage. Perhaps, the AV Club mused, it was an homage to the late Andy Kaufman -- who would read at length from "The Great Gatsby" to audiences as part of his anti-humor bit. It ended, the website Chortle reported, with Chappelle noting that the crowd sucked and he was never coming back, before offering a partial apology: "Sorry about that for those who were trying to hear a show."

Such behavior by a stand-up comic might seem strange in an age where many of industry's top stars are known for rolling with the punches and even punching back. One of the best at handily shutting down hecklers, Patton Oswalt, took to Twitter the night of the Hartford incident to back Chappelle: "Dear Dave Chappelle's fans: He's one of the best comedians working, & you're not letting him do what he loves. Stop being [expletives]."

The interest in Chappelle, be it for his comedy or impromptu on-stage introspection, certainly hasn't dissipated. What appear to be hastily scheduled shows in Anchorage, announced just a few weeks ago, quickly sold out and his stop in Fairbanks might be at capacity as well. His new set of material and stories have been generally well-received by critics. What it comes down to with Chappelle, it seems, are a number of variables -- he himself perhaps that largest one. How will the crowd receive him and how will he react? How many "Rick James" shouts must he hear before calling it a night? Whatever the answers are on the day you see him, it's sure to be a fascinating evening.

 


By TOBEN SHELBY
Daily News correspondent