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"Come back, Dave!" someone hollered last night to comedian Dave Chappelle, who's spent much of the last seven years not telling jokes in public. "I kind of am back," he said to the near-capacity audience at Robinson Center Music Hall, the night after playing to a sold out show at the Orpheum theater in Memphis, his first ticketed theater gigs in years. "Tonight I'm back."
Back because he wanted to road test some material before launching a new tour? Back because he was going stir crazy on his ranch in Ohio? Back to gear up for a new version of "Chappelle's Show," the massively popular skit show he quit abruptly in 2005? Your guess is as good as mine. But don't look for material from his Little Rock show on an HBO special anytime soon.
"Honesty" would be the theme of the night, he told us soon after taking the stage around 8:40 p.m., after two openers and a long intermission. That turned out to be a lie. There wasn't a theme. Or many jokes to speak of. After the first 20 minutes or so — and possibly for the entire show — the lanky (but now chiseled) comedian was clearly winging it. He riffed on rap lyrics too filthy to print even in this smut-slinging rag (turns out Dave Chappelle, intoning the lyrics to "Rack City" in the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr., is comedy gold). He explained his absence from public life away by saying he'd been traveling: across the country, including a stop at the Central High Museum, on his motorcycle; to China, and across time. Riffs started strong ("I was in China to pitch a TV show...I was confident it would work. It was called 'The Cosby Show' "), but often died on the vine. He still got laughs. He paused often, less like he was trying to gather himself than like he was trying to figure out a problem. He filled those pregnant pauses by chain smoking. He sighed.
In at least one recent show, Chappelle hasn't handled hecklers well. Before the Little Rock show, the DJ asked the crowd not to heckle. But there was too much dead space. So much that it was surely by design. Maybe Chappelle is coming back, and he's trying to steel himself for a comeback tour.
But while the crowd not surprisingly yelled out a lot of stupid things — "Free Bird!", "pancakes!", "diarrhea!" — it also set-up the best moments of the night. Like when someone yelled out, "I'm you, Dave!"
"You mean spiritually, or literally?" Chappelle asked.
"Everyone tells me I look you!"
So Chappelle asked the guy, Joe, to come onstage, and sure enough, he could probably fool people as one of those celebrity impersonators. Which led into perhaps his funniest riff of the night, something too dirty and too reliant on timing and Chappelle's voice to ever convey here.
Later, someone else yelled out, "Tell my cousin I said hello."
"Who's your cousin?" Chappelle asked.
"Maya Angelou is not your cousin," Chappelle said, continuing as the woman protested. "You tell my cousin I said hello. His name is Frederick Douglass. He's one of my time traveling buddies. Last time I seen Frederick Douglass he was in Denver, he had a high-top fade."
After a long pause, he asked. "You promise me Maya Angelou is your cousin?"
But the woman was gone.
"She left?" Chappelle asked incredulously. "She might've been telling the truth. That made me real paranoid." Which led into an unprintably hilarious riff about Maya Angelou calling to scold him.
Later, someone asked Chappelle to follow him on Twitter. His Twitter handle was Wizkidkilla. Chappelle did a dramatic reading of the recent tweets of Wizkidkilla while world-famous harmonica player Fred Yonnet played a blues number. During one pregnant pause, a few people started to call the Hogs, immediately drawing jeers from the crowd. But Chappelle heard it, and said, "Ladies and gentleman, I've done a million shows in my life. I've never heard a crowd make that noise before." Which inspired him to film the crowd and himself ("that way we can get more hits") on his phone for YouTube ("I'm back, baby. I'm going to be a YouTube star."). Not since I was on a fifth grade school trip to New York and someone started to call the Hogs in the Statue of Liberty have I felt more ashamed and compelled to participate at the same time.
The show meandered. Because of all of his time traveling, Chappelle said he can't gauge time as it happens. Late in the set, he said he was working on a big show for the London Olympics. He said he might time travel to do "Half Baked" over. He said, "Honestly, really, I need you guys." He said he'd be in the streets of Little Rock, but maybe as his avatar, Joe. He said, "Everything I say is the truth. And that is a lie. And that is the truth! These types of paradoxes are what keep us fastened to the present. If not for them, we'd all be time traveling."
This post has been updated with information about Frederic Yonnett, the French harmonica player, famous for his collaborations with Prince, Stevie Wonder and dozens of others, who I did not recognize in the least.