For anyone who grew up in the ’90s and 2000s, you’re probably familiar with Dave Chappelle. The trailblazing comedian is most famous for spending two seasons hosting his own sketch comedy show “Chappelle’s Show” on Comedy Central before abruptly leaving in 2006 with no explanation. Since then no one has really known what Chappelle has been up to until seemingly out of no where he announced a stand-up tour which brought him to Madison’s Orpheum Theatre for a total of six shows this weekend.
Chappelle is known for making waves with his controversial and in-your-face style of comedy. His show is proof that he has never been afraid to write a sketch about an uncomfortable topic, in fact he thrives on it. Going into his live show it was hard to know what would be coming, and expectations were only heightened by the fact that many never expected to get a chance to see Chappelle. It was hard not to wonder how the outspoken and outlandish Chappelle I grew up watching would translate to a live stage after so many years away. But there were no disappointments.
Despite his time out of the spotlight, Chappelle has certainly maintained his tendency toward inappropriate and raunchy jokes. He was not at all shy when divulging personal stories about inappropriate videotapes and fights with his wife. He also has, from my live stand-up experience, an unparalleled ability to slowly build a joke, keeping the audience waiting on the edge of their seats. It was pleasantly surprising to hear much of the show’s most laughable moments draw upon personal stories from his family and work life, showing a different side of the traditionally sketch and character driven comedy he provided on his show.
Having been one of the earliest and most outspoken comics unafraid to develop his jokes around social issues, I was interested to see what would be Chappelle’s shtick of choice given today’s current events, some new since his time off the stage and some old, which he had already addressed but have persisted. I wasn’t surprised by the topics Chappelle chose, but it’s impossible to ignore the ones that made me feel a bit uncomfortable. I was barely amused by his opening piece about the Ray Rice videotape and our country’s approach to domestic violence, more unsettling jokes followed about homosexuality and women. I started to question whether I would be willing to let any other comedian off so easily with a seemingly nonchalant approach to issues I care about. Then, about halfway through the show, Chappelle told a story about his son’s private school and a classmate who had lesbian parents. He remembers making a joke to the two of them, asking which one would be taking their son to the upcoming Father Son picnic. One of them took the joke well, the other not so well. Chappelle explained that the former understood that he was only messing around—he had meant no harm and really didn’t care which would escort their son to the event. This gets to the core of what Dave Chappelle has tried to accomplish during his career. He’s unafraid to use insensitive topics to push people to their limits—he forces us to evaluate our stereotypes and mindsets and uses comedy to make us question why they feel so uncomfortable. At the end of the day, he’s not just a funny man—though he’s funny as hell—he has always had bigger goals than just making us laugh.