DAVE CHAPPELLE at the WinterGarden Theatre (189 Yonge), August 20-22. Rating: NNNN
Anyone who likes laughing will remember the story: in 2005, at the height of his critical and commercial fame and in the middle of shooting the third season of his eponymous Comedy Central sketch-based show, Dave Chappelle abruptly quit.
And he didn't just quit Chappelle's Show and the industry or fame - he seemed to temporarily leave his own world, abandoning America for the anonymity of South Africa. Quitting was an ideological move.
Like most good comedians - Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Louis CK - who valiantly connect through truisms, Chappelle trafficked in nuance. But he was becoming known for his brilliant but dumbest punchlines, and so he bowed out.
Last night's sold-out show at the Winter Garden Theatre - the first of three in Toronto, part of a string of slyly orchestrated pop-up shows across the continent - was announced so suddenly, there was barely time to consider what this return meant, let alone get excited about it.
Introduced by charmingly dopey local comic Gilson Lubin and Drake's DJ, Future The Prince, Chappelle walked out puffing on a cigarette. He'd smoke four more in the course of the 75-minute set loosely organized around what he's been thinking and doing for the past seven years.
Chappelle is different but the same. His slack stance and shit-eating grin remain, but the wet-eyed, zany vigour has turned into something more steely and wizened. Pot was on the list of things he renounced, but he said he's smoking again, so maybe the kush got him contemplative.
More likely it's something bigger and more forward-thinking. Moving at a loose pace, pausing often to read the audience, Chappelle was present in mind and material. His best bits expounded on personal foibles and the tragicomic circumstances of life post-fame. Getting rich and Obama's election were like two dreams simultaneously come true, he said - but the result was getting pushed into an unsympathetic tax bracket. "That's what it feels like to be Dave Chappelle."
He covered a range of subjects, from sex to family, comedic censorship and a glib bit on Mel Gibson. Race analysis was surprisingly absent, though not pointedly so. There were some nods to Canadiana: Russell Peters, health care, the grotesque photos on our cigarette packages. There was definitely a dad joke: "I went to China. Any Chinese people here? You have a Great Wall." And a good rap joke conflated Tyga's Rack City with economic policy, but this was mostly a show of meandering set-ups and uncertain clinchers.
You laugh because it's Dave Chappelle, and at least half of his thing is delivery: the conversational dialogue and ludicrous shit talk, sly facial manipulations and glint in his eye building up to the joke. But this wasn't the wacky, constantly firing, pee-in-your-pants-funny Chappelle of the mid-00s. But that's what made the uneven set kind of thrilling: it's the return of a brilliant mind, obdurate as ever.