I wasn’t the only pasty white teenager reciting lines from Chappelle’s Show either. The series was stratospherically huge. It was renewed for another season then another season after that. Chappelle, a sometime actor and jobbing stand-up for over twenty years, was arguably transformed into one of the most famous men in America. An impressive feat, especially when a lot of his subject matter dealt with that tricky thing America doesn’t really like dealing with at all: Race.
While taping a skit for the third season, a white man on set laughed at a joke in a manner that bothered Dave. He feared that he was no longer sending up racial prejudices, but possibly enforcing them. He stopped going into work. He left an enormous contract ($50 million) on the table and flew to South Africa. Chappelle, a muslim, spent two weeks in the country to focus on his faith. The American media, reactionaries, spent years assuming he was crazy, on crack, or both. To this day, it’s one of the most notorious disappearing acts in showbiz history.
That was almost a decade ago. In the ensuing years Chappelle has continued to perform stand up to audiences of his choosing. That’s the kind of sway he still has. He can show up to a basement in front of 50 people on a whim, or he can fill Radio City Music Hall three times over. He’s currently selling out the equally large Hammersmith Apollo, where I spent a whopping £55 to watch him last night.
As an aside, it was hot yesterday. My friends and I were by a river before the show. The familiar alchemy of heat and open bodies of water has an expected effect on the drinking habits of young English men. Let me tell you guys, this review might be delivered from a polluted memory.
I’ve heard people say that they often struggle with Chappelle’s schtick. He’s too hung up on race and it overshadows his talents as a comedian. Even if this is a valid point, it doesn’t seem to have had any sort of exclusionary impact on his audience. If you want an example of London’s racial diversity, last night’s crowd would have made a good one. This wasn’t lost on Chappelle, who opened the show by saying he’s always amazed at the amount of smiling, happy black people he encounters in London.
Race was heavily featured. But after his native country's last year, how could it not be? He broached the subject with such unrelenting energy that I can’t really remember any specific issue he riffed on. But when you have to make an audience of that size laugh in unison - which it was - it’s probably better to breeze past specifics and hoist up the crowd with the delivery. It certainly worked when he clattered through wince-inducing subjects like Bill Cosby, transgender pronouns, and Ray Rice - the American Footballer caught knocking his wife unconscious.
Writing these subjects down reduces them to something far more worthy of a beer garden. Wanking and sex tapes popped up, as did an anecdote about agreeing with the opposing views of two different women in the hope of securing a threesome. It's all crude stuff, but to see it unpacked with Chappelle’s exuberance reminds you how great comedians are far funnier than great jokes. He could have recited the shipping forecast and I would've laughed.
I can barely admit this, but I think it was even worth the £55.
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