For nearly a decade now, Dave Chappelle has been a comedic nomad. Ever since he walked away from his popular television program Chappelle's Show in 2005, he has floated in and out of pop-culture consciousness. His surprise stand-up sets (which were once known to go on for three or four hours) in clubs and venues across the country are the comedy-nerd equivalent of Bigfoot sightings.
Much like his fellow elusive funnyman Bill Murray, who likes to pop up unexpectedly at places such as bachelor parties to build a mythical lore around himself, Chappelle refuses to be tied down—or, as he would probably put it, chained—to the norms of celebrity. The more he was demanded, whether by Hollywood or his fans, the more he seemed to be out of reach.
If you're a diehard fan of his pre-Chappelle's Show standup, then you know how much fame frightens the man. Near the end of his 1998 HBO Comedy Half Hour special, Chappelle told a San Francisco audience how nervous he was at the prospect of impending stardom. "I hope this shit don't make me famous," Chappelle lamented. "I don't want to be 'famous' famous. I want people to like me for who I am. Like, a famous dude don't never know why people like him."
That bit kept resonating in my mind when news broke of Chappelle's abrupt departure from his sketch show. After a successful, Emmy-nominated second season, people were ready to give him the funniest-man-in-America title, which he wasn't that keen on accepting. But Comedy Central offered him $50 million to keep doing the show, which he did accept. The pressure appeared to be getting to him: The third season's premiere date was pushed from February to May. (Reports claimed that Chappelle had the flu, but Chappelle later said he was simply stressed out.)
Of course, a complete third season never came to be, as Chappelle took off to a "spiritual retreat" in South Africa and production was suspended. (A truncated third season, subtitled "The Lost Episodes," appeared on Comedy Central a year later.) Needless to say, everybody thought dude was crazy, either figuratively or literally, for fleeing his own show and skipping out on all that money.
Sure, comics have left their successful TV shows before—Jerry Seinfeld famously shut down his revolutionary sitcom at the height of its popularity, and Chris Rock said goodbye to his Emmy-winning, self-titled HBO talk show after five seasons. But at least they waited until the season wrapped before they announced that they weren't coming back.
Chappelle has spent the years since his retreat sharpening his stand-up skills and dodging official reasons for why he left. He's given conspiratorial explanations on The Oprah Winfrey Show (where he notoriously accused Hollywood of wanting to "put every black man in the movies in a dress at some point in their career") and Inside the Actor's Studio. But these reasons often seemed flimsy and cagey, with Chappelle sounding coy and on the defensive.
Chappelle appears to be much more comfortable on stage than on set. But even when he's in front of a crowd, he still wants to make people laugh on his own terms. (Remember when he made headlines last year by refusing mid-set to tell jokes to a Hartford amphitheater crowd, opting to just shoot the shit until his time was up?)
These days, he seems more open to performing stand-up. His 10-night stint at Radio City Music Hall earlier this year brought out everyone from celebrities to critics, who were quite mixed on his new material. New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als was flat-out disappointed, writing, "the performance left one mourning the artist who could shepherd facts through invention until they emerged as something other, real and true." However, New York's Jesse David Fox was floored by Chappelle's tight, comic craftsmanship, simply stating, "This is a master at work."
In any case, Chappelle seems to be in a better place, as evidenced by his steady touring. Hell, he'll be performing at DPAC this weekend not once, not twice, but three times, replacing the late Joan Rivers. Even though Chappelle remains an enigma, at least he's an enigma who's getting back to telling jokes—a comedic nomad finding a home on the stage.
This article appears in print with the headline "Nomad's land."