After the runaway hit that was “Chappelle’s Show” nearly devoured his stand-up career, Dave Chappelle fled the third season of the show in 2006 for the relative peace and quiet of South Africa.
After a long hiatus, Chappelle is back in the trenches with his first love, stand-up comedy. He’ll be gunning for laughs at the Saenger Theatre on Dec. 11, returning to New Orleans for the first time in 10 years.
Chappelle is no stranger to picking himself back up after a fall. At age 16, he was booed offstage at the famous Apollo Theater. Chappelle later said in a “Behind the Actor’s Studio” interview that surviving that rock-bottom moment was the best thing that ever happened to him. After all, what could possibly be worse than being booed and hissed by a room full of gleeful dream-crushers?
Comedy chops and persistence eventually landed him film roles such as the sarcastic, out-of-time teenager Ahchoo in Mel Brooks’ “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” in 1993, and as a caustic comedian who insults and is later beaten up by Eddie Murphy (one of Chappelle’s real-life comedy idols) in “The Nutty Professor.” He also co-wrote and co-starred in the cult classic stoner comedy “Half-Baked” in 1998.
Comedy superstardom finally arrived with the birth of “Chappelle’s Show” on Comedy Central, which treated audiences to sketches about a blind white supremacist who has no idea that he’s black, the alarming and presumably fictional villainy of Wayne Brady, legally binding post-coital non-disclosure agreements, and a series of true celebrity stories involving Rick James and Prince. (It turns out that Prince really did serve pancakes to Charlie Murphy’s crew after stomping them at basketball.) “Chappelle’s Show” was a bona-fide mega-hit, and had audiences across the world shouting, “I’m Rick James, b****!”
The fame monster turned on Chappelle, however, and he found himself unable to finish stand-up shows without audiences regurgitating lines from the show like so many drunken parrots. Chappelle’s escape to South Africa in the wake of his show’s aborted third season and the long hiatus afterward did little to quell the embers of meme-driven career death, however, as a Hartford, Connecticut, show in 2013 featured heckling durable enough to drive the veteran comedian offstage and straight into the headlines.
After stomaching reports of his failure on the usual gab media circuits, Chappelle went on to perform over 150 shows across the nation, with many of them selling out. Finally, he returned to Hartford a year later and won the crowd over with a set that poked fun at them. (he admitted that the “F*** Hartford” T-shirts he had printed in the wake of the previous year’s disastrous show were big sellers, and in response to cheering he asked the crowd, “Where were you people last year?”) This time, Chappelle walked away with a standing ovation.
It seems that Chappelle’s stand-up career may have finally escaped from the long shadow cast by his hit show and its infamous Rick James impression. Call it a return to form. Call it the return of one of America’s most beloved comedians. But whatever you do, don’t call it a comeback.
Chappelle performs at the Saenger Theatre at 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. Thursday, and at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Tickets go for $55 and can be found at Ticketmaster or by calling (800) 745-3000. For more information, visitsaengernola.com.