Two questions dominated the conversation leading up to Dave Chappelle’s three-night, six-show stint at Pabst Theater, so let’s just get them out of the way:
Q: Would Chappelle—somewhat notorious in recent years for lashing out at boisterous crowds and storming off stage—turn in a complete, incident-free performance?
Q: Would Milwaukee—somewhat notorious in recent years for yelling stupid shit during comedy shows—shut the fuck up and enjoy the show?
Happily, based on Chappelle’s inaugural (and sold-out) 7:30 p.m. set last night, the answer to both questions was “yes.” The second issue was addressed by strongly worded and enforced rules from the Pabst (no cell phone use, no heckling, no yelling, etc.); the first was addressed by the man himself, who delivered a tight, finely tuned, and consistently hilarious 45 minutes of trenchant and surprisingly risky comedy. What does a Dave Chappelle stand-up show look and sound like in 2014? Like any other excellent stand-up show from a gifted and seasoned comic.
Following a well-received opening set from local comedian/luckiest dude in Milwaukee Ryan Holman, Chappelle took the stage to thunderous applause, cigarette dangling defiantly from his lips. (He would chain smoke the entire night—mostly American Spirits.) Far from the moody and testy recluse portrayed in reviews from a few years ago, Chappelle was loose, self-effacing, and in good spirits (and yes, ripped) as he launched into some off-the-cuff Wisconsin-themed jabs concerning the Fonz’s sexuality, and how every flannel-clad dude in Madison looked like “a dyke from New York City.” Those sorts of dicey topics and terms were par for the course for Chappelle’s decidedly un-PC set, which covered everything from Ray Rice, Paula Deen, and the decrepit Donald Sterling (giving a blowjob to the latter was equated to “tasting history”), to race relations, irate “gay bloggers,” and falling asleep during 12 Years A Slave (“I woke up in a sea of white guilt!”) There were multiple minutes dedicated to Chappelle’s apparent foot fetish, as well as his new iPhone that came bundled with an N-word-dropping Siri (“A glitch in the system, I guess.”)
Chappelle’s home life got plenty of play, too, but that material never felt like warmed-over “Aren’t wives/kids crazy?” boilerplate. Instead, it veered from the hilariously raunchy (a few precious hours alone in the house = masturbation and cereal time!) to the subtly surreal (being blackmailed with an old sex tape, jerking off to said sex tape, being blackmailed again with a tape of him jerking off to the original tape). As for some borderline-offensive material on homosexuality and transgender pronouns, Chappelle acquitted himself nicely with an all-inclusive capper: “Everyone fucks funny to someone else.” Cue more jokes on that foot fetish.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Chappelle’s set was just how unremarkable it was. A comedian got on stage and told some jokes, the crowd listened, and everyone enjoyed themselves. Sure, it may have taken threats of ejection to tame a normally unruly Milwaukee crowd (audience members were being asked to put away their phones long before the show, and Chappelle’s opening DJ reiterated the “rules” several times), but this sort of polite behavior should be the rule, not the exception. Then again, maybe the warnings weren’t needed: the comedian was so good, so relaxed, and so funny that it was nearly impossible to see him only for his old jokes and catchphrases. Forget “Rick James, bitch!” This was Chappelle’s show.