Pain, oddly enough, is the primary source of material for many stand-up comedians. Whether it’s Louis C.K. lightheartedly describing his life as a schlubby, balding divorcee or Amy Schumer detailing her plight as a female in a predominantly male-dominated industry, emotional distress and personal setbacks form the core of many a set.
Hell, one look at the list of comedians who died too young — whether via substance abuse or suicide — is chilling: John Belushi. Chris Farley. Robin Williams, to name a few prominent examples. Each gone before his time, not to mention stand-ups like Rodney Dangerfield, Ellen DeGeneres and Sarah Silverman, all of whom battled depression.
Point being, in an ironic twist of sorts, an industry meant to derive laughs from its constituents is rooted in the depths of darkness. Some laugh to keep from crying.
This is where Dave Chappelle comes in. Chappelle, whose comeback continues with a trio of shows next week at Revention Music Center — two gigs Wednesday and one Thursday — comes at his comedy from a somewhat different angle. Unlike many stand-up types, whose act is rooted in self-loathing and misanthropy, Chappelle doesn’t offer much in that regard.
After all, this is a man who was raised by a pair of college professors and who graduated from a private school of the arts. Chappelle, by all accounts, is happily married and lives a quiet life with his family on a ranch in Ohio. He is rarely seen in public. Dude even showed up to a council meeting in Yellow Springs, Ohio (where he resides) to speak out against aggressive policing. In short, Dave Chappelle — notwithstanding an onstage breakdown here and there — leads a pretty damn charmed, toned-down life.
So whereas many of his contemporaries base their acts on personal hardships, broken homes, substance abuse, and busted relationships, Chappelle is more of a social commentator. Which we need more than ever right now.
Look, it’s no secret that things are a little askew in the world right now. Nations are at odds. Our country is divided on everything from our President to gay marriage to racial equality to health care. We live in a time of social media, instant hot takes and “embrace debate.” Simply put, now is not really peak season on objectivity.
So it was refreshing to see that Chappelle recently inked a monstrous deal with Netflix to release a pair of previous stand-up sets — one filmed in Los Angeles, the other in Austin. Coincidentally enough, those specials drop the day before Chappelle comes to Houston. Based on early trailers, they touch on everything from race relations to poor dietary habits to O.J. Simpson.
And that is part of Chappelle’s charm; his comedic repertoire is among the most expansive and socially conscious in stand-up comedy. Anyone who watched his namesake show that rocketed him to stardom, and eventually led to his retreat from the public eye, is fully aware of this.
Chappelle’s Show debuted on Comedy Central in 2003. While it only ran for two seasons — we’re not counting the abbreviated, outtake-laden third season, because it's better not to -– and 15 months in total, the show was and remains among the most relevant and topical in pop culture. This wasn’t a simple sketch-comedy show that introduced a few funny characters, although Tyrone Biggums, Leonard Washington and Silky Johnson certainly qualify. Rather, it brought levity to such topics as race relations, police violence, inner-city crime, celebrity worship, and sexism. Hell, the show’s first episode somehow turned a black white supremacist — a controversial topic, to be kind — into comic gold!
But that’s the point; Chappelle was always the most skilled at making societal issues – and in particular, racial issues – palatable to a variety of audiences. That might explain why, at times during its run, Chappelle’s Show's ratings even bested those of the juggernaut that is South Park in the coveted 18-49 demographic.
A sampling of some of the show's most famous bits confirms as much. The famed “Racial Draft” episode basically roasted a number of races and ethnicities but made its point in doing so. “The Mad Real World” flipped the script on the MTV staple and placed a white dude in a house full of black people. Even the “WacArnold’s” skit is underrated in terms of how it views one man’s quest to build himself up from nothing, and the pitfalls and setbacks he experiences along the way.
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Some were skeptical when Chappelle announced he would continue his comeback tour by hosting Saturday Night Live for the first time ever on November 12, which just so happened to be the first episode of SNL to air after the election of Donald Trump. Would the enigmatic Chappelle even show up? If so, did he still have his fastball? Would he troll everyone and avoid political talk altogether?
Those questions were answered quickly, when Chappelle delivered one of the most gripping monologues in SNL history, one complete with comedy, social awareness, a plea for understanding and acceptance, and of course, prayers for Omarosa. Chappelle, a bit beefier than a decade ago, looked a little uncomfortable throughout the set, and years of smoking has graveled his voice a bit.
But I kinda like new Dave Chappelle. He’s seasoned. He’s had a few setbacks. He’s bounced back from them and gained a little perspective. He’s as socially conscious as ever. He’s found his place. Fortunately, that place is the stage.
Dave Chappelle performs 7 and 10 p.m. Wednesday, March 22 and 7 p.m. Thursday, March 23 at Revention Music Center, 520 Texas. Tickets are going fast, but still available for Wednesdays late show through livenation.com.