A decade ago that Dave Chappelle was the hottest comedian on the planet. His Comedy Central show created riffs and routines ("I'm Rick James, bitch") that still haunt the ether like old radio transmissions bouncing back from outer space. His standup was raucous and rude and unbelievably funny. After quitting his show and his career at the very peak of his fame and occasional standup appearances (some of which got pretty nasty between him and his audience), Chappelle is back with a full tour in the U.S. and England (and still occasionally getting on the wrong side of the crowd).
It's not just Chappelle who has changed over the past 10 years, of course. So has the culture, which has gotten noticeably touchier about all sorts of real and imagined slights. Spiked's Tom Slater has a review-essay about seeing Chappelle, who converted to Islam in the late 1990s, perform in London that's well worth a read if you care about freedom of expression and what is accurately called "the new intolerance."
His new set is peppered with jokes about him coming face-to-face with the new intolerance. There's the lesbian couple whose kid is at the same 'liberal-rich' private school as his son – one of them laughing along at his jokes about whether or not they qualify for the father-son picnic, the other 'too committed to her lesbianism' to entertain them. And then there's that trans joke, in which Dave, finding himself at a poncey gallery party, is stared down when he dares to ask 'Is he okay?' after a cross-dresser collapses in the corner. 'I support anyone's right to be who they want to be. My question is: to what extent do I have to participate in your self-image?'
Alongside colourful routines about family life, the Illuminati Christmas party and his burgeoning foot fetish, the through-line of the set is a thick-skinned comedian coming to terms with an increasingly uptight culture. Even if he does, hilariously, deflate the Charlie Hebdo sanctimony, dubbing the massacre 'a 12-person 9/11', the way in which, today, off-the-cuff comments and, yes, the odd bigoted aside, can mean you are driven out of society weighs on his mind. He talks about Paula Deen, a US TV chef who lost her show when court documents emerged suggesting she had used the word 'nigger' 30 years ago. 'You can understand why I'm concerned, doing what I do for a living', he says.
Here's his 2005 Showtime special: