They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. That was certainly true for Dave Chappelle last night, who opened his two-night, four-show series of Miami performances to a hyped-up, sold-out crowd at The Fillmore. As we overheard one fan say, "I never thought I'd see him live in my lifetime."
It was hard to know what to expect from Chappelle in the year 2013. Seven years ago, in the middle of creating the third season of the TV series that made him a wildly popular comedian, Chappelle quit, disappeared to South Africa, and cut ties with his TV network and some longtime collaborators. The stigma of that period -- was he having a breakdown? Was he just an asshole? Both? -- has followed his career into the present.
It's a testament to the quality of comedy he produced back in the early- to mid-2000s that so many fans still want to see him live. And they packed the place last night, even as bouncers and a live DJ on stage reminded them to "follow the rules," which were extra strict, even for a comedy show: no heckling, no photos, no taking out your cellphone for any reason whatsoever, at all, period, or you'd be removed. Even press review access was restricted, which is why there are no photos from last night to accompany this post; New Times snagged a pair of tickets on the sly. What, was Chappelle going to have a meltdown on stage if he saw a camera flash go off?
Fortunately, we never found out. This was a crowd of superfans, people who heard Dave Chappelle was coming to town back when he'd planned to perform just one gig at the Fillmore. They were the first responders, dropping whatever they were doing to hustle to Ticketmaster and lay down $55 in the mere hours before tickets for this first show were sold out. They were not going to jeopardize this experience just for a grainy Instagram pic.
That meant the hardest job of the night went to Chappelle's opener, Miami comedian Nery Saenz, who was tasked with "warming up" a crowd that was already sweating in anticipation of the main act. No one seemed to pay him much mind when he stepped on stage last night, but Saenz turned the crowd in his favor quickly and efficiently with a set of family humor that was anything but family-friendly. It takes a special kind of nuance to tell jokes about your young daughter and your dick in the same breath, without coming off like a real creep; Louis CK is the only other person we've seen pull it off. But the crowd loved Saenz, particularly when he got down to detailing the differences between a blowjob and a "blow-career." Maybe there was room to get more excited for this show after all.
Next, a brief and ill-fated intermission during which Atlanta's DJ Trauma attempted to get the crowd to dance and sing along to '90s hip-hop hits. (Dude, it's an 8 p.m. show, nobody is drunk enough for that yet.)
Then, finally, Chappelle took the stage. Wearing a black, baggy tank top and light-wash jeans straight out of your dad's closet in the '90s, he did not exactly look like the comedy darling of the hipster set many remembered. But he was still fucking funny.
He opened the night with tales of his most recent career disaster: getting booed by a crowd of 30,000 in Hartford, Connecticut, last September. Chappelle has used the experience in sets since then, but it's hard to imagine a place where mocking the ultra-white, alligator-emblazoned polo-shirt-wearing elite of New England would go over better than Miami. When Chappelle joked about detonating a nuclear bomb on Hartford in Chicago, it made TMZ headlines. When he joked about it in Miami, people literally stood up and cheered.
That anecdote kicked off a smart but never too serious first half of Chappelle's set, in which he also took on the complicated subject of Paula Deen. He began by defending the former Food Network star, who was disgraced after revelations that she'd used the word nigger came to light earlier this year. In a spiral rollercoaster of a bit, Chappelle claimed that speech from as many as 30 years ago shouldn't be such cause for concern; that use of the n-word wasn't as offensive as it once was ("that shit hasn't hurt since Kramer did it"); that what Deen says doesn't matter because she's just "a cook"; and finally ended by fantasizing about dressing Deen up in an Aunt Jemima costume and making her cook for him and his family. It was laugh-out-loud funny throughout, but you could also write a dissertation dissecting Chappelle's complicated underlying messages about race and culture.
That's the type of comedy fans remember from Chappelle's Show: absurdist, with deep political undertones. The rest of Chappelle's set last night, however, went in a different direction -- just as absurdist, but replacing the political undertones with dick jokes.
It began with a dangerous question, especially in Miami: Who has best pussy descriptions in hip-hop? "2 Live Crew!" several audience members shouted. But Chappelle shut down the Uncle Luke lovers in the room in favor of -- get this -- Lil Wayne. (It's amazing the audience didn't stage its own reenactment of Hartford right then.) He then pulled out a series of Lil Wayne impressions, each ending with the line "pussy juice."
The Lil Wayne/pussy juice bit turned into a recurring joke; Chappelle claimed to have 50 different bits involving the Miami Heat-hating rapper and his favorite bodily fluid. And that was just the beginning of Chappelle's sex humor. He went on to bits about jerking off when you're married, complete with charade-like gestures; and about buying and using a sex toy called the Fuck Me Silly 3. At one point, even Chappelle himself admitted, "man, this set is dirty!"
There wasn't much intellectual meat to these jokes, which made up the entire back end (no pun intended) of Chappelle's set. And that might have been disappointing to some in the audience; as Chappelle joked about beating off on his living room couch and using butter as lube, the frantic energy of the house during his opening sets faded into a more relaxed vibe.
But here's the thing: It's still Dave Chappelle telling these jokes. They're still going to make you laugh until your belly hurts. You just might have less to talk about with your comedy nerd friends after the show. And last night's audience didn't seem to mind at all.
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Chappelle's series of shows in Miami concludes tonight, with shows at 10:30 p.m. and midnight. Visit fillmoremb.com.
Follow Ciara LaVelle on Twitter @ciaralavelle.
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