Chappelle talks race, politics in Fillmore kick-off

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Dave Chappelle does what Dave Chappelle wants. Right now he wants to be funny, which is good news for the rest of us.

The comedian was cool and calm at the Fillmore Detroit on Thursday during his first of two sold-out shows that night and six total at the downtown theater. He plays two shows Friday and two shows Saturday at the venue.

Dressed in blue jeans, a camouflage coat and spiffy Air Jordan 1 sneakers, Chappelle casually strolled onto the stage smoking a cigarette, his first of several during his hourlong set. "Well, well, well," he said, opening with a quick riff on Detroit. "Even the white people are poor in this city."

It was Chappelle's first area show since a 2013 headlining gig at DTE Energy Music Theatre, part of that summer's Oddball Comedy Festival, and it comes after he played a string of 10 shows at New York's Radio City Music Hall last summer.

The comic has been something of an enigma since he walked away from his Comedy Central series "Chappelle's Show" in 2005 just as he was achieving superstardom, a near-unprecedented move that would be like Michael Jordan walking away from basketball right before winning his first championship. Chappelle has laid low in the years since, but it is now clear the 41-year-old works at his own pace and defines his own success.

His mythic status has granted him a new level of respect from audiences, who used to pepper him with call-outs of his "Chappelle's Show" catchphrases in the years following the show's debut. Those once-rowdy crowds — who in the same building a decade ago were yelling out "I'm Rick James!" — now know better, and barely batted an eye when they were instructed Thursday to not use their phones during the show. Signs posted around the building listed "pictures/videos," "heckling," "shouting," "talking" and "texting" as "strictly prohibited" while Chappelle was on stage.

The audience obliged and was treated to a set of sharp material that touched on race, national and world politics and Chappelle's own celebrity, with stops at Bill Cosby, Ray Rice, Ebola, Paula Deen, Donald Sterling, "Dancing With the Stars" and "Empire." He kept coming back to the recent cases of police violence against young black men. "Tough time for the blacks," was his refrain.

He came off as thoughtful, studied and howlingly funny, frequently buckling over in laughter at his own jokes. He was also self-aware, and wasn't afraid to trumpet his own status; a bit about airplanes boiled down to the horrors of flying coach, which he said he feels he's earned the right to not have to do anymore.

That wasn't always the case. There was a time where it seemed like Chappelle might seem content to quietly slip back into society, just another face in the crowd, but he's slowly warming to the spotlight again. He joked about his own career and how you'd know if he was getting desperate. "When you see 'Half-Baked 2,' you'll know that I am broke," he said, referring to a sequel to his 1998 low-budget cult classic. "I'm saving that for a very rainy day."

At this point, it doesn't look like Chappelle will be needing his umbrella anytime soon.