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As Dave Chappelle Changes, So Must His Comedy

Dave Chappelle Curtains Body Building

I remember listening to a radio interview Talib Kweli gave some random summer day a few years back, when he was asked about a second Black Star album. Talib’s answer stuck with me, in large part when thinking about the way we remember artists and their art. He said that people don’t want another Black Star album at all, they want a recreation of the first. They love that project so much that what they really want is a sequel to it, a follow-up, not for him and Mos to get back into the lab and create whatever they may. They are different artists now than they were then, and would create different art because of it.

Time is linear and shit happens to us along that line that changes who we are. People move, have children, mature, find spirituality and/or experience meltdowns. These changes color most every action and decision we make thereafter, which is why seeing Dave Chappelle at the Oddball Festival (which just wrapped in Phoenix on Sept. 22) could not have been a recreation of his previous two, legendary and hilarious, stand-up specials. As much as the collective will of the audience and Chappelle fans worldwide may have liked, too much had transpired to expect the same old thing.

Or rather, one or two incidents had altered the linear story of Dave Chappelle. When he took the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel NJ, stage, around 10 p.m., following fellow headliner Flight of the Conchords, he even looked different, swollen arms stretching out of a sleeveless white shirt. His set took on a different tone, too; it seemed as if his well of material had been contaminated, the oil of his darker days seeping in. This self-imposed obligation to explain himself, to clear the air about the recent Hartford, Conn. show where he responded to a heckler by halting his performance midway. He addressed the bigger shift in his life: walking away from his hugely successful Comedy Central show in 2005. I don’t know if these topics were inevitable, or if he hadn’t done them his set would have felt incomplete, but it was impossible to ignore that while Chappelle was mostly the same (still holding his cigarette the most casually), he was also slightly different. The genius behind “Killing them Softly,” “For What It’s Worth,” and “Chappelle’s Show,” was there, but with a new set of experiences that changed his lens and perspective.

He was newly cocky, too. “I’m dope, nigga” he exclaimed, explaining his son’s slow realization that his daddy is a legend. In fact, Chappelle spoke more about family life in this set than ever before. His previous sets were so inventive and effortless. Bits about dating monkeys or loitering babies were hilarious because of his delivery, but also because of how off the wall they were. They were absurd premises spun masterfully, squeezed of all comedic juice.

In their place, were stories about being a husband and a father. One particular bit showed that comedy comes so easily to him that he often starts with the punchline first, pulling one-liners out of a fish bowl and working backward. It was effective, and funny — he’s one of the most adept storytellers alive — but too basic a starting point to hang with his past material. It wasn’t a bit that only he could do.

This isn’t to say that the set was bad or disappointing or unfunny. Just different. How could it not be? We have to give the artists we love the benefit of the doubt at a certain point. Learn to appreciate whatever it is they have to offer and be thankful for it. I reunited with my closest college friends to see one of our idols. There was no telling what the experience was going to be like, but the opportunity to be present was something we weren’t going to pass up. Chappelle was different, but for artists we truly love, that shouldn’t even matter.

Artwork by Hectah (@Hectah)

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