"I didn't come here to be right."
That was Dave Chappelle's mantra at the Aladdin Theater Wednesday night, a line he repeated whenever he told a joke he thought might lose him the audience. And there were plenty of times where it could've happened. Like when he used the term "prison fags" to define the "Q" in "LGBTQ." Or lamented the "loss" of Bruce Jenner. Or defended Manny Pacquiao's homophobia. Or when he called Bill Cosby "the Steph Curry of rape."
No wonder everyone had to surrender their phones at the door.
Of course, given the frenzy for tickets when these shows were announced last week, there was little threat of the crowd turning on him, even in Portland, a town that always has one hand waiting to clutch its collective pearls. But it wasn't just that everyone felt too lucky to be there to start booing in outrage. It's also not that the material was too funny to deny, which it was. It's because it's hard to get mad at someone for telling the truth.
Chappelle's comedy has never been a pigheaded assault on "political correctness"—it's a conversation about the things that make us the most uncomfortable. He's not "telling like it is" or "saying what we're all thinking." He's only telling us what he's thinking, and he is honest enough to admit that he might be, and probably is, wrong about a few things.
It helps that he's a master of his craft. Chappelle is the quintessential "comedian who could read from the phone book and make tears stream from your eyes," maybe the greatest example of how almost any punchline can land if your timing is perfect. At the Aladdin, he weaved in and out of crowd work and written bits with such ease that the whole thing seemed improvised. Watching him in such an intimate setting—he joked about Justin Bieber selling out an exponentially larger arena, but Moda Center honestly doesn't seem too far out of reach for him, even now—reminded me of seeing Prince up close three years ago. He's so casual about his virtuosity, you don't fully absorb what you just saw until the performance is over.
It's crazy how long we've been without him. Other than the fact that his arms have swollen to action-figure size since he left television a decade ago, he looked the same, and has the same onstage tics: chain-smoking, smacking the mic against his knees. (He does seem have picked up a new habit, constantly pressing a long scarf to his face, which he attributed to new fabric softener.) But when he mentioned how much he'll miss Barack Obama, it was a reminder that the last time Chappelle was regularly in the public eye, he could only fantasize about what it would be like to have a black president in the White House.
And so, there was a certain thrill to hear him get topical, addressing the election (Ted Cruz has "hall-monitor swag," and Bernie Sanders reminds him of his accountant) to Making a Murder (Steven Avery "is in more trouble than any white man in history") to the strides of the transgendered in modern society, which he feels conflicted about, considering black people are still getting gunned down by police. He offered insights into the life of Dave Chappelle—"the black Forrest Gump," as he called himself, someone who walked away from fame and became an eyewitness to celebrity—telling stories about hanging out with Bobby Brown and meeting OJ Simpson, taking his teenage son to see Kevin Hart and attending the Oscars two weeks ago at the request of Chris Rock, where he pitched a fake movie idea about an unattractive superhero whose powers are activated only by touching a vagina.
And then he got into Cosby. It wasn't so much about the allegations but about wrestling with the idea of his idol being a monster. He believes the accusers, but he also believes the doors Cosby opened for a "42-year-old black comedian" like himself should not be erased. And anyway, America probably doesn't want to go down the road of revisionist justice, he argued, considering Washington is full of monuments to slaveowners. It was uncomfortable, and hilarious, and precisely the sort of smart tightrope-walking he used to pull off weekly when Chappelle's Show was on the air. He might not be right. But he isn't wrong, either.