NEW YORK - Dave Chappelle's hesitant, slow-motion comeback reached a big-tent crescendo when the comic performed a nearly two-hour set at Radio City Music Hall that seemed to officially announce his long-awaited return.
Chappelle, who famously abandoned his acclaimed and lucrative Comedy Central show in 2005, has largely shunned the public eye since last year resuming his stand-up career. In his wide-ranging act Wednesday, Chappelle made up for lost time, catching up to a decade of racial and societal change, skipping from Herman Cain to Donald Sterling, his since-born children to his return from self-imposed exile.
"I'm just back out here earning enough money to disappear again," he said mid-set as the sold-out crowd howled, collectively hoping he was joking.
The show was the first of nine scheduled for Chappelle at Radio City, easily his biggest platform in years. Music acts like the Roots, Nas and Janelle Monae are to join him later, but the kick-off show began with the veteran Washington D.C. comic Tony Woods as the opener and an intro from, of all people, James Lipton.
Lipton, who hosted Chappelle years ago on "Inside the Actors Studio," repeated the unusual warnings posted around Radio City prohibiting not just recording but heckling and even texting. The rules (which weren't strictly enforced) spoke to Chappelle's unease about stepping back into the limelight, as well as an incident from last August. At a gig in Hartford, Connecticut, Chappelle shut down his act 10 minutes in because of heckling. Videos of the performance went viral online.
Chappelle immediately referenced that night during a tangent on North Korea, saying that if leader Kim Jong Un were to use an atom bomb, he might consider Hartford.
But such "spills along the way," as Chappelle said of his admittedly "ill-conceived" comeback, weren't a part of Wednesday's performance. A noticeably more buff Chappelle first appeared with his silhouette projected large on a screen. He looked increasingly comfortable as his set went on, chain-smoked cigarettes and bumming one from an audience member.
Chappelle frequently wove into his performance a self-awareness of his iconic stature as a kind of J.D. Salinger of comedy. He often sounded confined by the role: "I'm too famous to say everything I think or feel," Chappelle said.
Of his abrupt exit from "Chappelle's Show" he said: "I just didn't feel like doing it anymore. It was dramatic, but I feel better."
When someone shouted that he should bring back the show, Chappelle joked that he'll do it right after making "Half-Baked 2" - an even unlikelier return to his past (his 1998 stoner comedy "Half-Baked").
But Chappelle's vivid storytelling, laconic delivery and unparalleled commentary on race in America were just as sharp as they were nine years ago. Bits - "pieces" he wryly called them - included imagining Paula Deen as his personal chef, himself as a pregnant transgendered person and Lil' Wayne guest-starring on "CSI."
Family life - a relatively new subject for the 40-year-old comedian - has given Chappelle some of his best new material. He told a tale of his wife showing up at an impromptu set after a marital spat, receiving an anonymous sex tape of himself and a woman made before his marriage, and sneaking bites from his children's packed school lunches when stoned late at night.
In the end, Chappelle looked reluctant to leave.
"This has been swell," he said, before adding several more anecdotes.