Imagine a dentist who knows the location of all the exposed nerves in a patient's mouth, yet expertly works around them, perhaps even cranking his scary, high-pitched drill once in a while just for the heck of it. That's one way to characterize Dave Chappelle's performance Thursday night in Minneapolis.

The funnyman, who abruptly quit his highly rated Comedy Central TV show in 2005, was in great form for his two-hour pop-up concert at the State Theatre. He ambled about the stage in jeans, a white T-shirt and a leather jacket, puffing on cigarettes for most of his concert.

Like Chris Rock, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and other masters of socially-poignant comedy, Chappelle took on sensitive issues with skill and lucidity. He cracked jokes about blacks, whites, Asians, Somalis and Mexicans. Much of what he said would be offensive in the mouths of ordinary people or politicians.

Chappelle's gift was about more than expert timing. This son of two professors has a way of building out his stories, making them seem like part of his deep, genuine inquiry about humanity. He told anecdotes about his travels to Asia and Africa, to Berkeley, where he wanted to open a hippie-stripper club called Strippies, and to Minneapolis, where he last visited in 2004. Despite the sometimes coarse language -- actually, this mature family man cursed far less than expected -- Chappelle's monologue was full of hysterical insights.

He twice addressed the big question that hung over the concert, which was why he quit his eponymous show when the cable network was offering him a $50 million contract. "Technically I never quit. I just stopped going to work," he told a heckler.

"Quitting a show like that, first of all, is a terrible [bleeping] idea.... I paid my price, I went through a lot," he said, showing that he's still conflicted about his decision. "Eventually, you just get over it. You don't cry about 50 million dollars if you've got 10 million in the bank. The truth of the matter is, the difference between 50 million dollars and 10 million is an astounding 40 million."

Chappelle said the hardest part of leaving his show was getting sympathy advice from friends. "You gotta hang in there and keep your chin up," he said one chum offered. "That's what's wrong -- my chin's too low?"

Another friend gave him a self-help book called "The Secret."

"Turns out the secret is positive imaging -- you've got to visualize positive things that you want to happen in your life so they can manifest themselves," he said.

When he visited Africa, he saw a kid on the street and asked him what's wrong. The child said that he was hungry.

"Well, you need to visualize some roast beef and mashed potatoes," he told the boy. "Now you know how it works. Don't tell anybody about it. It's a secret."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390