Near the end of his early show Monday at the First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis, stand-up comic and TV funnyman Dave Chappelle came close to apologizing for being so filthy. Even by his profane standards, the stories were unusually crass, with extended guy jokes.
Those jokes made the middle of his performance sag in the first of Chappelle’s unprecedented eight-show stand at First Avenue. Even so, they drew laughs because Chappelle is a master of timing, truth-telling and insights.
Dressed in jeans and a sleeveless black T-shirt, he plied his craft with deceptive ease. He paced himself by smoking about half a dozen cigarettes. He’s on Prince watch, he said, and may have seen him at Whole Foods.
As usual, some of his funniest material had to do with social sore spots, including commentary on race and class.
He talked, hysterically, about hiring disgraced TV chef Paula Deen.
He talked about the Occupy movement — not Wall Street but hotel luxury suites, and how he was initially callous toward a homeless man in New York but wound up sharing stories and more.
The challenge with Chappelle was not about his subjects and themes, but the mix and balance. This opening performance felt like a tryout of new material. He admitted that his jokes about South African para-Olympian Oskar Pistorious were in questionable taste, even as he continued to delight with stories of hope and despair.
Chappelle was on much surer footing with his references to rapper Li’l Wayne, whose technique he admires even if the rapper’s lyrics and his lifestyle can be nuts.
Chappelle’s performance, which was being discreetly filmed, feels like a part of a comeback tour for a performer who famously left his eponymous Comedy Central show in 2005.
No matter, it’s easy to see why he is such a fan magnet (he added a Friday performance at the Pantages Theatre). He is still socially sharp. He says things that people think but fear to voice, even if they don’t always land. And he does it with a big heart, and vocal impressions that vividly evoke, say, President Obama or a clinical gynecologist.
Indian-American comedian Azhar Muhammad Usman opened for Chappelle. He told stories about getting through airport security, getting on planes, and generally being mistaken for a terrorist (he has a beard) -- or a former San Francisco Giants pitcher.
One of his funniest jokes was a recollection. At 13, he wanted an expensive pair of Air Jordan sneakers that his father, a veterinarian, found too expensive. “Let’s get them in India,” he recalled his father saying. Sure enough, he got them for a fraction of the price. Of course, the sneakers were not by Nike, but a sound-alike company, Nice.