As Dave Chappelle inched toward the two-hour mark during his late-night set Sunday, the usually verbose comic plopped down on a stool, dropped his head and appeared to be napping.
Stand-up’s reigning king was anything but drowsy in his second of six sold-out shows at Minneapolis’ intimate Varsity Theater, a vivid reminder that he’s still as vital to comedy as Bruce Springsteen is to rock ’n’ roll.
Despite already headlining an earlier show, Chappelle remained on stage well past 12:30 a.m., even when it was clear he had run out of prepared material. But watching the master riff off the audience’s drunken shout-outs (Patrice O’Neal! Trump!) was still more inspiring than material his peers spend months slaving over.
“Know why I’m still up here?” he said between begging his manager or a bar server to refill his plastic cup with booze. “While you’re sleeping, I’m thinking of jokes to make people laugh. And while you’re working, I’m sleeping.”
The 45-year-old star may have occasionally let silence hang in the air, but those moments gave fans a chance to let his lightning-rod sermons sink in.
Not that the moments could be preserved on video. Attendees, some of whom paid well over $200 to nab a seat, had their cellphones sealed up at the door.
You can sort of understand the concern.
Chappelle’s routines defending Michael Jackson and former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor are just the kind of fodder that keeps social-media platforms in business, especially when taken out of context. But Chappelle is more interested in activating brain cells than convincing you to take a side.
“I’m not always right,” he said, baptizing the stage floor with cigarette ash and punctuating his best one-liners by slapping the mic against his thigh. “If I was, I wouldn’t be funny.”
Less controversial were the comic’s fond memories of his late pal Prince. He opened the show by leading the crowd in an a cappella version of “1999” and returned to the number several times, sharing some intimate anecdotes in between.
“My dream as a kid was that Eddie Murphy and Prince would pick me up after school,” he said. “And then they became my friends.”
Chappelle said that through his friendship with the late legend, he came to appreciate how special Minneapolis truly was. He praised Minnesota for continually sending “wild” politicians to Washington. He christened the tribute with a sip of a fan’s locally brewed Surly beer.
“Tastes a little racist,” he quipped.
The opening acts set the stage for a night of politically incorrect comedy.
Ashley Barnhill flipped on the #MeToo Movement, joking that she sort of missed the attention that came with sexual harassment. Donnell Rawlings, a veteran of TV’s “Chappelle’s Show,” explained why he has no plans to throw out his R. Kelly CDs.
But the evening’s headliner was interested in far more than eliciting guffaws and gasps.
Chappelle appeared to get genuinely emotional when recalling the 2016 police shooting of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights and the recent slaying of rapper Nipsey Hussle in Los Angeles.
At times, especially near the end of his set, Chappelle seemed to be seeking a deeper conversation, asking aloud what it’s like to be Somali and for more information about the Hmong community. He also showed his support for Louis C.K. in a testimonial that felt more like an attorney working the courtroom than a comedian searching for laughs.
The crowd was too busy yelling out their favorite sketches from his former Comedy Central series to pick up on Chappelle’s cues.
Something tells me he didn’t lose sleep over the missed opportunity.
During his first rendition of “1999,” Chappelle let the audience know that his favorite line was coming up: “Tryin’ to run from the destruction/You know I didn’t even care.”
Somewhere, somehow, Prince is cracking up.