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Chappelle hasn’t lost talent away from the spotlight

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Published:   |   Updated: December 18, 2013 at 10:45 AM

If you’re like most of America, you haven’t seen Dave Chappelle perform in the seven years since he abandoned his perch as the hottest comedian on the planet, so here’s an update from his show in Clearwater Tuesday night: He’s still the most effortlessly cool performer you’ve ever seen on a stage.

He’s a little older, looks like he’s been lifting weights, is still a chain smoker, and is still full of explosively hilarious, cockeyed scenarios involving race and culture, from imagining Paula Deen as his epithet-spewing personal chef to impersonating rapper Lil Wayne as a bodily-fluid obsessed investigator on “CSI.”

Sitting in the packed auditorium at Ruth Eckerd Hall for the first of Chappelle’s back-to-back sellout performances, another thing is clear as the crowd roars in laughter: he’s still as beloved as ever.

The show, a surprise when it was announced only 13 days before it was happening, featured another surprise by way of an unannounced set by “Chappelle’s Show” co-star Donnell Rawlings, known for portraying “Ashy Larry” on the series.

Chapelle’s set lasted about 45 minutes. He didn’t touch on the reasons for his departure from the spotlight at the height of his fame, but winkingly addressed it during a story about advising his son to quit an after-school program, saying, “We Chappelles are known to quit things from time to time,” before pausing for a big laugh.

There was a strict no photos, no cell phones, “no yelling out anything” policy in effect. Signs warning that violators would be kicked out were taped to every entrance, plus there were repeated warnings from the show’s host before Chappelle hit the stage.

Those measures could have been a response to what happened in Hartford, Conn. in August when Chappelle battled with hecklers in the audience before abandoning his act. Cell phone video of the incident was all over the Internet the next day, along with headlines asking “Did Dave Chappelle just quit comedy again?”

Chappelle still doesn’t have any love for Hartford, joking Tuesday that if North Korea ever launches a nuclear weapon at the U.S., he hopes it hits the Connecticut city. He teased at performing the joke that got him booed in Hartford, and the audience briefly chanted “do it” before Chappelle changed the subject, joking “This is like being on ‘Price is Right’ when the audience gives you the most terrible advice ever.”

If Chappelle is worried about a Hartford repeat, he didn’t have anything to worry about in Clearwater. He had the crowd from start to finish. Sometimes the audience was laughing during his setups, before Chappelle had even made it to a funny part of a joke.

Why he chose to return now remains as much a mystery as why he left, but maybe there was a clue in his introduction. Before Chappelle came to the stage the DJ played the theme song from “Cheers,” and the crowd loudly sang along, “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.”

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