Dave Chappelle's comeback gets a boost in Pittsburgh

Oddball Comedy fest's headliner rebounds after a rough night on the road, with a boost from his tour mates and fans



The Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival may henceforth be remembered as "before Pittsburgh" and "after Pittsburgh."

The "before" was Thursday night in Hartford, when tour headliner Dave Chappelle and the audience had a disagreement about the noise level, heckling and even what was fair game for the guy on stage, causing the stand-up comic to cut short his show-ending set. The "after" came Friday night at First Niagara Pavilion, where fans embraced him in warm, fuzzy applause and Mr. Chappelle thanked the faithful for being "the first crowd to pick me up after a nasty spill."

Signs of his fragility following the Hartford show were taped on surfaces throughout the complex, where you couldn't miss the message: "No cellphones, texting, tweeting, heckling, talking, cameras, recording devices of any kind during the show. Violators will be ejected. Thank you for your cooperation." It also was a mantra for diligent pavilion staffers, who said the "during the show" actually meant no devices at any time while you were in the orchestra section.

The warnings enhanced the pavilion buzz of those who came just for comedy and the chance to see Mr. Chappelle, who has been mostly AWOL since abruptly ending his television series in 2005. The tour sponsored by Funny or Die gathered a group of stand-up and television veterans -- Kristen Schaal, Al Madrigal, Hannibal Buress, Demetri Martin, and the Conchords -- Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie -- to lead in to Mr. Chappelle's eagerly anticipated comeback.

Hosting the show was the man dubbed "the toastmaster general" of Comedy Central, Jeff Ross, who contributed his own raunchy humor and reminded the audience to watch the network's roast of James Franco on Monday. During the night, Mr. Ross would tell a particularly off-color joke, then announce, "I can feel the love" coming from the crowd, an obvious reference to friction from the previous night.

Mr. Ross introduced the other comedians who marched to center stage from the wings, but Mr. Chappelle appeared after a rock-star warm-up reserved only for him. A DJ called Trauma tried to get a party started while a white curtain was hoisted, and the comedian's shadow appeared behind it at about 10:10. The curtain went down, a roar went up and the comedian took a few last puffs on a cigarette as he launched into his part show, part confessional set. For 35 minutes or so, he talked about Hartford, with feelings ranging from hurt to hate, and riffed on subjects from Lil Wayne to "Snakes on a Plane" to Oscar Pistorius in ways that dared you not to laugh, or at least gasp.

Another topic was his take on Paula Deen's firing after she confessed to using the n-word decades ago. "I thought I'd call Paula Deen up and hire her as my personal chef and ask her to just be herself," he said.

His act followed the two-man band Flight of the Conchords, who sang satirical songs made familiar in their HBO series, with themes including wooing a lady circa 1353 and "It's Business Time," which doesn't refer to business in the usual sense. They bantered amiably between songs about the many bridges in Pittsburgh and muffins in their hotel rooms, including one about epileptic dogs that seek sympathy for a golden retriever having a seizure and a labrador shaking on the floor. When the New Zealanders sang about groupies, I kept expecting Ms. Schaal to return to the stage, because she had played that role on their TV show and Mr. Clement had helped her earlier, when she splashed about in a nerdy "Flashdance routine" that after a few weeks on tour finally found its way home to Pittsburgh.

Before intermission and the Big Two -- FotC and Chappelle -- the short-order of things was Schaal, Madrigal, Burress and a longer set by Martin.

Host Ross introduced his cousin Chris as a lead-in to Ms. Schaal, and we got the ravings of a supposed hip-hop chauvinist before a hat was removed to reveal it was the only woman on the comedy tour, who announced it was her job to test the level of sexism in the crowd. Ms. Schaal spent most of her time onstage telling stories about a specific part of the female anatomy before stripping to a leotard and dancing somewhat awkwardly to the "Flashdance" theme "What a Feeling," aided by Mr. Clement and a couple of buckets of water.

Mr. Madrigal, like Ms. Schaal a "Daily Show With Jon Stewart" regular, brought the show into the comedy club realm with an observational routine that is his trademark. A Mexican-American who speaks little Spanish, he refers to himself as "assimilation mission accomplished," and talked about the racism inherent in a particular commercial that shows a black couple leaping from a moving car to get to an affordable restaurant. He also had some ideas for wireless usernames that will show up on your neighbors' computers and the inflatable castles at kids' birthday parties.

Social-media maven Buress, who has an upcoming Web series titled "Talking to Strangers," arrived on stage wearing silver pants and looking "like half of a baked potato." He impressed by interpreting rap lyrics by 2 Chainz and Eminem and closed with his own gibberish rap, backed by four ballet dancers.

Mr. Martin, who had a stint with his own show on Comedy Central, led the march into intermission, when people could run from their seats to use cellphones. In a plain white T-shirt and '60s Beatles hair, the comedian was neither the first nor the last to wonder how he "wound up in almost Pittsburgh." He didn't use his trademark drawing props, although a bothersome moth started him down a path before he admitted, "I don't have any moth-based material." His brand of subtle humor makes you think before you laugh: "I asked a friend what his middle name is. He said he has two. I said then you don't have a middle name ... you have a space."

He brought out an acoustic guitar and strummed gracefully while producing one-liners one after another. "I wonder if it's rude for a deaf person to talk with food in his hands ... I want to see a snake eat spaghetti ... I can move objects with my mind if I use my hands ... Sometimes I feel like I'm being watched and then I remember my show was canceled three years ago ..."

His humor was in such contrast to that of Mr. Chappelle's, it might have been just the thing that put the "odd" in Oddball.

As the night drew to a close and the headliner finally appeared after his long intro, there were yells of "We miss you" and "We love you." Mr. Chappelle, his eyes watery but mischievous, soaked it all in while soldiering through his partly improvised set, constantly wiping away sweat with a towel. It became a badge of honor for fans here to be welcoming as the comedian lamented his previous experience -- or perhaps they were worried about appearing in the newsletter he's thinking about writing, in which he reviews the audience.

Toward the end of his set, the comedian, who recently turned 40, invited his wife Elaine, their children and extended family members onstage to celebrate her 39th birthday. They had arrived in Pittsburgh, he said, to support him after his rough time the previous night. At one point, he leaned to an African-American patron seated in the front and asked her to spread the word about the tour, noting that there were so few black faces in the seats. He then said he appreciates anyone who comes out to see him and that he planned to be back in town "by myself" later this year.

The crowd streamed out in a seemingly good mood after the little Chappelle family birthday party, with cellphones once again lighting the way in the night. Immediately after the show, Hannibal Buress tweeted, "Chappelle just destroyed in Pittsburgh."

theater

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960. First Published August 31, 2013 3:00 PM


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