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April 24, 2014

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Dave Chappelle and Flight of the Conchords get weird at Oddball Comedy Festival

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Bill Hughes

Flight of the Conchords’ subtle banter doesn’t play as well in 10,000-seat arenas. Go figure.

Dave Chappelle fans really shouldn’t have been surprised when he walked offstage last month during the Oddball Comedy Festival tour stop in Hartford, Conn., after being heckled by an unruly crowd. After all, the Dave Chappelle doing standup in 2013 is not Dave Chappelle as “Rick James” or “Ashy Larry,” or any of the characters made famous on his Comedy Central series years ago, whom the Hartford crowd repeatedly demanded that he “do.” Separating himself from the show, and reintroducing himself as a standup, is a point Chappelle has been trying to make well before his so-called meltdown last month.

Luckily, at Saturday night’s tour stop at Mandalay Bay Events Center, which featured nine comedians, Chappelle faced no hecklers and needed no reintroduction, letting his tight 40-minute set do the talking for him as he chain-smoked and waxed philosophical about topics ranging from vices to "Pawn Stars" to his first Las Vegas gig opening for James Brown.

Though Chappelle began the show with a now-requisite spiel about Hartford ("Welcome to Dave Chappelle's meltdown," he quipped), the set was largely improvised, off-the-cuff gold, showcasing Chappelle’s prowess with an increasingly rare style of extemporizing that harkens his standup’s ’70s golden age.

That said, Chappelle is still clearly testing the waters of his return to comedy, a task which ultimately may have been better suited for a venue more intimate than the 10,000-seat Events Center. He took the stage 40 minutes late, which made things awkward for predecessors Flight of the Conchords, who, at the end of their set, looked at each other, shrugged and played two more songs to buy time.

Beneath Chappelle’s smooth, casual demeanor, there was a certain wariness — after all, how good of a time was he having if his performance was just 15 minutes longer than in Hartford? — that made him seem guarded, as if he were debating whether it was worth unleashing his rawest material on this audience — or whether he wanted to be there at all.

But in an era of lowest-common denominator YouTube comedy, it’s understandable that Chapelle handles his standup with kid gloves, protective of it as a sophisticated platform for cultural commentary and critique, a concept his Connecticut crowd seemed to miss completely.

On the other end of the Oddball comedy spectrum, the beloved doofuses of musical parody duo Flight of the Conchords delivered a co-headlining set of smart but largely canned material from their eponymous HBO series. Even after 15 years together, the pair still has great chemistry, playing off each other and making worn favorites like “Inner City Pressure” and “Business Time” sound like your two funniest friends putting on an impromptu show at a house party.

Las Vegas may have re-emerged as a comedy hub in recent years, but visits from comics of the subversive, cerebral variety onstage Saturday night are few and far between here. Chappelle would be a welcome headliner — if he’d ever even consider that — but it’s difficult to imagine Oddball’s excellent, edgy up-and-comers like Hannibal Buress or Jim Jeffries landing a regular spot at the Mirage any time soon (though it’d certainly be welcome). Until then, the inaugural Oddball Comedy Festival seems like the perfect alternative, a night of expertly curated comedic talent whose return we’re already anticipating.

Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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