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Dave Chappelle and His Jokes Return

SAN FRANCISCO — Around midnight on Thursday in the Mission district here, Dave Chappelle was standing onstage in a converted church called the Chapel when a member of the packed audience yelled, “Why make a comeback?”

Looking fit in a casual black shirt, Mr. Chappelle, a 39-year-old father of three, repeated the question, took a drag from his clove cigarette and leaned into a punch line with emphatic exasperation: “Private school is expensive!”

Then he flashed a sneaky grin, clunked his microphone on his belly and scampered upstage the way he used to in the opening moments of his old series, “Chappelle’s Show.”

Later in his magnetically compelling set, which ran nearly two hours, he returned to the subject with a more sober perspective. “I don’t need to come back,” he said, pausing. “But why not?”

After mocking a drunk woman who requested that he perform old characters, he struck a wearier tone. “This is a hard context to be funny in,” he said. “What’s the point?”

To the general public, Dave Chappelle seems like the J. D. Salinger of comedy. Since he quit his Comedy Central show after two brilliant seasons, walking away in 2005 from a reported $50 million contract, his mystique has grown as his public profile has shrunk. He rarely gives interviews or makes television appearances. It’s been many years since he released a movie or taped a comedy special. Persistent rumors of a high-profile return, perhaps on a comedy supertour with Chris Rock, have grown louder.

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