Dave Chappelle: Returning to the Stage Has Been a 'Healing Experience'

07/08/2014 at 05:00 PM EDT

Dave Chappelle Returns to Comedy, Sells Out Radio City
Dave Chappelle performs at 20th Annual Essence Festival
Frank Micelotta/Picturegroup
And now, returning to the stage…

Comedian Dave Chappelle walked away from his wildly successful Chappelle's Show in 2005, but now that he's back in the spotlight, after nine sold out Radio City Music Hall performances last month, he says he's back where he belongs.

"It's been wonderful," Chappelle, 40, told PEOPLE exclusively while backstage at the 20th Annual Essence Festival in New Orleans on Sunday. "Being back, what I've found this year is that everywhere I've gone, people have been overwhelmingly supportive."

Chappelle, who impulsively gave up his $50 million dollar contract with Comedy Central to go explore Africa, says it was a move he felt he had to make. "I never stopped being on stage. What I did was step off of the main stage," he explains, "Because those lights were hot, and I was trying to do other things with my life."

"That kind of attention wouldn't have been conducive to raising a family," says the husband and father of three who lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Though he's consistently done small impromptu shows around the country "to stay on the radar," he spent much of his off time "with my family and friends."

That's not to say he didn't miss it all. "The audience-comedian relationship is one of the more consistent relationships in my life," says Chappelle.

"I started doing this at such a young age, that not doing it was alien." Being back in center stage "Has been a healing experience. I couldn't even tell people what it means to me. It's sincerely a pleasure to entertain."

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