February 17, 2006

It’s his Block Party, and Dave Chappelle will cry all the way to the bank

He’s not Rick James, bitch. He’s Dave Chappelle. And he’s not crazy—at least, not yet.

Following months of mystery surrounding his controversial disappearance, Chappelle decided to jump back on the scene in style. Oprah, Lipton, dinner, and a movie. Sounds like a good first date. Chappelle’s back. Let’s hope it’s for good this time.

The son of academics, Chappelle saw a career in comedy as a way to make money but still maintain his happiness. His cinematic résumé is far from spectacular. It includes such gems as Robin Hood: Men In Tights, You’ve Got Mail, and Con Air. And who, especially stoners, can forget the pot-laced comedy Half Baked?

But Chappelle’s screen presence could never match his stand-up success—that is, until Chappelle’s Show rose to prominence. The sketch-comedy show won critical acclaim after its first season. The show received even more praise after its definitive second season. Ratings exceeded any other show on Comedy Central, and sales of the first season skyrocketed, making Chappelle’s Show the fastest-selling TV show in DVD history. Next came a $50 million deal with Comedy Central. But it looked like the shards of the glass ceiling of fame were beginning to cut Chappelle.

Apparently, he needed a break. He decided to get up and leave for Africa, telling only his brother where he was going. By his own admission, he should have told the rest of his family, too. Chappelle finally broke his silence on February 3 by appearing on Oprah. In the interview, Chappelle spoke of the circumstances that led to his sudden departure on April 28, 2005. He sought to escape the suffocating pressure of the show, where he felt both manipulated by the executives and “incredibly stressed out.”

The first moment that negatively affected the comedian was, ironically, a laugh. While shooting an episode of Chappelle’s Show that featured blackface, the laugh of a white employee truly caught Chappelle off guard. Not just any ordinary laugh, it was the classic instance of someone no longer laughing with you.

One could say that moment started his downward spiral. Chappelle categorically denies being insane or on crack. When asked if he really was in a mental hospital, he answered Oprah with this logic: “Who goes from America to Africa for medical attention?” He no longer enjoyed coming to work and felt that his creative voice should have been appreciated more than it was. You can’t put a dollar sign on that.

Chappelle continued the interview circuit with last Sunday’s appearance on James Lipton’s Inside the Actor’s Studio. The interview lasted two hours and touched on everything from Chappelle’s creative heights to myriad commercial and critical disappointments. James Lipton—the ultimate sycophant—actually referred to the regrettable moments of Chappelle’s career. Nonetheless, as he chain-smoked through the interview, Chappelle’s true genius came to light. He built upon the new image he had crafted in his interview with Oprah. Lipton’s interview was surprisingly worthwhile.

As if that wasn’t enough, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (a documentary, concert, and stand-up special rolled into one) hits theaters March 3. The film, directed by Academy Award winner Michael Gondry, shows just how much celebrities like Chappelle can get away with and includes performances by the Roots, Erika Badu, and Kanye West.

During the second season of Chappelle’s Show, I was a senior in high school. Now, I have been around during the run of some fairly popular television shows—Seinfeld, Friends, The Simpsons, and Family Guy, to name a few. But none struck the same chord as Chappelle’s Show did with my generation. The morning after a new Chappelle’s Show, students would stand in the halls quoting lines from the previous night’s episode. This essentially made the program required viewing for any student. By the end of senior year, the homework was gladly repeated, as shown by the DVD purchases of many of my friends.

That kind of visceral connection is what was lost during the comedian’s hiatus. If the comeback has shown us anything, it is that Chappelle has not lost his trademark wit. He still makes us laugh—but he would not compromise his artistic integrity for some executive.

There are four episodes of Chappelle’s Show’s third season that were taped before his departure. Maybe Comedy Central will give him his show back, and somewhere, some kid will be late for math class because of Dave Chappelle. Because we all need a break sometimes.