.“Everybody laughs at me – but get your Africa tickets ready, baby, because it’s coming!!! You have no idea… I am going to go to Africa – I am going to find a way to be myself.” – Dave Chappelle
When a comedian really, really rocks America – perhaps with the exception of Steve Martin in the 70s or Andrew “Dice” Clay in the early 90s – it’s always a blazingly funny, high octane, uber-perceptive, streetwise black comedian like Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and maybe, uh, most recently, Kevin Hart. But even with Hart’s flurry of TV, film and touring projects, everybody knows that the undisputed comedy genius with the rock star status that audiences are clamoring for – and seemingly can’t get enough of – is Dave Chappelle. When The Dave Chappelle Show hit the scene 10 years ago – with its subversive penchant for slicing up pop culture, race and politics in imaginative, wholly unexpected and unbearably funny ways – the first two seasons became such an iconic hit that it landed Chappelle an unprecedented $50 million television contract with Comedy Central.
And that’s when the problems and confusion started, and things began to unwind. While The Dave Chappelle Show broke new ground and propelled its creator into the Hollywood stratosphere, turbulence and conflict were boiling underneath the surface, setting up what Chappelle would later describe as “the perfect storm of bullshit.”
In April 2005 – in the middle of the show’s third season – Chappelle vanished into exile in South Africa, leaving folks bewildered. His audience and fans were stunned and the media were flummoxed; even people close to the performer (most notably his long-time comedy writing partner, Neal Brennan) couldn’t fathom what was happening in Chappelle’s mind. While the paparazzi hunted in vain for the missing comic, the Hollywood rumor mill flashed into overdrive with speculations that Chappelle was in a psychiatric hospital, that he was addicted to crack and he was secretly in rehab in a clinic in South Africa. For those of us who have traveled or lived in Africa, Chappelle’s disappearance might not have seemed all that irrational or confusing – the motherland of Africa is a continent of tremendous love, beauty and peace, a reprieve from the overwhelming materialism and stressful vagaries of Western society. It is a place of humanity, laughter and joy, stillness and sanity.
While Chappelle generally remained inaccessible to the paparazzi throughout his Africa hiatus, nearly a year after the Comedy Central melee he finally emerged to grant a short interview to Anderson Cooper and an hour-long, soul baring, no-holds-barred conversation with Oprah. Chappelle said his $50 million contract created untold personal pressures, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to live his life with the growing constraints and boundaries of his newfound success. Despite all the money, he wasn’t happy; and he even felt like corporate powers had “stirred up” his “inner coon.” Chappelle expressed concern about losing control of certain elements of his comedy and stage act, and that some of the laughter and response he was getting was not the kind of reaction for which his jokes and sketches were intended. Finally, he was disturbed that some people in his inner circle were making judgments about his state of mind, while they were out of touch with what Chappelle really felt about the changing pressures and demands of his show.
Chappelle readily admits he had a great deal of anxiety and stress about the meteoric success of The Dave Chappelle Show, especially during Season 3. But when Oprah Winfrey asked Chappelle directly if he had gone to a psychiatric hospital, his response was hysterical.
“Who goes from America to Africa for medical attention? It sounds like the most irresponsible journalism in the world,” Chappelle pointed out, incredulous. “I cannot imagine being a journalist and hearing this from these people and just running with it. It was on everything as a fact.”
Inside the Actor’s Studio: James Lipton interviews Dave Chappelle.
I felt compelled to post this Inside the Actors Studio interview with James Lipton, because Chappelle is reaching a milestone in his career and stage persona since the Comedy Central fallout and it’s worth revisiting why he is such a brilliant observer of human nature and America’s unconscious shadows. Over the past 7 years, Chappelle has quietly edged his way back on to the comedy scene with live performances in small venues across the country; “standup,” he says, “is the most important thing.” In late June Chappelle did a series of performances at Radio City Music Hall – his first shows in New York City in more than a decade – and he dropped in on Jimmy Fallon and Dave Letterman, showing that he is increasingly comfortable with maintaining the standard circuit of publicity interviews tied to marketing his appearances in larger, high profile venues.
Coloradans can expect something special as Chappelle headlines his own show at Red Rocks – Denver’s stunning 10,000 seat mountain amphitheater – on August 24th , which also happens to be Chappelle’s 41st birthday. It promises to be a true summer night for the ages, as one of the most cerebral and dynamic comedians on the planet will be onstage at one of the world’s most spectacular venues. In 2013, Chappelle headlined the Oddball Comedy Festival at Red Rocks with New Zealand’s Flight of the Conchords (of HBO fame), but Live Nation and Chappelle’s producers must have quickly realized that Chappelle was in a class by himself and needed his own event. The laughs will likely come a little harder, faster and heartier, as the Mile High City burnishes its reputation as being at the forefront of the nation’s most evolved legal weed industry. It will be interesting to see what happens with Chappelle’s momentum in the context of his Red Rocks event, as he clearly has some misgivings about television and yearns for the direct connection with an audience that standup provides. Its size notwithstanding, Red Rocks can yield an magnificent acoustically and environmentally intimate performance – but the resonant musical vibrations of U2, Coldplay or Steel Pulse are something altogether different from a comic telling a series of jokes. But then again, Dave Chappelle’s standup is sophisticated, side-splitting social commentary, miles ahead of his peers – and his 41st birthday will be the night of a brilliant shining star, indeed.