Thursday, December 10, 2009
I've always been a sucker for stand-up comedy (hey, I grew up in the 80s) and Dave Chappelle was certainly one of my favorites. He made frequent appearances on The Howard Stern Show and his movie Half-Baked (1998) was really funny considering it was basically a movie about smoking pot. Dave also had a habit of playing bit parts and stealing scenes in popular movies like The Nutty Professor (1996), Con Air (1997) and Undercover Brother (2002). So when I first saw ads on TV and in the subway for Chappelle's Show, I remember being really psyched. As ridiculous as it sounds, it felt like someone I knew was getting his big break after years of toiling in the shadows.
The show (and Dave) did not disappoint. Sketch comedy shows are notoriously slow starters with a low hit-to-miss gag ratio. Chappelle's Show opened strong with a lengthy sketch in the first episode about a blind member of the KKK who is completely unaware that he is black. One of my favorite lines was when he angrily denounces a group of white teens as "niggers" because they are listening to rap music. Initially confused, the boys decide he was actually paying them a compliment. The sketch played on traditional stereotypes and didn't pull any punches when it came to racial epitaphs, foreshadowing the direction the show would take.
Consider another famous sketch from the third episode, "Reparations." Presented as a newscast on the day that the United States pays out billions of dollars to the descendants of slaves, all of the jokes hinge on familiar tropes. KFC reaps huge financial rewards, tens of thousands of new rap labels are created and a friendly black weatherman is suddenly decked out in "bling" and mocking the white news anchor (both roles, of course, played by Dave in heavy makeup).
The show wasn't just slinging racial barbs around, it was actually toying with these prejudices for laughs. A favorite sketch of mine from the first season was "The Mad Real World." After pointing out how reality shows like The Real World tended to feature a single outrageous minority surrounded by white people whom lament his or her behavior, "The Mad Real World" reverses it by having a lone white man living with six black roommates. His behavior is singled out as weird from the start even though the others are absurdly confrontational and violent. In other words, when seven caricatures live together, the odd man out is humiliated no matter what he does.
The show only got better in the second season, highlighted by the now-infamous "Charlie Murphy's True Hollywood Stories" segments and an outrageous guest appearance by Wayne Brady. As its popularity soared and its new-found catchphrases began spreading across the country, the sky seemed to be the limit. When Dave signed a gigantic contract for two additional seasons of Chappelle's Show, I again felt oddly vindicated as if a friend had won the lottery.
And then...what happened? I guess no one will ever know the entire truth. Somehow Dave ended up in Africa for either a head-clearing vacation or a trip to a mental institution, depending on which magazine you believed at the time. The show went on an extended hiatus but even when Dave returned to the US, he never went back to the set. Eventually the network took what footage they had and cobbled together three pathetic "lost episodes" that were just painful to watch. It wasn't that they didn't have comedic value, it was the context that made them unwatchable.
In the five years since, I haven't heard of anything Dave Chappelle has done. The internet suggests he went back to stand-up, but is that entirely by choice? Maybe he retired, soured from the entire show business experience. Maybe he was blackballed for walking away from a $50 million payday. All I do know is that his departure stings, like having a friend move away without leaving a forwarding address.
At least we'll always have "I'm Rick James, bitch." *sniff*
This represents Part 2 in a series of 25 posts about my favorite as well as the most disappointing entertainment properties/trends of the last ten years. To Be Continued!
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