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Monday, May 16, 2005 

More Chappelle

For those of you who don't pay $23.90 for AOL (I still don't understand why you wouldn't) heres the Time.com Dave Chappelle article:

Dave Speaks

It was a clumsy dismount," says Dave Chappelle. For the past couple of weeks, everybody has been looking for Chappelle. Turns out, all this time Chappelle has been looking for himself too. He is without a doubt the hottest, edgiest and most talked-about comedian today. But on April 28, he walked away from his highly rated sketch-comedy series, Chappelle's Show, and vanished into speculation, rumor and the whispers of unnamed sources. His agent, his publicist, even his writing partner didn't know where he had gone. Comedy Central had to put on hold a show that was scheduled to begin its third season at the end of this month, a show that ranks as its most buzzed-about offering, a show that had been put together in a deal worth $50 million. Chappelle, however, who had fled to Durban, South Africa, on what he describes as a "spiritual retreat," was eager to portray the sanity of his decision when he spoke to TIME exclusively last week.

"I'm not crazy," Chappelle said. "I'm not smoking crack. I'm definitely stressed out."

In the past year, Chappelle, 31, has emerged as the most revered comedian among the youth of America, with a fresh, satiric take on race, sex and pop culture that's often profane, sometimes profound, always provocative—and incredibly popular. The DVD of Chappelle's Show: Season One is the best-selling television-series DVD of all time; Chappelle's Show: Season Two is due in stores May 24 and has already generated almost 2 million preorders. Says trailblazing comic Dick Gregory, who challenged social and racial taboos in the '60s: "When you mention his name among young folks, it's like mentioning Jesus in a Christian church." So Chappelle's MIA act set off a storm of media that hadn't been seen since, well, maybe the week before or so, when news broke that Tom Cruise was dating Katie Holmes. But it seemed as though everybody had questions and nobody had answers. Was Dave off the show for good? Was he a party animal? Was he on drugs?

Was he smoking too much marijuana? Was he smoking too little? Oh—and was Dave crazy?

Chappelle's hasty hiatus was an unexpected turn in a success story that TIME started following last November. I introduced myself to the notoriously press-shy Chappelle through a shared connection (my wife's brother-in-law is a childhood friend of his), and as the conversations unfolded, Chappelle decided to give TIME extensive access to the production of his new season. He even stopped by TIME's offices in New York City several times, always coming off as approachable, engaging and irreverent. (At one encounter, he tweaked TIME's editors by saying he was reporting a story for Newsweek.) But in conversations before he skated for South Africa, the tension was showing. "Later today I gotta call the head of the network [Comedy Central chief Doug Herzog], and I gotta face the music," Chappelle said on April 19. "I gotta tell this dude either I'm doing it or not.

Or if I do it, this is how I gotta do it. But what if he says no?

Then I gotta muster up all the balls I got just to say, 'Well, then, I'm walking away.'" Chappelle's words didn't sound that serious at the time—he is a comedian, after all. Just over a week later, he left the country. Our conversations, however, continued by phone after he reached Durban: TIME Are you on drugs?

CHAPPELLE I haven't smoked marijuana in months. My drugs these days are nicotine and coffee.

TIME Are you in a mental facility?

CHAPPELLE No, no, I'm not in a mental facility. I'm actually staying with some friends [at the home of a man named Salim], although I did consult a doctor when I was here.

TIME A psychiatrist?

CHAPPELLE It was a 40-minute session. I guess he was a psychiatrist.

We just chewed it up, and that was the extent of it.

TIME Why did you take a break?

CHAPPELLE My personal feeling is I didn't like the direction of the show. I was trying to explain it to people, and no one was feeling me. There's a lot of resistance to my opinions, so I decided, Let me remove myself from this situation. You hear so many voices jockeying for position in your mind that you want to make sure that you hear your own voice. So I figured, Let me just cut myself off from everybody, take a minute and pull a Flintstone—stop a speeding car by using my bare feet as the brakes.

Herzog confirms he gave the comic a firm deadline to deliver the season's shows—but says Chappelle never called him before going AWOL. He notes that this was the second delay Chappelle had asked for. The show had been postponed in December. During that break, Chappelle, who developed an interest in Islam in high school and became a practicing Muslim in about 1998, tried to perform the hajj—the pilgrimage to Mecca. (He got only as far as Turkey, he says, because he couldn't get a visa for Saudi Arabia.) As for the direction of the series, says Herzog, it was ultimately up to the show's namesake: "He absolutely has complete creative freedom.

There's no one from the network sitting on his head. Dave is in charge of his own world." Chappelle's writing partner, Neal Brennan, agrees. He tells TIME that Chappelle had "literally absolute, complete, creative freedom" and plenty of time to work. To some extent, his colleagues profess bafflement about Chappelle's reaction to what seemed to be garden-variety creative differences. "There were 1,000 ways to deal with this," says Brennan. "By the numbers, this was the worst way to have done it. He couldn't think straight. It was fight or flight—and he chose flight."

And then there are those voices in his mind that Chappelle speaks of.

While no one in his circle will talk publicly of it, some describe him as exhibiting increasingly paranoid and erratic behavior. At one point, Brennan says, "I told him, 'You're not well.' He didn't answer." Brennan won't speculate on Chappelle's health but argues that something about his pal of 14 years is different: "Has he made changes in his life? He's 140 degrees different than he was a year ago."

According to Chappelle, it's the people around him who have changed.

His wife Elaine and two children live on a farm in Ohio. Except for a cutting-edge hip-hop concert he sponsored last September in Brooklyn, N.Y.—among the acts were the reunited Fugees—he says he doesn't go out much: "I didn't buy a farm in Ohio to support my party habits. I drive a Toyota. My lifestyle hasn't changed at all."

As Chappelle sees it, his flight to South Africa was an extreme version of his efforts to keep his feet on the ground. He met in Durban late last week with TIME's Johannesburg bureau chief Simon Robinson, although he declined to meet at the place where he was staying, choosing instead the uShaka Marine World on Durban's shore.

As Chappelle walked along the beach, he painted a picture of someone struggling to come to terms with his position and power as well as with the people around him and the way they were reacting to that $50 million deal. Without naming specific people--"Out of respect, I'd rather say those things directly to the people involved than through the press"—he seems to blame some of his inner circle and himself (but not his family) for the stresses created by last year's contract. "If you don't have the right people around you, and you're moving at a million miles an hour, you can lose yourself," he says.

"Everyone around me says, 'You're a genius!'; 'You're great!'; 'That's your voice!' But I'm not sure that they're right." Among those close colleagues, Chappelle's growing distrust has apparently set off no small amount of anxiety. His publicist, Matt Labov, called TIME as this story was being edited, demanding to know if Chappelle had said anything inflammatory about his agent or manager.

Chappelle accepts some blame as well for the stalled third season.

"I'm admittedly a human being," he says. "I'm a difficult kind of dude." His first walkout during shooting "had a little psychological element to it. I have trust issues, things like that. I saw some stuff in myself that I just didn't dig. It's like when I brought a girl home to my mom, and it looked as if my mom really didn't like this girl. And she told me, 'I like her just fine. I just don't like you around her.' That's how I feel in this situation. There were some things about myself that I didn't like. People got to take inventory from time to time."

He turns to his faith for help in that regard. Says his friend Salim: "If he wants to talk religion, then I'm there as someone to talk to."

Yet Chappelle is low-key about his beliefs: "I don't normally talk about my religion publicly because I don't want people to associate me and my flaws with this beautiful thing. And I believe it is a beautiful religion if you learn it the right way. It's a lifelong effort. Your religion is your standard," he says. "I want to be well rounded, and the industry is a place of extremes."

Chappelle says he has been recognized by about six people in Africa.

"It happens so sporadically that when it does, it freaks me out because I have to remember, 'Oh, yeah, I'm famous.'" During the interview an American woman hails him. "No. 7!" he says. "Wow, I'm not that big in Africa. I've got to do an action film here."

By fleeing to South Africa, Chappelle may have found some peace of mind, but he has threatened a career for which he has long yearned.

Born in Washington, at 17 he told his father, a music teacher at Antioch College, and his mother, an African-American-studies professor at Prince George's Community College, that he was passing up college for comedy. He had been doing stand-up since he was 14, cracking jokes about Jesse Jackson's presidential run on an open-mike night in D.C. Comic Mario Cantone recalls Chappelle performing in Manhattan's Washington Square Park in the '90s for strangers and loose change. "I remember thinking, Boy, that takes balls," says Cantone. "It's tough enough for me to get on a stage."

For Chappelle, humor comes as easily as conversation. "Telling jokes is like a language I know really well," says Chappelle. "When I'm up there, I speak fluent joke. I'm up there, and I'm talking about seeing Hotel Rwanda, which is an incredibly sad movie, and I'm getting laughs. It's that kind of language. You just have to know how to do it." Comedy titan Mel Brooks, who gave Chappelle his first significant film role as one of the Merry Men in Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), says he spotted some special qualities in the fledgling comic early on. "He had timing," says Brooks. "That's very rare, even in our better comedians. He really knew when to deliver a line."

But Chappelle's talent wasn't universally and instantly recognized.

Not in his own mind anyway. There's a concept in the African-American community called the HNIC—the Head Negro in Charge. The notion holds that for various reasons in the U.S.—having to do with limited opportunities, pervasive racism and fear that if too many black people get too much stuff there won't be anything left for white folks—only one black person is allowed to be on top in any field.

Colin or Condi. Denzel or Jamie.

50 Cent or the Game. Chappelle certainly felt it was true in comedy—and the HNIC was Chris Rock. He was on Saturday Night Live; he was hosting the MTV awards; he was starring in big-ticket movies like Lethal Weapon 4. Meanwhile, Chappelle was starring in cult movies like Half-Baked and appearing in failed TV series like Buddies, and he was struggling to get himself recognized as one of the funnier participants on Def Comedy Jam. "When Chris Rock was real big, the word was, I was irrelevant; they don't need you," says Chappelle. "I almost felt like I was in his shadow. People would come up and say, 'Chris, can I have your autograph?' I would say to myself at that point—this is a young man's ego--'I wish just once that people would say that I'm the best. I just want to touch it. I just want this industry to admit it.'" Chappelle didn't wait for a break—he decided to create one. He and his co-writer Brennan (the two met at the Boston Comedy Club in New York City) launched Chappelle's Show on Comedy Central in 2003.

Chappelle was the show's co-writer, co-producer and singular star.

The show combined the pop-culture instincts of early Saturday Night Live, the satiric inventiveness of the Ben Stiller Show and the racial daring of In Living Color. The sketches on Chappelle's Show poked fun at new-school stars like Lil Jon and R. Kelly and old-school stars like Samuel L. Jackson and superfreak Rick James.

One sketch imagined a "racial draft" in which multiracial figures like Tiger Woods had to pick a race. Another featured a send-up of MTV's Making the Band, in which P. Diddy dispatches would-be pop stars on increasingly ridiculous tasks ("Walk uptown to the Bronx, and get some breast milk from a Cambodian immigrant!"). And one of the show's most electric characters appeared on the first episode: a blind white supremacist who doesn't realize he's black.

The show worked because it talked about what America finds difficult to talk about: race. As mixed-race marriages multiply (Chappelle's wife is Asian) and more kids check "Other" on census forms, the racial conversation may be getting even more difficult. Racial divisions are becoming more complex, harder to understand, more challenging to discuss. That's where Chappelle comes in. He takes all those hang-ups about race and lifts them up, spins them around, puts them in our face. Deal with it. Laugh at it. But don't ignore it.

"[Chappelle] illumines the idiocy, the sheer lunacy, of racial bigotry," says cultural commentator Michael Eric Dyson, author of the new book Is Bill Cosby Right?, "while also fearlessly pointing the finger at black folks' loopy justifications of questionable black behavior. He's great at taking particular events, episodes and escapades and using them to show America the unvarnished truth about itself."

But as the late rapper biggie smalls once observed, mo' money, mo' problems. In August 2004, after Chappelle's big deal was announced, people started calling him a genius a lot more. They started laughing at the wrong jokes for the wrong reasons at the wrong times. And to his mind, the show became more like working at Wal-Mart, although for a much higher salary. But he kept on with it. Says Chappelle: "Fifty million dollars is a lot of money. And what I'm learning is I am surprised at what I would do for $50 million. I am surprised at what people around me would do for me to have $50 million." Although news of the deal was heavily reported, the conflicted Chappelle didn't actually put his name on the pact until last March. Says Chappelle: "I was thinking for the longest—I'm not even gonna sign this s___."

Chappelle's misgivings about his success kept growing. Increasingly, when he walked down the street or slipped offstage at comedy clubs, people would approach him—black and white and Hispanic and Asian and other—and say things like, "I love your show, I don't care what anybody says. Don't let them change you." The phrase echoed in his head: Don't let them change you. Chappelle used to work Washington Square Park with a stand-up named Charlie Barnett, a brilliant jokester and crack addict who died of AIDS. Barnett, who co-starred in the movie D.C. Cab in 1983 and later fell on hard times and slept in the streets, used to tell Chappelle, "If you fight change, you'll end up f_____ up like me." Chappelle realized he was caught in a paradox: he had always embraced change. Now he was resisting change.

And resisting it was having its effects.

The third season hit a big speed bump in November 2004. He was taping a sketch about magic pixies that embody stereotypes about the races.

The black pixie—played by Chappelle—wears blackface and tries to convince blacks to act in stereotypical ways. Chappelle thought the sketch was funny, the kind of thing his friends would laugh at. But at the taping, one spectator, a white man, laughed particularly loud and long. His laughter struck Chappelle as wrong, and he wondered if the new season of his show had gone from sending up stereotypes to merely reinforcing them. "When he laughed, it made me uncomfortable," says Chappelle. "As a matter of fact, that was the last thing I shot before I told myself I gotta take f______ time out after this. Because my head almost exploded."

That led to him to the hajj. After his return, he got back to work, and by mid-April enough sketches had been filmed to fill perhaps five shows (Chappelle's stand-ups, which introduce and close the pieces, have yet to be filmed). One sketch riffs on the fact that slain rapper Tupac Shakur seems to still be releasing up-to-date songs. (In the segment, a man in a club hears a Tupac song that's so uncannily topical it talks about specific people in the club.) There was also a sketch called "Celebrity Injustice" examining newsmakers, like Howard Dean, who in Chappelle's opinion had been treated unfairly in the press. In the sketch, Chappelle demonstrates how Dean should have turned his much-maligned scream into a trademark instead of accepting it as a liability. "Every time I look at raw footage of that sketch, it makes me laugh," says Chappelle.

Although he felt that the sketches he had finished were funny, he wondered if they were as riotously funny as his prior work. Not everyone shared his fear. "I finally saw the sketches two nights ago," Comedy Central chief Herzog said last week, "and they looked great to me. I sat in a room full of people and watched them, and everyone had the same opinion—they're as good as anything he's ever done."

Brennan too feels Chappelle has lost none of his touch: "They're really, really funny. And I'd be confident showing them to anyone on Earth. Literally—Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Chris Tucker, Martin Lawrence, Richard Pryor." He thinks the real problem was indecisiveness. "Dave would change his sketches so much, and it just got to the point that the show never would have aired if he had his way," says Brennan. "He would come with an idea, or I would come with an idea, pitch it to him, and he'd say that's funny. And from there we'd write it. He'd love it, say, 'I can't wait to do it.' We'd shoot it, and then at some point he'd start saying, 'This sketch is racist, and I don't want this on the air.' And I was like, 'You like this sketch. What do you mean?' There was this confusing contradictory thing: he was calling his own writing racist."

Chappelle defends his standards. "When they say I make $50 million, it's not like the network is shelling out $50 million," he says. "I get part of the DVD revenues. Each person that buys the DVD, they're buying it because they believe in something I did. I could make a s_____ product for these people, but then that breaks the respect bond. I don't want to make a s_____ product. I wouldn't feel good about it. I'd be rich, and I'd still be miserable, and then I'd have to lie to myself more and more just to make myself feel cool about it."

So what does Chappelle do next? And what will happen to the show?

Herzog says he has told advertisers and staff that he believes there will be no Chappelle's Show in 2005: "I don't know what the guy's thinking. This is a guy who walked off his own show and kind of left everybody bewildered." But he also leaves the door open—wide open—for the comic's possible return. "Do we still want to be in business with Dave Chappelle? Of course. Dave's an enormous, enormous talent. We're in the comedy business, and Dave's a comedy genius." As for Chappelle, last week he sounded raring to go but not sure he had a place to go to.

TIME Do you plan to start up the show when you return to the U.S.?

CHAPPELLE Hopefully, yeah. Since I've been gone, I haven't really talked to anybody. I've only talked to my family. So when I get back, [I hope] everything will be up and running, or we'll make other arrangements. I don't know what the lay of the land is.

TIME Your idol, Richard Pryor, had his own difficulties. Is there something about the comedic mind that brings them on?

CHAPPELLE There will be no lighting myself on fire, man. I think it does have something to do with the comedic mind. For the most part, ever since I've been going through this, I think a lot of entertainers, black entertainers in particular, have been really helpful in giving me some perspective and shedding light on it.

TIME Which entertainers have reached out to you?

CHAPPELLE Lauryn Hill. She did give me some advice. She told me to be truthful at all costs. Which is a tall order, but which was really good advice. Otherwise you're going to run into one embarrassing situation after another.

But the advice that seems to be uppermost on Chappelle's mind is that of his father, who died in 1998. Upon hearing that his son wanted to try comedy, says Chappelle, "he said, 'Name your price before you get there. And if you ever find it's more expensive than what you're prepared to give, then get out.'"

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