Comedian Dave Chappelle has announced he will go on a stand up tour. This is his first sustained return to the public eye since he suddenly abandoned his show, the legendary Chappelle’s Show, moved to Africa briefly, and then returned with no intentions of maintaining his high totem in the comedy world.
For a culture that had already recognized his jokes as decade-defining, it was the most shocking move a celebrity had done in years. If you connect the dots of his personal life however, his departure from the business was more than understandable. His return will be marked with the emotional side of his personality, and it is clear some healing must be done.
Dave Chappelle was a successful for a decade before Chappelle Show debuted in 2003, as an actor, screenwriter, and, originally, a comedian. Chappelle’s parents were university professors, but Chappelle earned his success in the similarly oratory world of stand-up comedy. Among other subjects, Chappelle would light up the audience when he broached his fear of becoming too famous.
Despite this stated concern, his acting career brought him more and more attention, and ultimately the position to co-write and star in Half Baked. Around that time Chappelle’s father died, later he would say that he drowned himself in his work to never really approach his father’s death. He also converted to Islam around this time, although he rarely ever addresses this.
Half Baked was a success, and lead to multiple, full hour HBO specials, and, in 2003 Chappelle’s Show. The pilot episode features a black white-supremacist and a copious use of the N-word, uncensored. Needless to say, for anybody who still remembers, the weekly Comedy Central program was so over-the-top edgy that is made Chappelle’s stand-up — and half-baked — seem gentle by comparison. The pop culture world could hardly keep up with him.
Chappelle made use of multiple catchphrases, mostly based around Chappelle Show’s go-to punchline format “______ _______ _______, B*tch!” As the saying goes, Chappelle did not invent the word ‘bitch’, but he did make it his own. In that decade, that same phrasing, with the same build-up and cadence, was emulated by class clowns, rappers, and even James Cameron’s Avatar. The character Jesse Pinkman of Breaking Bad, which takes place around the time of Chappelle’s Show, says that line in almost every episode. In a HBO stand-up special in 2004, Chappelle tells a story of fans repeatedly saying the line to him at Disney Land: “I’m like, can you not call me a bitch in front of my kids?”
In Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, his guilt truly takes shape. Chappelle walks around his home town in Ohio, offering people to go to his block party in Brooklyn, and offering them bus tickets if they cannot afford to go. He had multiple incidents where he walked off of comedy shows. In taping season three, he later recalled that a white crew member was laughing too hard at a racial stereotype, and it made him feel objectified. Suddenly all of the stress of 20 hour days, the guilt, and the sting of Chappelle’s decidedly racist material about his African American ethnicity weighed down on him, and it became too much to bare. Before the new season aired, Chappelle turned his back on his $55 million contract extension and was in South Africa.
Chappelle came back and did pop-up appearances and a few stand ups here and there, with warmly funny, yet timid results.
Now that he is making a proper tour, I hope he visits these subjects with a satirical eye. Renowned black comedian, and one Chappelle’s idol, the late-great Richard Pyror, once famously joked about his self-immolating freakout, and in doing so proved his worth as a nothing-is-sacred comedian and human being of deeply courageous personal introspection. No doubt, lighting oneself on fire is more fertile comedic ground than a crisis of conscience, but Chappelle has always had the gift of insight. He may not have a go at himself in this first attempt at a comeback.
The tension of knowing Chappelle’s vulnerability will remain, and the longer he goes without joking about it, the more we will feel that tension. When he eventually does bring it up on the mic, the tension will explode out of his audience in the form of earth shaking laughter, that is a near iron-clad guarantee.