NPR logo Dave Chappelle Hasn't Turned On Us. We've Turned On Him.

Culture And Criticism

Dave Chappelle Hasn't Turned On Us. We've Turned On Him.

Dave Chappelle, left, arrives at the local premiere of his new movie "Dave Chappelle's Block Party" at a movie theater in Beavercreek, Ohio in 2006. Because of his reclusive nature, the comedian is hounded by reporters and fans alike whenever he steps out into the world. Tony Tribble/Associated Press hide caption

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Tony Tribble/Associated Press

Dave Chappelle, left, arrives at the local premiere of his new movie "Dave Chappelle's Block Party" at a movie theater in Beavercreek, Ohio in 2006. Because of his reclusive nature, the comedian is hounded by reporters and fans alike whenever he steps out into the world.

Tony Tribble/Associated Press

Being a Dave Chappelle fan post-2005 has been like riding the world's most violent seesaw. Since Chappelle walked away from his hit Comedy Central show and retreated into solitude, every bit of news that leaks on the comedian's whereabouts drives my faith in his return violently up or down. He's back doing stand-up gigs: up! He denies rumors of a new TV show: down! He's booking more gigs: up! He stands on stage and says nothing for 90 minutes: down! He gives his first public interview in five years: up! And so on.

But with every headline-grabbing incident from this guy, I lose just a little more confidence that he's going to "come back" and deliver unto the world more of the brilliantly biting, pointed comedy that made him a national pop-culture hero. You may have heard about Chappelle's July 23 stand-up gig at the Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood, Florida, where he stood silently on stage for the entire show, answering text messages and sighing repeatedly in front of a confused audience. On Monday he went on San Francisco's "Doghouse FM" radio show on Wild 94.9 to explain: he was taken aback by the large portion of the crowd either filming him on their cell phones or yelling obscenities at him.

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These incidents worry me. I would give up crucial body organs for another TV show from Chappelle, a second awesome block party, one more stand-up special. But at this rate that's not going to happen, is it?

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Some will say that the man's become too insular, too sensitive to the outside world. But I think it's something else. Chappelle feels betrayed: by Comedy Central and his former writing partner Neal Brennan, certainly, but even more significantly by his fans.

The thing is, whenever Chappelle comes out of hiding these days, he's met with scorn and derision, or worse, an audience that doesn't understand him. He's heckled mercilessly at the comedy clubs where he dares show his face. He's still a show business pariah for quitting Chappelle's Show. And when he takes the rather bold and entirely unexpected step of granting a public interview to explain his side of the story, the deejays who talk to him have the nerve to assume he wants to hear tasteless jokes about Alicia Keys.

(Actually, can we dwell on that point a moment longer? I know they're radio deejays and making tasteless jokes is in the job description. But if you are conducting the first interview in five years with a comedy legend, even if you have the funniest joke in the world about Alicia Keys' rear end, you don't tell it. Period. And you definitely don't mock his current Ohio residency or try to goad him into starting celebrity beefs. Don't make him sic Wayne Brady on you.)

This was part of the reason he originally left us, remember? At the height of Chappelle's stardom in 2004, barbaric "fans" would chant dumb catchphrases from his show, like "I'm Rick James", at his stand-up gigs. They did it even after he told them to stop and called them "stupid." (Another incredulous aside: You've paid a lot of money to see a live act by a man you supposedly admire for telling jokes. Why do you think he wants to hear you spout his own catchphrases as an alternative to letting him make you laugh?)

In other words, the problem isn't that Chappelle "went crazy". It's that we did. As much as I wish this weren't true, I can't blame the man for withdrawing from the public. He thinks his core fanbase consists of rowdy, obnoxious jerks, because those are the people he keeps running into. And he thinks everyone treats him like a circus act — someone to videotape or provoke or shout tired catchphrases at.

Dave, it's not true. Most of us fans, we're better than you think. We know how to listen politely to you and not make asses of ourselves. We know how to laugh at your jokes: mirthfully, with just the right amount of temperance so we don't come across as insensitive. But more than that, we want to see you. We don't need to film you with our phones, because we don't even want to share you with anyone else. We just want to hear your jokes like we used to and hope, as we always did, that they will make us roll on the floor laughing once again. You still have a gift, even if most of us lack the discipline for it.