ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
And I'm Melissa Block. Some put comedian Dave Chappelle on a par with the late Richard Pryor. Among today's comedians, he seems to be making the biggest imprint with edgy humor and raw jokes about race relations. Chappelle caused a big stir when he walked away from a $50 million contract with Comedy Central last year, but his career didn't miss a step.
He's still doing standup. DVD's of his old TV show are selling fast, and he's got a new documentary in theaters. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports on what makes Dave Chappelle so popular and so funny.
ELIZABETH BLAIR: Dave Chappelle is tall, skinny and bald. Sometimes in his comedy, he contorts his wiry frame almost like a goofy Jerry Lewis. Other times, he'll tell stories about personal experiences, sprinkling them with some cultural commentary.
DAVE CHAPPELLE: Some black people are very afraid of the police. That is a big part of our culture. It don't matter how rich you are, how old you are.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
BLAIR: This is from Dave Chappelle's HBO special, Killing Them Softly.
CHAPPELLE: Now I was hanging out with a friend of mine. He's a white guy, you know. We were just hanging out and we were lost in the city and, you know, we was smoking a joint. Now, I don't know if it was a coincidence that we were lost and high, but my white buddy, he was smoking a joint.
(SOUNDBITE OF INHALING)
CHAPPELLE: Dave, Dave. It's the (bleeped out) cops. I'm going to ask them for directions.
LOU WALLACH: A lot of his comedy, whether it's standup, or certainly in the sketch form in our show, was about his experiences and his things in the first person, and not really pulling back.
BLAIR: Lou Wallach is senior vice president of original programming at Comedy Central. He spent some time dealing with the headaches Chappelle caused when he walked away from his show last year. But Wallach is happy to talk about what makes Dave Chappelle so funny.
He points to one of his earliest sketches called Blind Supremacy. Chappelle plays Clayton Bigsby, a blind African-American white supremacist.
(SOUNDBITE FROM CHAPPELLE'S SHOW)
Unidentified Man: In the right place. We are looking for Clayton Bigsby.
CHAPELLE: Well, look no further, fella. You found me.
Man: Clayton Bigsby, the author?
CHAPPELLE: What, you don't think I can write them books? Just because I'm blind don't mean I'm dumb.
Man: How could this have happened, a black white supremacist.
BLAIR: There aren't too many scenes from Blind Supremacy that we can air on public radio without bleeping the humor out of them, but Lou Wallach says it's an excellent example of how Dave Chappelle does both satire and social commentary.
WALLACH: It was so smart and so subversive, and yet at the same time had all the great silliness and broad appeal of what a good sketch show should have. It's genius, and I think that sketch encapsulates why we are so in awe of him.
BLAIR: Growing up, Dave Chappelle split his time between Yellow Springs, Ohio, where his late father was a music professor, and Washington, D.C. where his mother is both an academic and a Unitarian minister. For high school, Chappelle went to the D.C. public school Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
Even as a teenager, he was writing his own material and doing standup at a local club. Don Alese(ph), one of his teachers, thinks growing up in Washington, during one of its most violent periods, has influenced Chappelle's humor.
DON ALESE: There were drugs, you know, and kids were killing kids. I mean that's got to be intimidating, and that's got to be something to think about.
CHAPPELLE: Well, D.C. has changed. It's different now. There's a lot of white people walking around. I mean I left, I left D.C. in the '80s. It was not like this in the '80s when crack was going on. Remember when crack was going on? White people would be looking at D.C. from Virginia with binoculars. Well, that looks dangerous. Not yet.
PAUL MOONEY: What makes him funny is he's the apple from the tree, and Richard Pryor is the tree. He's the closest thing to come to Richard that I've dealt with.
BLAIR: Paul Mooney is a standup comedian and writer who's worked with both Chappelle and Richard Pryor. He thinks Chappelle's career is taking off because he tells the truth.
MOONEY: We need the truth now because there's so many lies. That's why the kids relate to it because they're tired of the bull.
BLAIR: Even when it comes to his own material, Dave Chappelle seems to be pretty reflective. In one of his shows on Comedy Central, he talked about having mixed feelings about that blind supremacy sketch.
(SOUNDBITE FROM CHAPPELLE'S SHOW)
CHAPPELLE: It sparked this whole controversy about the appropriateness of the N word, the dreaded N word. You know, and then when I would travel, the people would come up to me and, like white people would come up to me, like man, that sketch you did about them (bleeped out), that was, take it easy. You know, I was joking around. Started to realize these sketches in the wrong hands are dangerous.
BLAIR: Since Chappelle left Comedy Central, he spent some time promoting his new documentary, a hip hop concert film called Block Party, and keeping a relatively low profile. Comedy Central's executives aren't the only ones waiting to see what he does next. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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