ED GORDON, host:
Now, from Washington politics to one of Hollywood's greatest disappearing acts. Dave Chappelle rose from obscure comedy stand up and small movie roles to heading his own hugely successful show on Comedy Central.
(Soundbite of television show “Chappelle's Show”):
Unidentified Man: Exactly how much money did you earn in your time as a crack cocaine dealer?
Mr. DAVE CHAPPELLE: (As Cocaine Dealer) Well, I said there are so many Amendments in the Constitution, I can only choose one. I plead the fifth; one, two, three, four, fifth.
GORDON: Chappelle inked a $50 million contract for movie and TV projects. And then the comedian went AWOL. Rumors spread that he buckled under the pressure to create. There were stories he checked himself into a mental hospital somewhere in Africa. Since then, Chappelle has reemerged, but a lot of his fans are still wondering what happened and what the future holds for this sharp comic talent. To clear up some of those questions, NPR's Farai Chideya spoke with a writer who has been closely following Dave Chappelle's career.
FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:
I'm joined my Kyle Pope. His cover story on Chappelle's disappearance and his return appears in this month's issue of the music magazine Blender. Hi, Kyle, thanks for joining us.
Mr. KYLE POPE (Freelance Writer): Thanks for having me.
CHIDEYA: So, let's talk a little bit about what happened. Where did Chappelle come from? What pinnacle did he reach? And why did he freak out?
Mr. POPE: He's been on the scene for a long time. Dave Chappelle has been doing stand-up comedy since he was, I think, 13 actually. And it was really through his Comedy Central show that he really caught fire, and when he caught fire he caught fire almost immediately. So he was a huge star. At the peak of his powers, you could argue that he was as big a star as there was in television.
CHIDEYA: Your story is one that you had to do without his participation, because he turned you down. He hasn't responded…
Mr. POPE: Again and again.
CHIDEYA: He hasn't responded to us. I guess Oprah is one of the lucky few. Let's go through more of the specifics. He left the show in April of 2005. What did he do directly after that and lead us up to the present?
Mr. POPE: There was an episode at the end of the previous year that was really the turning point here, in which he was doing a skit--he was playing a sort of pixie character in blackface; and the idea was that this character sits on people's shoulders and forces them to do sort of stereotypical things. And on the set there was somebody who laughed really, really loudly. It happened to be a white staffer. The laugh offended Chappelle because he thought, this guy is not laughing at the satire, he's laughing at the blackface pixie character, and it really turned his stomach.
So that happened in December and he just needed to get away. He went to Africa. He's a Muslim, and he wanted to go to Mecca, actually, but couldn't get a visa. And then he very quickly, actually, came back to the states, I think it was like June, and started doing some stand-ups unannounced, which he's been doing, you know, since then.
CHIDEYA: It strikes me that the story about the pixie in blackface so illustrating because how ironic is it that a comedian would be turned away from the profession, or at least from practicing his craft on television, by laughter.
Mr. POPE: Yeah. And the reason he was so successful is because he tackles race very directly and very honestly, and audiences, both black and white audiences, respond to it. And to me, it is sort of the ultimate--in a sense it's the ultimate justice for his work, but this was the issue that sort of threw the whole thing into turmoil.
CHIDEYA: Are there mutterings that, you know, if you don't get back on the set soon, we are going to drag your but in court?
Mr. POPE: He's cut a bunch of the skits already for the new series. What he hasn't done is the interstitial--when he introduces the pieces in a kind of a little bit of a stand-up routine. Comedy Central is trying to figure out if he doesn't do that, how are they going to stitch these skits together.
CHIDEYA: And didn't he threaten to walk away for good if they did the piecemeal job? So it's kind of like Comedy Central is damned if they do and damned if they don't.
Mr. POPE: Yeah, they're in a real fix here, because on the one hand, the last season it was their best rated show. So, it really isn't in their interest to be really, really aggressive about this. What they want to do is define a sort of happy medium to say, do you want your own staff? Do you want more say over the content? That said, there are a lot of other bigger issues. I mean, when you get as rich as he got, people tend to attach themselves to you. And he thought these people were just eating away at him.
CHIDEYA: What about Dave Chappelle's Block Party. That's a movie that he did in collaboration with Michel Gondry, who was the French music video director and the guy who created the fabulous images in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. What does that film represent for Chappelle? It went into motion before he left the show?
Mr. POPE: What's clear from the movie is that he was pondering a lot of these issues about who am I as an African Artist; how do I fit in with the whole Hollywood machinery? And what he did is he intentionally surrounded himself with people in that movie who had reached the point that he had reached, and the best example is Lauren Hill, and he spent some time with her. She was extremely powerful and famous, and really at the peak of her power when she decided, I can't take it; I've got to take a breather.
CHIDEYA: And what price do you think he's going to pay if you are caught in a situation where the very profession that calls you or brings you joy has soured for you and you decide that you have to make a break like this? What cost will he incur?
Mr. POPE: To me the question is, what do the fans think? Do the fans think that he did a gutsy thing, or do the fans think that he burned them? And I think if he plays it right, he can come back, and especially if he comes back with sort of--not a mea culpa, but explain and say, look, I know it looked weird, but here's why I did it, and I hope you understand, but if you don't, there's not much I can do about it, but it was the right thing for me. Let's move on and let's make each other laugh again.
CHIDEYA: And Chappelle, if you're listening to this, call us; call us right here, NPR West, Los Angeles. When you come from Ohio, just stop by. We'll have a bowl of cereal; we'll talk.
Kyle Pope is a freelance writer based in New York. His cover story is titled, The Return of Dave Chappelle. It's in this month's Blender magazine. Thanks for joining me, Kyle.
Mr. POPE: Thanks, Farai.
GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya. That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to this show, visit NPR.org. NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.
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