The comedian is back from that freaky flight. For now, his shows will be on the comfortable stand-up stage - and in a new film.
By Annette John-Hall
Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer
PHILADELPHIA - This is how Dave Chappelle is coming back, back from eight months out of the public eye, back from being called crazy and a crack head, back from the infamy of being famous, back from turning down $50 million, son!
This is how - with stand-up comedy, the world in which he feels most comfortable, winding up a nine-city tour with a cadre of fellow artists who shelter him like a security blanket.
"This," he says, standing backstage Monday night at the Tower Theater, "is the perfect way to come back."
Never mind the movie that opens tomorrow, Dave Chappelle's Block Party, the movie that takes the brilliance of Chappelle's live act and mixes it up with some of his favorite musicians, the movie that was filmed before he said goodbye to $50 million.
He's back live now, because the live stage is the safest place for Chappelle to deliver his provocative, often profane, sharply drawn takes on the complexities of race and culture that have made him the hottest comic working, his brilliance compared to Richard Pryor's. Who else speaks about the twisted nature of racism through the character Clayton Bigsby, a blind white supremacist who doesn't know he's black? Who else has been able to insert an irreverent punchline - "I'm Rick James, beeyatch!" - into pop culture-speak?
It would make sense that Chappelle would reestablish himself back at his stand-up roots, especially after the year he's had.
After spending two years producing, writing and starring in Chappelle's Show, the wildly successful sketch series for Comedy Central, the 32-year-old comic up and bolted last year in the midst of a two-year, $50 million deal for reasons many of his fans still can't fathom.
So here he is, waiting in the wings of the Upper Darby theater, where the distinctive whiff of spliff fills the air, clad in typical Chappelle attire - T-shirt, baggy jeans, sneaks. He's alternately chain-smoking cigarettes and guzzling a venti coffee as he paces.
In seconds, he'll amble out to center stage with a mike in his hand and a joke on his tongue that he delivers in a D.C. drawl ("I confessed on Oprah. That [expletive] was pressure... . I'd rather get shot by Dick Cheney than to go through some [expletive] like that again... ."), as the sold-out crowd gives him a hero's welcome.
"I like this hosting gig," the gangly comedian says later, between introducing Brooklyn MC Talib Kweli and neo-soul singer Erykah Badu. "Normally, stand-up is an individual kind of sport. But these artists are peers of mine. Real free spirits."
Chappelle is open and approachable, shaking hands with friends of musicians, theater workers, waving at strangers backstage. He doesn't seem crazy. Maybe he's just a maverick. As he jokes to his audience: "I walked away from 50 million dollars. I must be the most gangsta [expletive] in show business!"
The Tower crowd laughs uproariously.
"The people. Man, the people... . " Later, Chappelle shakes his shaved head in appreciation. "I've just been getting a real warm reception, man. It's pretty much been like this everywhere I've been."
His tour is a live version of Dave Chappelle's Block Party, a concert-documentary filmed by director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) that features the comedian's favorite artists - Kweli, Mos Def, Badu, Big Daddy Kane, the Roots, Jill Scott, Common, Kanye West, John Legend, Dead Prez and, in their first reunion in seven years, the Fugees.
But it's the nonconcert stuff that is the most engaging: Chappelle cracking jokes off-camera with a drums-playing Mos Def, picking out a surprisingly serviceable rendition of "Round Midnight" on the piano, trading comedic riffs with his set-up man, Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson of the Roots.
"Tell them, tell them what I predicted about the [Washington] sniper," Chappelle urges.
"You said the sniper was black... " Thompson says.
"... because he was taking weekends off!" Chappelle says.
It's apparent that Chappelle feels a kinship with the artists. "I was a fan of theirs before I even knew them," he says. "They're a colony, a set community. They all help each other. All of them went against the grain and everyone has achieved a lot. That's not an easy thing to do."
Cameras follow Chappelle as he wanders around his hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio ("It's such a small community," he says. "It's where my father is buried. The people here watch my back... . I'm like Krusty the Clown in my town"). He distributes "golden tickets" to random residents - the woman who works at the convenience store where he buys his cigarettes, a pair of teenage golfers, the entire Central State University marching band - for his concert, which takes place in a residential neighborhood in Brooklyn. Chappelle used a nearby Brooklyn day-care center as his headquarters, the same center that slain rapper Christopher Wallace, the Notorious B.I.G., attended.
Shot over five days in September 2004, Block Party is equal parts concert movie and social commentary as seen through Chappelle's comic lens.
"We were hoping to define an era and a community without being too lecturing - to show people having a good time," says director Gondry. The Academy Award winner is now part of Chappelle's touring entourage. "On camera and off, Dave is charming. I thought it would be good to follow him around with a camera because he generates so much warmth."
During filming, Gondry says, he noticed his star was under pressure. Seven months later, in April 2005, Chappelle went AWOL from his own television show with no explanation - not even to his closest handlers.
There were rumors that he was on drugs, in therapy or downright crazy. Turns out he spent two weeks in Durban, South Africa, on what he described to Time magazine as a "spiritual retreat." He spent the rest of the year at the Yellow Springs farm where he lives with his wife and two children.
He later said creative differences caused him to flee, with the tipping point coming in November 2004. While taping a sketch in blackface, about racial stereotypes, Chappelle heard a white spectator laughing in a way that sounded as if it were at him, not with him. For the son of two academics, the youngest of three kids, a man who described himself as a "tension-breaker," the tension had broken him.
He started to question his own happiness. As he told interviewer James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio last month: "Is this what I want for myself? Did I get too big? I like people, and the higher up I go the less happy I get. I'm an artist, man. I don't need a sneaker deal."
For the most part, Chappelle's fans are sympathetic. "When you have an artist who is thoughtful and playing with race, he's always wondering if the audience is getting it," says BET correspondent Touré, author of Never Drank the Kool-Aid. "If you're dealing with intelligent comedy, there's a fine line between [breaking down stereotypes] and cooning. Dave lost his ability to know where that line was. Some guy laughs and he runs off to Africa."
Philly filmmaker Michael Dennis of Reelblack.com opined that Chappelle wasn't crazy for leaving the show, he was crazy for giving away the money.
"When you get a black person to that level of heroism," Dennis said in a phone interview, "to throw it away is troubling." Noting that African Americans should seek to establish their own wealth, Dennis added, a rich Chappelle is a powerful Chappelle. "He could easily inspire the next wave of people to aim for what he's accomplished."
Before he exited Chappelle's Show, Chappelle taped enough sketches for roughly four episodes, which Comedy Central plans to air in July. A spokesman said the network would be thrilled to have Chappelle back.
When told that, Chappelle, who had said previously that he was uncertain whether or not he would return, declared: "If they do air those shows, I will be so pissed off that it will be over. They have a contractual right, but they know those were not the shows I was happy with... . I say, boycott!"
If nothing else, the comedian sees the past year as a learning experience, a living parable, a primer on "the value of being true to yourself."
Whether or not the story has a happy ending, Block Party represents a hopeful start. "This movie for me has a real forward momentum," Chappelle says. "It's a real sincere effort."
He's not giving up on showbiz. "Whether it means having a show, or a movie, or just being on a stage," he says, "I need an avenue to say what I have to say."