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He's working the Pryor vibe, not Urkel
© St. Petersburg Times
If you know who Richard Pryor is, or Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock or Chris Tucker, you should know Dave Chappelle.
Period. End of story.
That you may not has nothing to do with you -- presumably an earnest consumer of pop culture products who likes a good laugh every so often -- and everything to do with the Hollywood industry.
Those who follow the art know that there's a pantheon of standup comedians whose art was too esoteric, too authentic, too quirky or too truthful for the traditional road to showbiz glory -- which usually involves grinding a comic's stage persona into a blander, less offensive version suitable for framing in a sitcom or big-budget movie.
At the top of that list -- just below Geroge Carlin and Bill Hicks, maybe -- stands Chappelle.
If you do know him, it's probably from his habit of hijacking other stars' movies with sidesplitting cameo appearances: as Conspiracy Brother in Eddie Griffin's blaxploitation spoof, Undercover Brother; as Disco Cabbie in 200 Cigarettes; as Joe "Pinball" Parker in Con Air and Achoo in Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
Or maybe you've seen his standup routines, particularly immortalized in the HBO classic Killin' Them Softly. Or perhaps his late, not-so-lamented 1994 cross-cultural comedy series for ABC, Buddies.
Ask him about it -- saying basically, "Why don't you have a hit show by now?" -- and he'll offer a typically thoughtful answer.
"What I find in Hollywood, is -- ultimately, they're investors," said Chapelle, 29, who comes across offstage as a contemplative and serious student of comedy. "If you want to do something funny, a lot of time, it might not go along with the corporate line. They have a committee so large, so many people have to approve what you say and do . . . you could be Richard Pryor, and by the time you get on television, you're like Urkel."
Good thing, then, that Comedy Central had the good sense to hand Chapelle a half-hour show -- titled, ambitiously enough, Chappelle's Show -- that allows this ribald, socially conscious, always hilarious brother to invade the airwaves.
In some ways, Chappelle's Show follows a typical variety show format, featuring the comic introducing taped comedy sketches before a live audience.
But it comes with Chappelle's trademark irreverence. So viewers see more than his shot-for-shot satire of that annoying Mitsubishi commercial with a woman who seems to be having an epileptic fit to a techno beat (in Chappelle's version, he kicks her out of the car for a sister who can really throw down).
They also see an appropriately blurred outtake in which the dancer's, um, assets come bouncing out of a loosely fitting top.
"You got to see that in slow motion. Look at my face," he tells the audience, laughing at his leering, split-second reaction. "I felt guilty. Like I did it with my mind."
Other sketches include a training tape that teaches copy center employees how to ignore customers and talk back to their bosses (take that, Kinko's!), a clip that shows legendary pop smoothie Nat "King" Cole objectifying women like today's rappers and a fake Frontline piece exposing a blind white supremacist who doesn't know he's a black man.
And unlike some shows that use a live or live-to-tape format to feel fresh, Chappelle enjoys the freedom that comes with assembling shows in advance.
"Take a live show like Saturday Night Live. . . . There's a great cast right now. It's got all the elements, but here's where it hurts them, being live," he said. "If you're live and you want to improvise -- even though all these people are capable of it -- they can't, because it's live television. There's a lot of technical things that have to be so precise, you can't really leave the script."
With carefully assembled sketches shot like a film, with a single camera and lots of opportunities to nail the scene, Chappelle can go wherever inspiration takes him.
"You can see people having a good time and not just hitting their marks," he said. "I'm performing comedy I wrote with a buddy of mine. It's hard work. Sometimes we have a crew that puts on an 18-hour day. But they laugh for the entire 18 hours. And that's important . . . (because) you can feel the love coming off of it."
Just don't dare suggest that his show might feel similar to another topical, black-centered, late-night comedy sketch show, The Chris Rock Show.
"This is the thing that bothers me about that: The only thing me and Chris Rock have in common is that we're skinny and we're black," Chappelle said, clearly prepared for the comparison and angered at the same time. "If you look at my show -- I challenge you to find anything as elaborate on this show. A nine-minute piece about a black white supremacist? The problem with people is, they don't pay attention enough to see the difference in two people. They just see two n---." Still, the comparison is hardly from leftfield. Besides sharing their race, both comics offer shows with edgy takes on race-based topics, leavened by a healthy dose of hip-hop culture.
And both comics remain among the few who can tackle racially sensitive topics in a way that entertains and provokes thought, without stereotyping.
But Chappelle isn't hearing it. "I watched the (Chris Rock Show) tapes before I did my show, because I knew the parallel was coming," he said. "We're both skinny and black, and we both deal with racism, but we have two different takes on it. I could go up there and say I'm going to reinvent the wheel so I don't get compared with Chris, but I'm just not afraid of the comparison."
Another reaction Chappelle is preparing for: people sure to be offended by the buttons he pushes onscreen.
His show's final sketch -- in which he plays Clayton Bigsby, a reclusive, blind white supremacist raised in a home for the blind where they told him he was white -- uses the n-word countless times, requiring Chappelle to dress in a Klan uniform and sling the most hateful, anti-black rhetoric.
It's subversive, funny stuff. And it was too much for a black friend of Chappelle's who previewed the clip. He pronounced it the most offensive sketch he'd ever seen on TV.
"I showed it to my buddy, and he looked like he was hurt. And that hurt my feelings," the comic said. "I don't want to hurt people's feelings with this. It's supposed to have the opposite effect. It's supposed to be liberating."
He based the sketch on a real-life situation in the reverse: His grandfather was born blind and considers himself black, but he looks white.
"He's never seen . . . black and white. They are abstract ideas to him," Chappelle said. "Flash forward, it's 1968, Martin Luther King was shot the day before. He's on a bus in Washington D.C., and this crowd starts gathering around saying, "What you doing on this bus, you white m------.' And my grandfather was thinking, "Yeah! What are you doing on this bus?' He had no idea they were talking about him."
That's the key to Chappelle's comedy: edgy situations that illuminate a painful subject with laughter. Given his talent for targeting sacred cows, it's no surprise network TV had a tough time finding a place for his vision.
Indeed, Chappelle himself admits he "was damn near (treated) like Rosa Parks" when he took a stand in 1998 with Fox, which agreed to produce six episodes of a sitcom idea he'd worked up with writer Peter Tolan (The Job, The Larry Sanders Show) based on his life as a struggling standup comic in New York.
But the network had one suggestion: They wanted to change the lead female character from a black person to a white woman.
"They used phrases like "bring universal appeal,' " said Chappelle, who touched off a media firestorm by accusing Fox executives of acting as if white people wouldn't watch an all-black sitcom. "I quit the show because it was like . . . if you do what they say, your show will be . . . ridiculous. And if you don't do what they say, they will resent that and not support your show. Either way, the odds are you'll fail."
Coincidentally, Fox has found crossover success more recently with two mostly black comedies: The Bernie Mac Show and Cedric the Entertainer Presents. But the experience soured Chappelle on the idea of ever getting his ideas heard on network TV.
"It's like, if you loan your car to your buddy and he crashes it, you'll be a lot more angry than if you crashed it yourself," he says. "The networks, they always want to drive the car. And it's hard to sell something you don't think is funny."
Chappelle has been working comedy clubs since he was 14, when his mother would take him to venues so skeptical nightclub owners would let him take the stage.
Now that he's got his own show, Chappelle is still focused on building humor sharp enough to make you think but not so heavy-handed that it might insult anyone -- especially someone like his mother.
"I get away with a lot of the stuff I get away with because it's not malicious," said Chappelle, urging those who might take offense to blame the situations he's lampooning rather than his comedy. "The only reason some of this stuff is still painful is that people have yet to deal with it. So let's deal with it."
At a glance
Chappelle's Show premieres Wednesday night at 10:30 on Comedy Central. Grade: A. Rating: TV-14.
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