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Chappelle: A stand-up guy

Whether by design or happenstance, comedian Dave Chappelle walked away from a very lucrative deal with Comedy Central. But he's still connecting with fans, and on his terms - and making money.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published June 22, 2006


ATLANTA

Ask Dave Chappelle why he went to Africa, and he'll tell you about The Game.

He knows you may think him crazy, paranoid or worse. Still, it is the metaphor he chooses to answer the $50-million question: Why did he suddenly abandon a huge contract with Comedy Central, endangering his growing status as the country's hottest, edgiest comedian?

"Everybody says, 'What would make a person walk away from $50-million?' Well, I'll tell you if you want to hear it," Chappelle promised a sold-out crowd Saturday at the Tabernacle, a former Baptist church turned performance space in the city's downtown.

That question has burned in the minds of many fans since May 2005, when the lanky firebrand left his groundbreaking Chappelle's Show early into filming its third season, hiding first in South Africa and later in his adopted hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio.

It's the question that powered widely watched interviews on Oprah and Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio, and part of what prompted fans to scarf up tickets to six sold-out dates in Hotlanta, four sold-out shows this week in Clearwater and more.

In Atlanta on Saturday, Chappelle taxed his legendary storytelling skills explaining The Game, referencing the work of pimp-turned-author Iceberg Slim in an extended, profanity-laced monologue even he admitted wasn't necessarily funny.

But from Chappelle's perspective, Hollywood has a chilling goal: making a fortune by rolling out attractive entertainment that appeals to humanity's basest instincts - deliberately distracting the public from the awful, dehumanizing truth of how their world is run.

In the end, the lanky comic said, he couldn't be a part of that dance any longer.

"You're looking at . . . the only (person) to ever walk away from $50-million . . . they should bring me up . . . for an NAACP award, or something," he said onstage, laughing. "Ladies and gentlemen, the stupidest (man) that ever lived: Dave Chappelle. But I don't give a f---. At least I feel free."

Stranger still - despite his sudden walkout, his career may be stronger than ever.

Besides the sold-out shows, last week he released a DVD of his documentary/concert film Dave Chappelle's Block Party, which chronicles a daylong, free celebration in Brooklyn. Crafted as a glorious collaboration, it features a who's who of socially conscious rappers and singers, including Erykah Badu, Mos Def, Kanye West and a reunion of the Fugees.

Bankrolled by Chappelle and filmed on a shoestring budget of $3-million, the movie had already grossed more than $11-million before the home video and DVD release. And spurred by the ongoing controversy over Chappelle's meltdown, Comedy Central will air three new episodes of the comic's classic show beginning July 9 (with a DVD due July 25), cobbling together footage filmed before he left the country, introduced by former cast members Donnell Rawlings (Ashy Larry) and Charlie Murphy (Eddie's brother).

Chappelle remains ranked among Forbes magazine's list of 100 top celebrities, with a post-walkout income of $22-million fueled by record sales of DVDs documenting Chappelle's Show's first two seasons.

Bottom line: For a comic whose fans savor his subversive, in-your-face spirit, walking away from a multimillion-dollar contract has done little but build his legend.

"Dave being a rebel, saying no to the man, going off to South Africa, wanting to give all his profits to (charities) . . . in the end that helped his street cred," said Nikki Finke, an entertainment/media industry columnist for LA Weekly. "The audience loves that, especially the audience . . . that (also) watches Jon Stewart on (The Daily Show). If anything, his career has been enhanced."

Even some of the guys who lost work when Chappelle hit the road can now be more philosophical about the show's abrupt end, savoring the exposure they've received from one of the hottest showcases around.

"I think (Chappelle's Show) was one of the most thought-provoking shows about race ever done," said Rawlings, who also acknowledged feeling a flash of anger when he ran into his former boss while performing at a New York comedy club earlier this year. "The sketches with racial overtones . . . that's what woke people up. It's created dialogue between races that hasn't been so aggressive and violent. But the style of comedy that branded the show sounds like a type of comedy he doesn't want to do anymore."

Rawlings admitted the show's button-pushing sketches even gave him pause at first. A now-legendary skit about a '50s-era family named after the n-word concerned him, until he realized the joke's twist: The family would be white. Now, Rawlings shrugs off Chappelle's insinuations that Hollywood exploits artists and numbs the public.

"If people are going to exploit you, at least be compensated with a good check," Rawlings said, laughing. "We're performers . . . we're in the business of popularity. If people don't react to what I do, then I'm back to doing $100 gigs at some club in Alabama. The question is: Are you able to handle (big fame) when you get here?"

Finke noted that balancing an explicitly authentic voice and commercial appeal can be particularly tough for black comics.

"The Hollywood system, they want to dumb these guys down . . . make them palatable to all age groups," she said, referencing the struggles Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock had balancing explicit, groundbreaking stage work with baldly commercial films. "Look at Eddie Murphy. Adults have totally rejected him; he's either in cartoons or movies that appeal to kids."

But Chappelle's gig Saturday centered on telling pointed truths.

"Maybe (the Iraq war) is all of our faults," he said. "Maybe America's addicted to a lifestyle it can't afford. Maybe America is living like MC Hammer right now. MC Hammer had a $30-million (record) deal, bought a $29-million house."

Other bits centered on his suspicion that the Planet of the Apes movies were really a veiled Hollywood slam on black people ("The ape's name was Cornelius . . . with a bugged-out perm, like Superfly") and his addiction to the Girls Gone Wild video series ("I love watching girls make mistakes they will regret for the rest of their lives").

And though Chappelle attracted a diverse swath of fans, many who crowded into the Tabernacle's cavernous space were young and white - an enduring irony for a comic whose creative energy is so strongly rooted in black culture. It didn't stop those assembled from welcoming Chappelle like a rock star, though some grew restless with the Iceberg Slim references and an unexpected, 40-minute opening set by Block Party pal Mos Def.

Dave Nuttycombe, an expert on Washington's comedy scene who profiled the then up-and-coming Chappelle for the Washington Post in 1996, said the comic may fit in with other stand-ups who rarely feel comfortable in the show-biz universe outside comedy clubs.

"There's this whole . . . breed of them, for them, just being onstage is all they want to do," he said. "The business keeps trying to get them to be sitcom stars and movie stars. But Jerry Seinfeld - I think the rest of his life he'll just be touring around doing stand-up. And Chappelle is one of those guys."

Indeed, an hour after his late show ended Saturday, Chappelle looked relaxed and a bit grateful signing autographs for a small, determined crowd who sat outside his tour bus hoping for an audience with him.

Flanked by Mos Def (who wouldn't say if he'd be joining his pal for the Clearwater gigs), Chappelle answered questions guardedly, even as he signed every autograph, posed for every picture and thanked every fan.

"I wouldn't say I'm surprised fans are still here . . . I guess I'm grateful," he said. "You get surrounded by the business, and it's easy to forget why you do this in the first place."

And does he believe there's still a place for him in show business, beyond independent films and stand-up comedy tours?

"That's a complex question," he says, eyes twinkling. "Somebody's always saying I should do something. But I'm not sure I'm up to getting back in the game."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com. See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media.

AT A GLANCE

Dave Chappelle, 7 and 10 p.m. tonight and Saturday. Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater. Sold out. (727) 791-7400; www. rutheckerdhall.com.

[Last modified June 22, 2006, 14:15:25]


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