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“Robin Hood: Men in Tights.” “Half Baked.” “You've Got Mail.” “Con Air.” Like a straight man setting up a punchline, James Lipton checked off the dubious film credits of comedian Dave Chappelle. And while there are plenty of laughs in this week's edition of “Inside the Actors Studio,” airing at 9 p.m. ET Feb. 12 on Bravo, Chappelle also discussed some very serious issues.
Viewers looking for the why-Chappelle-quit smoking gun won't find that here. But you will get a glimpse into the mind of a man who loves to make people laugh, and who seems ready to take on the powers that be in Hollywood. For Chappelle fans, it's an interview worth watching.
His decision to quit is well-known, if not exactly understood. In 2003, Chappelle signed a $50 million deal with Comedy Central to produce two more seasons of his critically acclaimed show, a ratings winner for the cable channel. But as the season-premiere date neared, rumors began to swirl about production delays. Then, in April 2004, Chappelle abruptly walked away from the show. Media chatter included speculation about drug use and a possible mental breakdown, both of which Chappelle denied when he resurfaced that May in South Africa. Then silence.
The comedian broke this silence on Feb. 3 on the "Oprah Winfrey Show," saying that stress and pressure from network executives forced him to quit. In his two-hour interview with Lipton, Chappelle discusses both his decision and the characterizations of him in the press.
Chain-smoking throughout the interview, the comedian sets the tone right from the start. “Oh, you guys are gonna learn a lot tonight,” Chappelle told the audience of students from New York's Pace University. “You guys are students now, so you're idealists. You don't know about where art and corporate interests meet yet. Just prepare to have your heart broken ... get your Africa tickets ready, baby. Because you have no idea!”
Corporate interests, and money, were at the core of Chappelle's decision, he says. The comic claims that Comedy Central pressured him to produce shows that didn't jibe with his sensibilities, and that the $50 million deal brought with it more expectations then he was prepared for. Chappelle recalled a conversation he had with his late father about his decision to become a comedian, saying “My father told me ‘Name your price in the beginning. If it ever gets more expensive than the price you name, get out of there.’ Thus, Africa.”
Considering the rumors flying at the time, Africa proved an ideal retreat. “I knew that in Africa I'd have a place to sleep,” Chappelle said. “And when they would call me ‘crackhead’ and all these things [in the U.S.], in Africa, they didn't know anything.”
The comedian doesn't deny that fear sent him to Africa, and ultimately returned him to his Ohio farm. “I'm not going to lie to you, I got scared," he said. "The higher up I went, the less happy I was. Once you get famous, you can't get unfamous. You can get infamous, but you can't get unfamous.”
Chappelle said that pressure to produce new sketches that went against his Muslim beliefs, and the realization that his racially charged comedy was too often lost on an audience a little too enthusiastic about repeating the N-word, also added to his decision to walk away. The comedian said the time away from the spotlight has given him some perspective on both the show, and racism in Hollywood.
Chappelle invoked his mentor, comedian Martin Lawrence, a man he describes as strong mentally and emotionally. He recalled a conversation he had with Lawrence after the comic recovered from a 1999 stroke. “I saw him and I said ‘Oh my God, Martin, are you OK?’ and he said ‘I got the best sleep I ever got in my life'," said Chappelle admiringly. “That's how tough he is. So let me ask you this — what is happening in Hollywood that a guy that tough will be on the street, waving a gun, screaming ‘they're trying to kill me’? What's going on? Why is Dave Chappelle going to Africa? Why does Mariah Carey make a $100 million deal and take her clothes off on TRL? A weak person cannot get to sit here and talk to you. Ain't no weak people talking to you. So what is happening in Hollywood? Nobody knows.”
Chappelle decried the rumors that a mental breakdown led to his disappearance. “The worst thing to call somebody is crazy," he said. "It's dismissive. I don't understand this person so they're crazy. That's bull----. These people are not crazy. They are strong people. Maybe the environment is a little sick.”
Yet despite the troubles and traumas of the past year, one constant has remained for Chappelle: He hasn't lost his love for comedy. “I love my jokes,” he told Lipton with a beaming smile.
Lipton and Chappelle obviously savor the chance to escape the topic of personal problems and focus on humor, from the comedian's standup specials on HBO to critically panned “Half Baked,” the 1998 marijuana comedy that Chappelle both wrote and starred in, which Chappelle claims is a much better script than a film.
And of course, they discuss the highly successful “Chappelle's Show,” the future of which remains in doubt. During the interview, Lipton even asks to speak to one of Chappelle's most famous characters, Clayton Bigsby, a blind white supremacist who doesn't realize that he is black. Bigsby's response? “What do you want, Jew?”
Viewers are also treated to a sendup of R. Kelly and, of course, Charlie Murphy's E! True Hollywood story about Rick James, which came about as the result of true stories from Murphy, a cast member on the show. Chappelle says that it was Charlie's brother, comedian Eddie Murphy, who encouraged him to start writing while the two worked together on “The Nutty Professor.”
For Chappelle's fans, Sunday night's visit to the Actors Studio is a chance to enjoy his comedic genius. It's also an opportunity to get a glimpse into the mind of the man behind the genius.