Sitting in Comedy Central headquarters for a recent meeting, Dave Chappelle was not happy.
“I ain’t makin’ no money!” the star complained of the network’s sketch-comedy series “Chappelle’s Show.” “Mr. Hankey makes more than me,” he said, alluding to an animated character on the network’s “South Park.”
The network’s response? They replaced the edgy comedian with wholesome talk show host Wayne Brady — a cruel irony given a past episode in which a cast member sniped, “White people like Wayne Brady because he makes Bryant Gumbel look like Malcolm X.”
OK, that nightmare scenario didn’t actually happen; it’s a skit from a recent episode of “Chappelle.” But that raucous brand of racially charged humor has made “Chappelle” the highest-rated original series on basic cable in recent weeks, even topping “South Park,” Comedy Central’s highest-rated program for the past eight seasons.
But a scene much like this — sans Brady — might soon be playing out in real life as Chappelle’s representatives begin preliminary talks with the network to bring him back for a third season. With his hit status cemented, Chappelle will have considerable negotiating leverage. Sources say he is fielding movie offers and inquiries from rival networks, who are wondering whether Comedy will be able to afford to lavish him with the kind of contract that kept the likes of Jon Stewart and “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker in the fold.
Bill Hilary, executive vp and general manager of Comedy, acknowledged that re-signing Chappelle is “a very high priority. There’s got to be a negotiation,” he said. “Is it going to be a tough one? Yes. But I think Comedy Central is the place for Chappelle.”
“Chappelle’s Show” is a streetwise social satire populated by outrageous recurring characters played by Chappelle, including the bewildered crack addict Tyrone Biggums, who was last seen munching on diced pig bladder in a sendup of “Fear Factor.” Like “South Park,” it is quite risque, with particular emphasis on marijuana and the epithet “bitch.” Guest stars have included Carson Daly, Jamie Foxx and Brady, who recently satirized his squeaky-clean image in a skit in which he takes Chappelle on a drive-by shooting spree.
By any measure, “Chappelle” is having an impressive year. As its second season winds down, the series is the highest-rated program in its Wednesday 10:30 p.m. slot on any network among men 18-34 — the most elusive demographic for any network to reach. Averaging 3.1 million total viewers this season, “Chappelle” has sidestepped the ratings plateau that has cooled off such other hit cable series as FX’s “The Shield” and MTV’s “The Osbournes” by growing its audience 55 percent in its sophomore year.
Having “South Park” as a lead-in has helped, but “Chappelle” is hardly riding its coattails. “Chappelle” has posted stronger 18-49 ratings than “South Park” in 11 of the past 13 weeks. Network research indicates there is little duplication of viewers between the two shows and that “Chappelle” brings in new urban viewers while still retaining Comedy’s core audience. Even “Daily Show” is getting a lift from “Chappelle,” reaching record ratings in recent weeks.
Looking for a raiseBut while Chappelle can be heard exulting “I’m rich, bitch!” at the close of every episode’s end credits, the truth is more complicated. Sources familiar with Chappelle’s second-season deal at Comedy believe he earns about $90,000 per episode. It’s a healthy sum by basic-cable standards, but Chappelle isn’t just the star; he also writes and executive produces the series along with longtime partner Neal Brennan.
Chappelle will be seeking a steep pay increase for a third season, which probably wouldn’t begin production until next year. But negotiations aren’t expected to involve a simple salary bump; Chappelle is looking to become a more equal partner with Comedy on several other fronts.
The comedian, according to sources, is said to be displeased with his cut of DVD sales for the first-season package of “Chappelle’s Show.” Distributed by Paramount Home Entertainment, the “Chappelle” DVD has been a big hit in the burgeoning TV-to-DVD category, with 800,000 units sold to date since its Feb. 24 release.
Another source of concern for Chappelle: a pilot he is executive producing for Comedy featuring Paul Mooney, a veteran comedian and “Chappelle” performer who made the infamous crack about Brady. Chappelle will be looking for a series commitment for the project, said to be a sendup of daytime courtroom series like “Judge Judy.”
To keep Chappelle, Comedy will likely have to offer the kind of megadeal that has kept Stone and Parker at the network since 1997. The duo recently signed a two-year renewal that will keep them there through 2005, and “Daily Show’s” Stewart recently extended his contract through 2008.
“In cable, they’re not going to pay you outrageous money” at first, said James Dixon, manager of Stewart, among others. “But in success, they will try to compete as best as they can. I think Comedy Central is generally aggressive about that.”
Chappelle has a reputation for taking his time with decisions; he took nearly two years to commit to doing the series with Comedy and agreed to a second season at the last minute.