“Name your price in the beginning. If it ever gets more expensive than the price you name, get out of there.”—William David Chappelle III as recounted by his son, David Chappelle, on Inside the Actors Studio, February 2006
It’s easier to go broad than to go narrow when it comes to Chappelle’s Show. The sketch-serial that first premiered January 22, 2003 has never really been out of rotation. Whether through Comedy Central syndication or clips on their website, the ever-present, half-hour brainchild of Dave Chappelle and co-creator Neal Brennan gives little distance for reflection even though the last patchwork of a show was pushed out way back in 2006. The default, then, is to speak in broad strokes about the cable network behemoth. It broke television-to-DVD sales records and made Dave Chappelle a rich Hollywood oddity, leaving the show at what seemed to be the height of its success.
Chappelle’s Show was good, but the show alone was not particularly novel. The clever digs at current times, its commentary on social-political goings-on and scatological humor, were updates of early Martin and In Living Color. But it was more personally styled, more solidly grounded in the quick wit of Charlie Murphy and the wisdom of Paul Mooney. The show’s familiarity and the Chappelle/Brennan cult classic Half Baked demonstrated a team capable of solving the Rubik’s Cube of new millennium comedy. There were similarities around content, but the television and motion picture comedy of Chappelle didn’t proselytize the way Chris Rock from 1997 to 2000 did over on HBO (The Chris Rock Show).
Still, there was an “afflict the comfortable” mentality built into Chappelle’s Show. Dave and Neal’s Frankenstein was raw in a way that could grate certain people. It didn’t have the cartoon filter of their contemporary, comic-strip cousin, The Boondocks. Volatile truths were told that had no deference to social niceties; though there was a healthy respect for their presence, it was their fourth wall. The show was subversive like the best hip-hop artists—Chappelle’s peers—were at the time.
The sketches, intro music by the militant hip-hop duo dead prez, cameos by Wayne Brady and John Mayer, and the integration of Chappelle’s parents’ professorial sensibilities reflected his developing identity. The best of Chappelle’s Show placed his narratives as devices for insight into modern tropes of culture and context that were far much more accessible and impactful in the everyday than academic journal articles and lectures.
Chappelle’s scathing critiques were tempered with a juvenile silliness, a slippery slope. Silliness was privileged over incisive commentary. Sometimes it threatened to compromise the more sophisticated turns, making them little more than shuffles, i.e., that dude who’d randomly pop up doing the robot in otherwise unrelated skits. Base humor came to define the very popular show, and many saw it as a sell-out move because of an imbalance that stressed puerile sensibilities over revolutionary insights. His Rick James “I’m rich, b*tch” catchphrase trumped skits like the “Racial Draft,” “President Black Bush” and so on.
Still, the partnering with mainstream wants and expectations seemed necessary for the important lesson the show’s grinding-halt of an ending produced. In 2005 Dave Chappelle dipped from his series production and never returned. The details of his walking away from the show after signing a two-year deal worth a reported $50 million was presented in the media as complicated and weird. But in February 2006, Chappelle quite plainly explained on The Oprah Winfrey Show, “I felt like [the show] got me in touch with my inner coon, they stirred him up. When we were doing that [sketch that sparked his departure] and that guy laughed, I felt like they got me.”
That level of public self-reflection and commentary makes Chappelle’s Show particularly watershed in the space of modern culture, beyond the 1.2 million DVDs sold in its first week of release, or the multimillion dollar deal it locked down. Dave proved the show’s dead prez bass hum intro music and its social critique was more than rhetorical. It had roots. Ultimately, Dave Chappelle leaving his show was a powerful act of liberation, because it was done unapologetically in front of everyone, Richard Pryor style.
Chappelle’s Show remains dope because it was a process, not a goal. It proved important satire until it wasn’t satire anymore, so then it stopped. Its greatest fans always knew it was always about more than just some jokes. The show and Dave Chappelle’s framing of it was really all about truth telling, the highest art.
Dr. David Wall Rice is a writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. He is also associate professor of psychology at Morehouse College, where he serves as co-director of the Cinema, Television and Emerging Media Studies (CTEMS) program.