Making People Laugh
Editor’s note: Chappelle’s Show: The Lost Episodes (Uncensored) is available on DVD as of 25 July.
As everyone knows, Dave Chappelle’s disappearance just before the third season premiere of Chappelle’s Show was a national crisis. Major news outlets treated the story with gravity usually reserved for “Amber Alerts,” tracking specious eyewitness accounts and speculating on his motives. As Chappelle joked during his recent stand-up tour, “When Newsweek magazine says you’re addicted to crack, you start to believe it yourself.”
How did this happen? Not so long ago, Chappelle was a moderately successful comedian, best known for inspiring fans to holler, “I’m Rick James, bitch!” apropos of nothing. Now, however, it appears that Chappelle’s crossover success has eclipsed even that of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. But where Pryor and Murphy’s humor bubbled with rage, Chappelle’s hostility is a mock one, in a way that seems unthreatening. Even for the infamous “Clayton Bigsby” sketch (Chappelle as a blind black man leading the Ku Klux Klan), the comedian’s guffawing while talking to the audience before and after the skit defused potential viewer discomfort. Chappelle’s visible glee at his own boundary pushing let white audiences laugh along with him.
But then, as Chappelle tells it, he began to suspect that white viewers were laughing for the wrong reasons. He recalled for Oprah an incident during the third season’s taping, when a white spectator’s overzealous laughing made him worry. Chappelle stopped production and subsequently rejected Comedy Central’s $50 million, essentially taking his ball and going home.
Prior to the Oprah interview (and a similar one with James Lipton), many fans believed network pressures drove Chappelle away, if not the self-imposed pressure of wanting to top himself. Now, as Christopher Farley reported in Time, Chappelle
wondered if the new season of his show had gone from sending up stereotypes to merely reinforcing them. “When he laughed, it made me uncomfortable,” says Chappelle. “As a matter of fact, that was the last thing I shot before I told myself I gotta take f——- time out after this. Because my head almost exploded.”
Hearing that Chappelle was worried about who was laughing and why is upsetting. His comedy had always seemed “inclusive,” making racism “safe” to explore in front of mixed audiences. Chappelle’s Show viewers believed they were in on the joke. To pull it away from them like this was tantamount to saying they didn’t get it. For white audiences in particular, this called their enjoyment of the show into question.
And so the Lost Episodes, recently aired on Comedy Central and now available on DVD, produce a sense of loss above all else. The first one opens with the familiar introduction of Chappelle, but after a pause, the announcer says, “I guess he’s not coming,” then brings out Chappelle’s most visible supporting players, Donnell Rawlings and Charlie Murphy. Despite their commendable efforts, the star’s absence hangs over the show like a bust of Pallas. Rawlings and Murphy even talk about him with a bittersweet reverence, as if he’s died. And only one sketch mentions recent events directly: told that Dave has abruptly left for Africa, Rawlings collapses into Murphy’s arms, yelling, “I’m broke, bitch!”
As collections of sketches cobbled together, the episodes are understandably uneven. An extended physical comedy bit about Gary Coleman as a security guard feels dated and another in which a TV interrupts Chappelle’s lovemaking, thin. Still other moments are as sharp as any in earlier seasons, evidence that Chappelle and his writers had plenty of lightning left in the bottle. His unexpected success is the subject of many of the funniest moments. In the opening scene, he sits in a barber’s chair while a television announcer reports the $50 million paycheck. As the other customers begin giving Dave the eye, the price of his haircut jumps from $8 to $11,000. In another sketch, Dave meets with the “Head of Show Business.” Asked what he has in mind for the future, Dave says he plans to “stay real” and “speak his mind,” causing the Head to laugh uproariously. Clearly, Chappelle was working through qualms about maintaining credibility following his much-publicized pay raise.
Dave Chappelle - The Black Munsters [From Lost Episodes]
He was also working through the thorny issue of racism in his typically irreverent way. In a parody of “The Munsters,” Chappelle, Murphy, and Rawlings play black monsters unsure whether they’re being persecuted as blacks or monsters. The bit condemns both racism and those who see racism even when, as Murphy states in the introduction, they are being “assholes.” After Murphy’s Frankenstein goes on a rampage, tearing off a coworker’s arm in the process, he chides the people cowering before him, saying, “You shouldn’t look at me and see a black man, but just a man.” An African American secretary sniffs, “N——r, you a Frankenstein!” It’s funny and also makes a point, owning up to the way knee-jerk accusations of racism can be used to distract attention from other problems.
It’s tempting to say Chappelle has made such accusations with regard to his decision to leave the show. The opening sketch of the first episode, which ends with a character asking Dave, “Why did you need to do a third season anyway? They’re only going to say it’s not as good as the first two,” supports such a theory. The Lost Episodes includes the sketch that reportedly brought on the break. Chappelle plays an assortment of pixies (black, Hispanic, Asian, and white) taunting members of their respective races with stereotypical anxieties (the black man worries about eating fried chicken, the white man about penis size). Looking at it here, the sketch seems no more incendiary than previous Chappelle numbers, like “The Racial Draft” or “Reparations.” For all its controversy, the joke is funny because it offends and opens dialogue at the same time, just what Chappelle’s Show did so well.
The Lost Episodes also includes a segment where Murphy and Rawlings discuss the sketch with the audience, in a way that emulates a “last day of class” openness. Unsurprisingly, the audience members are generally positive about Chappelle and the sketch. One man complains that the white pixie doesn’t voice as many stereotypes as the others. Murphy asks, “What if we made a hundred white pixie clips? Would that change anything?” The audience concedes that it would not.
Brushing aside these loftier concerns, one woman sums up the whole mess:
I don’t think it’s the responsibility of this show to educate everyone in the world. It’s a comedy show. And even if it is being a responsible comedy show, no matter how responsible you are, you’re not going to be able to educate everyone in the world. So I think you have to stick what your true goal is: making people laugh.
It’s a fitting epitaph for the late, lamented Chappelle’s Show. Let’s hope he was watching.
Dave Chappelle - The New Tupac [From Lost Episodes]