[12 December 2006]
Inside The Actor’s Studio has had many notable guests over the years and many fine programs as a result, but none of them can match this one: a startling conversation ranging over a myriad of subjects with the unlikeliest of guests, comedian Dave Chappelle. Whatever your feelings towards Chappelle and his brand of humor, there is no doubt that this particular interview goes beyond the normal boundaries of the performing arts into a dialogue that is funny, insightful, and even touching.
The power of the program comes from the great pink elephant that looms in the room: Chappelle’s decision to turn his back on his massively successful variety show, The Chappelle Show, with its pot of gold worth some $50 million, only to “run off” to Africa while the media speculated on what brand of crack he was smoking to do such a blatantly uncapitalistic thing.
Inside The Actor’s Studio was to be Chappelle’s forum for the first time since that controversial decision. Following James Lipton’s characteristically purple introduction (“Sit back and enjoy two hours with the amazing piece of work that is Dave Chappelle”) Chappelle shuffles onstage and you can almost see the weight of all the heavy baggage he’s been carrying. What begins as a cautious and hesitant interview slowly changes gears as Lipton demonstrates what his secret talent has always been: the ability to give the room up to his guests, to allow them the space and almost sycophantic love to express something other than rehearsed answers. And when Chappelle begins to open up, you quickly see why the late Richard Pryor believed him to be his successor. The disarming lack of pretense and the display of virtuous honesty—despite the often unvirtuous truths—are qualities shared by both Pryor and Chappelle. That and, of course, the fact that they make the hard truth into something funny.
Lipton, armed with his massive stack of note cards, guides Chappelle through the standard Actor’s Studio interviewing structure of childhood, family, and education, to the first big breaks and the eventual heights of success. We learn that Chappelle’s parents were highly educated and socially committed. His mother established one of the first Black Studies Ph.D. programs in America while his father was a professor at Antioch. There seems to be a slight twinge of guilt in Chappelle due to his respect for them both and their achievements which seem to cast a shadow on his own life. Chappelle says that he was a mediocre student and he broke with tradition by being the first member of his family not to go to college – at least, the first who wasn’t a slave.
Throughout the interview, Chappelle does not avoid discussing what he feels to have been mistakes or errors of judgment, such as his use of the loaded “N” word in much of his comedy. Though meant to be satirical, he saw that much of his racial humor was taken at face value by white audiences who often missed the satire. While being objective about his judgment, he also refreshingly avoids false modesty in regards to his work.
This is a man who is proud of his writing and his pride is wonderfully infectious rather than off-putting. Clearly, he does not express pride in order to gratify his ego, but rather to take personal pleasure in having done something well, like a craftsman stepping back to admire a finished chair. Indeed, it’s the craft of comic writing that comes under the microscope, here.
Although they say that analyzing a joke renders it useless, much use is made through the breakdown of one of Chappelle’s own jokes. Lipton smartly encourages him to explain the background and construction of a particular joke and in doing so goes very far in explaining the nature of Chappelle’s craft. The joke centers on Chappelle sitting in the back of a limousine, whose driver has, for some reason, parked in a bad section of a black neighborhood at around 2AM. Chappelle feels somewhat threatened. He sees a baby on the street corner staring him down, and becoming scared, decides it’s a good idea to lock the doors. What the hell is a baby doing on a street corner at 2AM? Chappelle cracks the window slightly, feeling that he should do or say SOMEthing.
He yells out, “Hey, baby, what are you doin’ there? It’s 2 o’clock in the f**cking morning!” The baby then answers back, “Shut up…I’m selling crack!” Chappelle demonstrates that the humor comes from a certain understanding of human nature and in this particular case, cultural reality (albeit exaggerated) His core ambivalence comes from the fact that while he is black, he is now also wealthy and, in this scenario, sitting comfortably in the back of an expensive limousine which separates him from many other black Americans.
Chappelle explains that the joke came from two separate incidents that he tied together. An actual limo ride in which his driver took a short cut through a neighborhood that descended from liquor store to liquor store to porn video joint which made him feel uncomfortable. As he says, “No one likes to live in a ghetto”. The baby is his surreal twist on seeing kids in his hometown of D.C. running around the streets at all hours of the night with no parental supervision. It’s just a joke, of course, but it was consciously crafted by Chappelle to sting truthfully.
Lipton eventually gets to the subject of Chappelle’s trip to Africa and the abandoned contract but by this time, Chappelle has no need for any big explanations. The content of the conversation has repeatedly returned to the theme of personal and artistic integrity as well as to the very question of what it is that drives an artist. Chappelle continually stresses the sense of self worth and pleasure he derives from performing and the love he both gives and receives from the public while onstage. “It’s just for a minute, but it’s real”, he says and you can see in his eyes and hear in his voice what this means to him.
He takes us through the battles he’s had with Hollywood and it’s corporate machine devoted to making and selling people as products and how for the first two seasons, The Chappelle Show was the handiwork of just two men; Chappelle and his friend and co-writer Neil Brennan. With more money came greater responsibility and a loss of control. By the time Lipton and Chappelle actually get around to talking about the great pink elephant onstage, we’ve already experienced the highs and lows of the man and his career and can easily understand his reasons for leaving.
Part of the media’s fascination with Chappelle’s “craziness” stems clearly from our national obsession with money and power and those who possess it. Playwright David Mamet once said that Americans are taught since childhood a value system based on external rewards rather than personal growth or pride. When someone is seen to have goals other than making more money or achieving greater power, there is often a disconnect in the minds of the public, many of whom believe that wealth is the only path to happiness and enlightenment. Indeed, many who watch this program may still think Chappelle to be a fool protecting a fool’s integrity, but they will at least have to concede that Chappelle has his reasons for walking away from fame, and he clearly demonstrates that he did not make his choices in a state of irrationality.
The DVD presents the program in its original form minus commercials, of course. The extras present about 15 minutes of deleted material from the episode which includes several interesting anecdotes such as his Robin Hood: Men in Tights audition for Mel Brooks and how Whoopi Goldberg helped him early in his career. These are funny and informative, but they also clearly demonstrate the skill of the program’s editors in finding the throughline of a piece and cutting out everything that doesn’t advance the theme or story of the performer’s life.
There is something unnerving about seeing someone speak so spontaneously and honestly in a televised interview. We are almost conditioned to passively watch the semi-scripted softball talk that makes up most of the media broadcasts today. Athletes, politicians, and artists appear on programs to promote something or other and to tell the same tired and over-rehearsed anecdotes again and again.
Lipton, while a great target for comedians like Will Ferrell and even Chappelle himself, is a very good interviewer; adept at asking follow-up questions and demanding more than those over-rehearsed anecdotes. When we watch this interview and hear Chappelle answer a question about race relations in our country by suggesting that, “America is the greatest country in the world by default”, we are hearing something heartfelt. Not a stump speech on a soapbox, but something Chappelle seems to personally believe.
Chappelle sincerely feels that if America could only have an honest dialogue with itself about race, about poverty, about its very nature as a country of mixed cultures, it could actually BE the “greatest country ever”. The conversation seen here is an example of just that kind of honest dialogue from an artist who sees himself as a mass of contradictions requiring further analysis. It’s the very basis of his beloved art: the illumination of truth through humor.