Truth Chappelle Style
By Stephane Dunn
Twenty years from now when young black comedians speak of their comedic models and pay tribute to the legends who came before, Dave Chappelle will probably be one of them.
Chappelle's famous walk away from his reported fifty million dollar show on US Comedy Central, cast him into the glare of superstar celebrity, but it is his public comedic dialogue since his return from finding rest and peace in Africa that may define his place in comedy history.
Chappelle has gone from becoming the latest black comedian to rise to public stardom to stepping into an unlikely role-comedic seer of his generation.
From the beginning, Chappelle's show positioned race, class and the social conventions that they defined at the center of his satirically sharp sketches.
Most assuredly, characters like Chappelle's Clayton Bigsby, the blind black racist who doesn't know he's black, highlight the comedian's no holds barred approach to comedy. Some viewers and critics believed he went too far and a great many of the mixed audience that made it one of the most successful variety shows ever simply loved it.
Yet, at the height of the show's success, Dave Chappelle began to question the politics of stardom and Hollywood. He also questioned the power and responsibility that went along with his talent for highlighting and making people laugh at the often hidden racial taboos that underline cultural differences.
He "bounced" in his words to South Africa where he escaped the machinery that came with newly found American stardom. Since his return, Chappelle's first public dialogues about why he left with Oprah Winfrey and then on Inside the Actor's Studio with James Lipton, showcase a man whose thinking seriously about the art of his comedy and how to negotiate being true to himself while avoiding becoming another tragic star who falls just as he's risen to the top.
The radical aspect of these dialogues is the way that Chappelle's appearances on the shows transformed those platforms into spaces where we get to witness perhaps the most revealing and certainly funniest discussion about race than we've seen in a long time.
Chappelle emphasized that despite media stories to the contrary he was never crazy and fame wasn't too much for him to handle. It was all the superficial stuff that accompanies mega success. As he told his student listeners and Lipton, "You can become famous but you can't become unfamous. You can become infamous but not unfamous."
On the Oprah Show, Chappelle's profound simplicity and vulnerability brought out the protective big sister who knows the challenges of fame in Winfrey. He struggled to articulate his experience trying to navigate Hollywood celebrityhood.
Dave Chappelle on Oprah
With all of its many intensive dialogues with actors, Chappelle's gritty conversation on Inside the Actor's Studio was historical in of itself. The always formal and distinguished Lipton actually got up and danced a little ballet to Chappelle and the audience's delight. Several times Lipton attempted to speak in the vernacular, his enunciation of words like "honky" adding to the most intense yet hilarious Inside the Actor's Studio discussion thus far. Chappelle sat chain smoking and working hard at remaining himself and honest at all times.
He volleyed back and forth playfully with Lipton, who carefully described Chappelle's comedy as a medium that revealed black people to whites in ways they missed. Every black American is bilingual Chappelle informed him.
Chappelle says he's waiting to see how Dave Chappelle is going to turn out. So are a lot of us given the public way his professional and personal life has played out so far. It may be that the torch has been passed to him as his model the legendary Richard Pryor said.
In the meantime, Chappelle is interjecting a significant critical dialogue into the public sphere. He admits that he doesn't know if he's right or wrong or when his comedic wit goes too far. Yet, he's making us laugh and think while daring to make mistakes and care about being on the right side of history.
The comedian with the very educated parents who didn't like school says that he might've liked to be a teacher. Ironically, he gave the listening students a lesson or two Chappelle style: It's important to cross the lines. You don't know if you've gone too far until you cross the line.
Stephane Dunn is the author of the forthcoming Baad 'Bitches' and Sassy Supermamas: Race, Gender & Sexuality in Black Power Action Fantasies (University of Illinois Press)
With thanks to Mark Anthony Neal of the New Black Man.
Dave Chappelle's critically-acclaimed movie, "Dave Chapplle's Block Party" is now on DVD and available for sale at all leading retail outlets.
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