My Thanksgiving-related chores are done (casserole = made, pie = cooling), so I’m watching a bit of the boob tube and slipping into my four-day weekend. Chappelle’s Show is on Comedy Central right now. Even though I own both seasons on DVD and have watched each episode almost to the point of being able to recite sketches from memory, I’m always excited to see the show. It’s the best sketch comedy that’s been on TV in years. Decades. Ever? Possibly.
I thank Dave Chappelle for introducing me to Paul Mooney and for repeatedly showing how you can talk about relevent social issues in a meaningful way while still being funny as shit. I wrote for a sketch comedy troupe a long time ago, and I remember during that experience trying to balance writing about something other than sex and drugs while still being funny to a drunk, often male, audience. Not the easiest thing in the world.
According to legend, part of the downfall of Chappelle’s Show was the fact that sketches such as the one featuring the line, “I’m Rick James, bitch,” hounded Chappelle, even when he was doing stand up and not shooting the show. Drunk frat boys in the audience would repeatedly yell the line at him, hoping to get a glimpse of the character they’d seen on TV instead of understanding that Chappelle is a comedian and not an actor who just repeats catchphrases. It’s like a band that’s made 20 albums being heckled to play their radio hit from the first album, something they don’t even relate to as artists anymore. The Rick James shit was funny, sure, but it was just part of a larger body of work and not necessarily related to his stand up at all. So Chappelle began to feel like the audience he’d respected enough to get his point were, in fact, too fucking stupid to understand what he was saying. So he walked away.
The walking away only adds to my respect for him. Sure, it wasn’t the most professional way to handle the situation. Sure, it led people to suggest he had a drug problem. I mean, who could walk away from fifty million dollars, right? Only a crazy person. Because money is the most important thing in the world. But he said fuck it. He said he wasn’t going to create corporatized comedy to make the frat boys laugh, and he’s stayed true to his word. He still does comedy clubs occasionally. I’m waiting for him to come to Houston so I can go see him. If anyone yells “I’m Rick James, bitch,” I will silence them with my death glare.
Anyway. If I had to name artists who have impacted my writing, Chappelle is close to the top of the list. Which would mean little to him, but it means a lot to me.