This article was originally published in RS 941, February 5th, 2004.
The edgiest, most racially charged comedy in America originates on a farm in southwestern Ohio. It’s here, in the little town of Yellow Springs, that Dave Chappelle retreats to write up ideas such as a black, blind, white supremacist and a Roots DVD featuring a hilarious outtake from the slave-whipping scene for Chappelle’s Show, the sketch series on Comedy Central that he calls “America’s Number One source for offensive comedy.”
“It’s not that offensive,” Chappelle, 30, protests over a cup of coffee at Dino’s Cappuccinos in downtown Yellow Springs, a bohemian enclave near Antioch College. A poster advertising his show is under the glass at the skim-milk-and-half-and-half counter, and Polaroids of him and other regulars are tacked to a wall. On a rainy evening between terms at Antioch, there are still many people shuffling past who pay their respects to Chappelle. “If I did those kind of things in a nightclub,” he says, “it wouldn’t be any big deal at all. You put it on television with commercials — all of a sudden it’s just crazy.” This from a man who, in the new season of Chappelle’s Show, plays an African in 1695 staring off into the distance and saying, “Hey, y’all, look, it’s a boat with some white people on it. Y’all wait here, I’m gonna see what they want.”
“Slavery is one of the most atrocious things ever,” he says with his eyes at their perpetual half-mast. He leans back as he talks, often putting his fingers in front of his mouth as if to filter his words. The tinge of anger that colors his stand-up act is gone; he’s also not as tall in person as he appears onstage, though every bit as skinny. “But it’s a part of our culture. There’s only two ways you can deal with slavery: You can ignore it and hope it’ll go away, or you can address it. I choose to address most things with humor. You can’t recover from a problem that you aren’t willing to acknowledge you have.”
So far, one sketch has drawn more heat for Chappelle than any other: the infamous Clayton Bigsby white-supremacist skit, which just happened to use the word nigger seventeen times. “One black lady, I remember, she was mad as hell,” Chappelle says. “From Texas. She called the production office. But I completely understood her. I wasn’t upset about it, I was kinda hurt. But, you know, the show’s not for everyone.”
Implausibly enough, the skit was inspired by a real-life incident involving Chappelle’s grandfather. “His mom was white, and his dad might be white,” Chappelle says. “He was adopted, so we don’t know what his actual parents looked like, but he’s black from birth.” He was also blind, and the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, he found himself on a bus in Washington, D.C., surrounded by a bevy of angry young black men. “They-were like, ‘What’s this white man doing on the bus? Should we beat him up or not?'” In the end, the mob ended up not touching him: “He was blind, after all,” Chappelle says.
Chappelle was born in D.C. but spent his summers in Ohio with his dad, a professor at Antioch, and lived there full time during his middle-school years. He started his career in Washington, at the preposterously young age of fourteen, when his mom, a Unitarian minister, would take him to gigs at comedy clubs after school. His act consisted of routines such as discussing how ALF would have been treated had he been a black baby instead of an orange-ish alien. “Then I’d do a thing where if ALF was living in my neighborhood,” he says, “they’d make a coat out of him.”
Chappelle got a surprisingly-warm reception from his older fellow comics. “They all wanted to hang out,” he says. “One comic, I went to school with his daughter, and he used to come pick me up after school so we could go to the clubs together. He wouldn’t pick up his daughter, but he’d get me.” By the time he was seventeen, Chappelle had decided to head for New York “’cause I didn’t know any better.” There he hung out with the likes of Jon Stewart and Ray Romano, and befriended the doorman at the Boston Comedy Club, Neal Brennan, who became his writing partner; the two wrote the script for Chappelle’s 1998 movie, Half-Baked, and together they also write Chappelle’s Show.
Bound to be this season’s most inflammatory sketch is Chappelle’s sendup of Fifties sitcoms, The Niggars, in which the matriarch of the titular family comments how her newborn nephew has “those Niggar lips.” Chappelle appears as their milkman, Clifton, who gets to participate in the high jinks when both he and the Niggars’ son, Timmy, hear the maitre d’ at a restaurant call out, “Niggar party of two!” Chappelle chucklingly cedes the reservation to Timmy Niggar, remarking, “I’ll bet you get the finest table a Niggar’s ever got at this restaurant!”
But as the black-and-white scene is ending, Chappelle says, almost to himself, “Oh, Lord, this racism is killing me inside.” Surely, one thinks, there must be some sociopolitical message to this kind of comedy, something he wants to say to his viewers? “Nah, man,” he says, staring at the plastic lid on his cardboard coffee cup. “Nobody’s gonna watch a sketch I do and be like, ‘I felt one way about something, but after I watch this here…’ You know, I don’t think it’s really like that.”
Despite the fact that his late father founded a human-rights group at Antioch, and that Chappelle has done benefits for the American Civil Liberties Union, and that he’s set down roots in this Berkeley-like setting, perhaps the comedy is merely what it is. But Chappelle has a shy way of talking that leads you to believe he’s always holding something in reserve. In real life, if this racism was really killing him inside, he’d never let you know.
“My intentions are never malicious onstage,” he says. “And then I realize, sometimes you wanna say something and the people aren’t ready.”
“If I did these things in a nightclub, it wouldn’t be a big deal at all.”