January 2003
Dave Chappelle’s Got It Made

Interviewed by Diana Blain

Dave Chappelle’s Got It Made

It’s “The Dave Chappelle Show”. This 12-episode, half-hour sketch comedy series co-written with his partner Neal Brennan airs on Comedy Central January 22nd at 10:30pm. I believe it’s going to be the talk of the year. Dave Chappelle challenges issues by bringing race relations, social relations, American culture and the multi-faceted entertainment industry to light through his talent comedy. What better way to bring issues that have been crippling our society for decades to the forefront. His “in your face” approach may be loved by some and despised by others. Nonetheless, it will force you to think about what issues society deems prevalent.

Be prepared to see skits featuring Chappelle as a blind, White supremacist who, unbeknown to him, is Black; stay tuned for, what I like to call, the remix version of the Mitsubishi commercial with the break dancing girl, and get ready to clap your hands and stomp your feet to some of the hottest musical groups out today such as Busta Rhymes, Slum Villiage, Talib Kweli, Fat Joe and more.

As I sat patiently waiting for Dave in Comedy Central’s conference room in New York City, I wondered what he would be like. Would he walk in making me laugh? Would he walk in not really wanting to be there? Would he walk in high on weed? And before I could answer my own questions, the tall and slinky 6-foot man casually walked in with a natural grin on his face. He was on a high alright-- natural or processed didn’t really matter. His energy commanded attention in a humble way and I must say, I enjoyed seeing Comedy Central’s staff jump to his feet like a good involuntary laugh to one of his jokes. Frankly, this man deserves it. As his request for water was met, I calmed my nerves and put together my thoughts so we could get down to business.

DB: Why did you decide to put together your own show?

DC: Well, it’s funny you should ask that. I live on a farm in Ohio and I make the bulk of my money doing stand up comedy. When I am not on the road I am not working. I am just sitting in the crib chillin’ with the family, which is not a bad thing, -but a man needs to work. Problem is that when I look at all the shows my buddies did like Ray Romano for instance…-these guys-…- all their shows reflect their act perfectly. For one, I have an opinionated act so there is not really a sitcom that could contain it, and two I have had a very turbulent past with network television. So, as I was thinking about what I wanted to do, I decided to do a show that reflected me. It did not end up exactly how I planned it initially. Imagining something and actually doing it can be two very different things. But as far as my career goes, it is a show that I am extremely happy with. I write sketches and then perform them. It’s the best job I have ever had in my life. I don’t have to be Urkel [Sitcom: Family Matters] or none of this crazy stuff.

DB: Do you write all the sketches?

DC: It’s Neal Brennan and me. We wrote “Half-baked” together. See, a lot of other comedians have good shows but they don’t write their stuff. When it’s you and someone else, there is no question that it’s your stuff. If it fails, you get all the blame and if it succeeds you get all the glory. I would rather take the chance and get what’s due to me. I fancy myself prolifically. I write stand up which isn’t easy. I come around every year and give the audience something different. Now, I am writing 12 episodes of a show. It’s a lot of comedy output. I am sure people won’t really recognize the significance of that [comedy output], but if my career continues to grow they are going to look back and say ‘this guy was really putting it down’.

DB: Is there a character you like doing the most?

DC: Man, I feel bad about saying this but yes there are a few characters that I like doing more than others. See the thing about the show is that it has a crazy spirit to it. I draw a lot of the comedy from painful situations but there is a certain delight in performing the characters because they all have a certain feebleness that makes them more palatable. There is one character Tyrone that I play that makes me laugh. Some times I feel bad doing him but he really makes me laugh. Tyrone is the crack head that comes to talk to some kids about drug awareness. The undertone is that he is a recovering addict. Another fun one, of course is Clayton Bigsby. For a black dude to play this point of view, he really has got to stretch his imagination. The Clayton Bigsby skit, as fowl as it is, is so rooted in reality. It’s based on my Grandfather. If you saw him you would think he was White. The only thing that would let you know that he was Black is the texture of his hair and even that was tricky cause in some circumstances they call it good hair. He was born in a White hospital in 1909, which means his mother was White, NOT his father. There is no way that a Black women would have been able to have a baby in a White hospital in that year. The funny thing is that it [color] is an abstract thing to him because he has never seen anything before in his life so in his mind he is just a Black guy. So to make a long story short, it’s 1968 Martin Luther King was shot the day before. He is on a bus and people come up to him and start shouting at him wondering why this White guy is on the bus and he had no idea they were talking to him! That is how Clayton Bigsby came to life. I just reverse the story. So when I do these characters its not like I am just doing them. They reflect life situations.

DB: Do you have an ensemble cast?

DC: No, we do not have a regular cast. We usually just audition actors. There are a million actors in New York that are qualified and competent, there are just not a million jobs for them. Eventually, there will be actors that will start to become familiar to the audience.

DB: How do you feel about having to explain your jokes?

DC: Sometimes it bothers me. And sometimes people are curious and it creates dialogue then you enjoy what comes out of it. Let’s take “The Barbershop” for instance, Jesse Jackson did all that hooting and hollering and it turns out, after the fact, that he did not even see the movie. One of the biggest gripes Black people have is that we are not getting a fair shake in entertainment. I am obviously on that bandwagon with that gripe, but then we’ll have a Black movie that comes out and the major critics of the movie are Black people who have not even seen the movie. I say this is a waste of time and it makes me question the motives of the people that raise these kinds of issues. To really answer the question, sometimes when I am asked to explain a joke it makes me feel like I am being put in a position where I am expected to apologize for who I am and I resent that. Look at Arsenio. I watched him go through this. They tore that brother up… ‘you’re not black enough..you’re too White…you’re too Black..you’re not Black enough’…He’s freakin’ out man. His hair doing all kinda things. Those comments probably did not do anything to him, but after a while he is probably going to ask himself some questions. No matter what anyone says, you are who you are and that’s that.

DB: What about black politicians and the reactions you might get from people in general who watch the show?

DC: We are in this whole pattern of politically correctness right now, which is not going to get anything done for anybody. If black people really got mad at the show and started protesting or pulling a barber shop_(pause)…I mean, if this is really our agenda then we are finished man. We can’t really be picking on things like this. There are a lot more serious issues going on that I think should be on the priority list of what Black people need to do, I don’t think the show should be high on that list. If you really look at what I am saying I can justify each and everything that I do and before I do it I pre-think and analyze it in my head. ‘Is this justifiable? Is this a disservice?’ I don’t think I have done a disservice to anybody. I test it out. My bother-n-law is a corrections officer and I take my tapes to jail and those dudes love it. If anyone has a reason to be mad at anything, it’s them. If them dudes are cool with me and my moms are cool with me, then I am at peace with myself. I don’t feel bad and I know what I am saying and I hope that people keep an open mind when they watch it.

DB: Do you feel you learn anything from watching other sitcoms? For example, Cedric The Entertainer?

DC: To be honest, I do not watch the show and that is not because of Cedric. I love Cedric. I consider him a friend [as far as show business goes]. But if we were in jail together I’d fight him like a mother#@%&!*. [laughs] But the reason I don’t watch the show is because I don’t want to be influenced by anything that they are doing. One of the points of why I have only two writers of the [Dave Chappelle] show is because I want to establish the voice of the show. Like with Seinfeld, it was originally he [Seinfeld] and Larry David writing the show. Once they established the voice, then they were able to bring people in.

DB: How do you keep your comedy fresh?

DC: I started doing stand up when I was in DC and I didn’t travel much so my jokes would really have a local reference. When I moved to New York the act became about New York, and I would make references about DC. It’s kind of a Yakov Smirnoff [Russian Comedian] thing. Then I started traveling all of the world and my acts started to reflect that. Then I would compare some places to others. It got to the point where I laid the bulk of my money just traveling around America and doing comedy and just really getting to know America well. At the same time your life becomes corporate because you are not just an artist anymore. You become a product. In the midst of all this, your life goes through different changes. People that you were close with start treating you differently. I thought to myself, ‘I could deal with all of this if I had someplace to go.’ Before I was married, and before I had kids, I bought a farm [Ohio]. So much of comedy happens with how you feel that particular day.

DB: Tell me a little bit about the difference in performing for a White audience oppose to a Black audience?

DC: If I am in a White comedy club, I can tell jokes about race, about White people, and they will all laugh. They don’t sit there saying ‘this is a goddamn outrage’. They don’t do all that stuff. But with a Black person, if somebody so much as says you like chicken, they will flip out even if secretly they probably do like chicken. I know I do. I mean that doesn’t make me less of a person. Why can’t we just be ourselves and do what we do, man. Don’t let people kill your spirit. Don’t let this inferiority complex make you try to be accommodating or apologize for who you are.

DB: Well, Dave ‘nuff said. You keep being who you are because it works. You are on your way to being one of “The Greatest of All Times”.