On this day in comedy on January 22, 2003, Chappelle’s Show premiered on Comedy Central
Created by Dave Chappelle and Neal Brennan, this sketch comedy show became legendary. With precursors such as Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and In Living Color, Chappelle’s Show took hard-hitting sketch comedy to a new level. The show reflected its times and left no scatological rock unturned. It skewered every topic/person with equal delight and because it was on an up-until-then low rated cable network, Chappelle and many in the cast thought it would be canceled at any moment so the artists threw everything against the wall and damned if they didn’t make them stick.
From the outset, Chappelle’s Show became an instant, bonafide comedy classic. Its star and master of ceremonies, Dave Chappelle would offer up a brief monologue/dialogue with his live audience and then one by one introduce each prerecorded sketch (with an occasional live skit) and wrap it all up with a live performance by a soul or hip-hop artist(s). Season 1 kicked things off with a sketch about a blind white supremacist who just happened to be black and when he found out he divorced his wife for being a nigger lover. From there the show piled on. There was the lily white family circa 1950 who was named The Niggar Family. There was the Racial Draft where races drafted members to other races (Wu Tang Clan got to be Asian for example). Boisterous, yelling Samuel L. Jackson has his own beer that’s advertised just like Samuel Adams (complete with Chappelle dressed as Jackson dressed as Adams). Wayne Brady debunked his image as a puedo-Uncle Tom in a skit where he’s really gangsta. There were so many: Dave living out the perks of dating Oprah. What if the Internet was a real place? Why is working at McDonalds not good for a young ghetto dwelling person’s self-esteem? What happens when keeping it real goes wrong? And of course there was the joy of “The Playa Haters Ball”; the parody of the notorious annual Players Ball; a flamboyant celebration to pimps everywhere.
The writing was brilliant. Not every skit worked, but their batting average was Hall of Fame caliber. The fan base for Chappelle’s Show grew quickly and the show gave them the recurring characters they came to love. Lil Jon appeared with an Ivy League accent after Chappelle had played a slightly exaggerated version of Jon. It was all “yeah” and “okay”. He had comedy legend and cast member Paul Mooney doing “Negrodamus” where he predicts the future from a black point of view. Charlie Murphy was featured in “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories”; based on his real celebrity adventures with Rick James (where footage of the real Rick James was intercut as the funkster attempted to throw shade on the show’s version of him) and Prince. There was Tron Carter, the richest man in the world who gained his fortune through reparations and a hot dice game. There was also Tyrone Biggums, the overzealous crackhead, Donnell Rawlings as Ashy Larry (the name says it all), Robot Dancing Man (he does the robot anywhere and everywhere without a word or acknowledgment of anybody by him or them) and many others.
Unfortunately, the show’s run ended in controversy. Having broken all existing DVD sales at the time, Dave Chappelle was offered a sweetheart deal in excess of $50 million to keep the romance going. The deal had been made and the advertising juggernaut was in full force. Then the unexpected happened. During a taping Dave was doing a sketch about a Nigger Pixie and a white crew member emitted a laugh that was not so much laughing with Dave as much as laughing AT him. This changed the comedy paradigm for the artist, who had already expressed dismay about how the show was a 20 hour a day commitment which had taken him away from stand-up comedy which was his first love. Sure, he’d been approached in public settings with non-blacks using the “term of endearment” word (aka N-word) and had his reservations regarding the lack of public understanding when it came to satire, but this was different. He was now made to feel uncomfortable in his work environment. Dave Chappelle needed to reanalyze the genie he’d let out the bottle. So he left and went to Africa to chill with relatives; all the while the feces were hitting the fan and after he refused to return to the show if his creative demands weren’t met the executives leaped into action.
The third season was dubbed “The Lost Episodes” and aired without the participation of Dave Chappelle. For this abridged version of the show (3 full episodes), cast members Charlie Murphy and Donnell Rawlings were enlisted to act as co-hosts. Chappelle had made it clear that if shows were aired without his okay he would never, ever return. The cast members did not know this. The suits did. So the die was cast and the lightning in the bottle was extinguished.
Executive produced by Chappelle, Neal Brennan and Michele Amour, Chappelle’s Show had a cast of comedians and comedic personalities. It featured Bill Burr, Guillermo Diaz, Dominique, Brian Dykstra, Sophina Brown, Drake Hill, Yoshio Mita, Anthony Berry, William Bogert, Randy Pearlstein, Nick Wyman, Amanda Rowan, Drago Ruschinsky, Allen Levy, Max Herman and musician / actor, Mos Def. The guest starring list included Arsenio Hall, Eddie Griffin, Susan Sarandon, Rashida Jones, Jamie Foxx, Joe Rogan, Jim Breuer, Carson Daly, Star, Michael Rapaport and Ron Jeremy. Also seen were musical talents Ice T, Method Man, Redman, RZA, GZA. Q-Tip, De La Soul, Fat Joe, Killer Mike, Anthony Hamilton, Kanye West, Slum Village, Questlove, John Mayer, Cee Lo, Ludacris, Talib Kweli, DMX, Busta Rhymes, Wyclef Jean, Snoop Dogg, Common and Erykah Badu.
TV Guide ranked Chappelle’s Show as #31 from their list of “TV’s Top 100 Shows” The last televised episode aired July 23, 2006.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
Check out this clip: