Dave Chappelle Is Back (This Time We’re 100% Sure It’s Maybe Totally for Real)
We’ve heard the rumors almost since the moment he walked off the set of his legendary Comedy Central show in 2005 at the height of its popularity and disappeared: Dave Chappelle was re-emerging. Going on tour. Getting a new TV show. But this summer, something happened. Ten shows at Radio City, all sold out in hours, all brilliant. Mark Anthony Green sits down with our favorite comic genius for his first in-depth interview in nearly a decade to discuss what took him so long, Donald Sterling’s rights, D’Angelo’s answering machine, and his real comeback plan.
He’s also toting around a small, very loud portable speaker that is connected to his phone. And once in a while he’ll just press play for a few seconds. The sudden blaring of A Tribe Called Quest makes the guests at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons—who are very Beverly Hills Four Seasons-y—instantly turn their heads to find Dave Chappelle’s famous shit-eating grin. Not a single person is offended after they see that grin. In fact, that grin is how they recognize the now buff, Italian-suited Dave Chappelle. The grin hasn’t changed.
Almost everything else has. Here’s the Post-it-note version of the past decade of Dave Chappelle’s career: Funnyman makes funny show, funny show makes funnyman famous, funnyman walks away from funny show and a serious amount of cash, funnyman disappears. For a while, about seven years, we heard little to nothing. We knew he lived on a farm in Yellow Springs, Ohio—a town of 3,500 people. And that he didn’t want to talk to the media. Dave Chappelle seemed to be, like a suede umbrella, an instrument whose very design and makeup is its biggest conflict—the funniest guy in the room who can’t stand to be looked at. About three years ago, he began to appear, impromptu, more frequently for sets at comedy clubs. Then a Twitter account appeared that was actually run by Dave until an impostor took it over. Chris Rock fueled rumors that they would start touring together, which never happened. But it wasn’t until the announcement this spring that Dave would play five—no, eight! no…ten!—shows at Radio City Music Hall that people began to think seeing Dave Chappelle be funny might be part of their lives again.
Still, I didn’t expect to see this: Dave Chappelle pulling pranks on a roomful of strangers in a fancy hotel and looking…completely at ease. Throughout our four days together, fans will walk up to Dave and say some of the nicest things you could say to a stranger: “You’re a genius.” “We miss you.” That isn’t surprising—Chappelle’s Show once set the record for most DVD sales for a television series. What did surprise me was the genuine comfort and generosity he met these strangers with. He asked them more questions than they asked him. I was surprised when he rushed Norman Reedus, who was staying at the Four Seasons as well, to take a selfie. Or when we crashed the Walking Dead premiere the next night, went through a haunted house, and took yet more selfies with zombies. Watching him wreak havoc on L.A. for a few days, I started to think maybe we’ve had things all wrong about Dave Chappelle.
I think that’s probably my natural disposition. Obviously, in some situations or places, I’ll be way more guarded. But I feel good this week. I had a nice week at home. I’ve been on the road nine out of the last twelve months this year, which was the most I’ve done in years, so I’m more accustomed to being around people. You know, for a while, I was kind of sequestered. Well,sequestered is not the right word. It was more like Superman’s self-imposed exile.
I know you used to live near D’Angelo. Do you think his album will ever come out?
I’d like to think so. I haven’t talked to him personally in a while, but the last time I called him, he had a long outgoing message on his machine. It was like a Malcolm X speech. And the last part was so intense. He was like, “The price of freedom is death!” Beeeep! I didn’t even leave that dude a message. I just hung up the phone. Like, just listening to D’Angelo’s answering machine puts you on the no-fly list, it’s so militant. When a guy goes away like that, they might not come back for any number of reasons. Yesterday I was watching this YouTube video, and it’s William F. Buckley interviewing Muhammad Ali when Ali was banned from boxing. And one of the guys on the panel asks Ali, “Do you miss being the heavyweight champion of the world?” Ali is like, “What makes you think I’m not still the champ? I’m still the champ.” The guy replied, “Wait, no, no, no—that’s not what I mean. Do you miss boxing and blah blah blah?” And Ali is like, “Nah, I don’t miss boxing. As a matter of fact, I could call my sparring partner today. I could box all afternoon. I miss boxing for money.” In other words, in his mind, just because he wasn’t in the public eye, his title was no less legitimate. And his capabilities were no less legitimate. He looked at it like, “I’m just being separated from my livelihood, not what I love.” So I look at a guy like D’Angelo and I’m like, I’m sure he’s still making music. It’s just a matter of whether or not he wants to share that with us or not.
Do you look at a guy like Dave Chappelle like that?
I know for a fact I’m like that. I mean, I’ve been out here doing comedy the whole time. But if certain people don’t see you, it’s not that you don’t exist, it’s just that they haven’t seen you. Sometimes I’ll do shit and I’ll be like, “Oh, that’s so great.” And I’ll think, “I would love to share this.” And then I can talk myself out of it for any number of reasons.
What’s the main reason you talk yourself out of it?
Mostly it has to do with just disrupting what my life is now. I have a very good life, a high quality of life. I have both money and time. No one has that. My kids are older now, so when I make decisions within the public eye, it affects more than just me. This year I’ve been way more generous with my time, as far as what I’m willing to share. And it’s been great. People have been very supportive. They’ve always been supportive. But it was good to reaffirm that I actually did have a rapport with the audience and people are still interested. Like when my agent tells me I sold out shows in Lincoln, Nebraska, I don’t take that for granted.
What is it that made you not talk yourself out of it this year? Why do ten shows at Radio City?
That’s a good question. I have a show-business bucket list. There’s just certain things that every entertainer always dreamed of doing. When I was 19, I used to walk up Sixth Avenue and look at the marquee of Radio City. I’d see the lines outside. I’d be like, “Man, I just want to… Radio City!” So then, last year, when I started going on the road, it was just because I wanted to be on the road, at first. There’s something cathartic about touring—it feels good to just engage people that way. But then, as it was progressing, I was like, “Well, this should all go somewhere. Where am I going with this?” It just so happened the venue was open during the same time frame I was willing to play. The venue opened up for an astounding ten days. And I said, “Well, can we do all ten? You know, can I even do that business? I haven’t played New York in so long.” I didn’t want to pass up on the opportunity.
What’s another thing on that bucket list?
For one year, I want to do this thing where I guest-star on as many television shows as I possibly can. I love television. The fact that television ultimately made me famous was very gratifying for me. Chris Tucker did it in movies, and Chris Rock did it from his stand-up, which was very impressive. But you know, the thing that people most will remember me for is Chappelle’s Show.If I were to never do anything else, that show would be a culmination of what was a very long and tedious process of me learning how to be in the television business.
So if you could choose, what shows would you guest-star on?
I’d be a zombie in The Walking Dead. A corpse on CSI. I’d be the first black guy to fuck Olivia Pope on Scandal.…
I always joke with my friends that black women would hate Scandal if the president were black and his mistress were white.
That shit would be hilarious! It’d be named Extreme Scandal.
Do you watch a lot of television?
I started being the new television viewer, where I come in late to a series and just binge-watch it online. And I love it, because sometimes the anticipation, waiting from week to week, is too much. I binge-watched the first two seasons of The Walking Dead that way. I probably didn’t get into Breaking Bad until, like, the third season. I watched The Wire retroactively, too.