So you and Neal Brennan [the co-creator of Chappelle’s Show] had a falling-out because of some things said to the media after you left Chappelle’s Show. Did you guys ever reconcile?
Yeah. We’ve always had a strange friendship, but I don’t think it was ever as icy as people thought it was publicly. We just almost never talked about it. Like, “Let’s just not. We’re just not gonna agree on certain shit, so let’s just not.” It was a valuable friendship above and beyond whatever work we did together. He’s an important part of my life. So I don’t think that will ever really change.
I’m sure you get offered stuff all the time. What’s been the most tempting project offered since Chappelle’s Show ended?
You know, I can’t say that I got a lot of offers that were tempting. But part of it is because just the stance I took. It’s like Kanye’s thing. You might not ask me.
Because you’re the prettiest girl at the dance.
Yeah. It’s one of those things. It didn’t look like I was open for business. Even now, I can go days at a time and forget that I ever did Chappelle’s Show or any of that shit.
Can you really go days in your bubble and not think about or remember that you didChappelle’s Show?
Yeah, man. Which is good, because what that’s allowed me to do is have a vantage point about my own life that’s accessible to people still. I could see a guy walking down the street and be like, Even though I’m famous, I got more in common with this guy than, like, Brad Pitt. You know what I mean? Like, as a comedian, there’s a certain closeness you need with people. I listen to some of Richard Pryor’s shows as an adult, and it’s more remarkable—moments when he’s talking about freebasing and Jim Brown, staging interventions, and just these kinds of bits. Or the one where he says, “He took me in the basement and showed me the monster.” I mean, I get chills thinking about that bit.
Comedians seem like their lives are perennially paradoxes.
At a certain point…you know what it’s like? It’s like that guy Steve McQueen.
Right. He makes 12 Years a Slave, and it’s a massive hit. And I’m watching him on television, and he’s at one of those parties. And I’m like, “Yo, that must be the weirdest fucking thing, to be at that party for making that movie, because that movie is a fucking angry, angry movie.” That’s one of the reasons it’s so powerful. Because he’s like, “Fuck it, I’m not pulling any punches.” You know, I remember being in there. You could hear a pin drop in the theater. And that shit put him in the lap of Hollywood. This is not to disparage him. I’m just saying. These types of paradoxes, to live through them is very hard for somebody to imagine.
One of the people who have changed the landscape of television and film sinceChappelle’s Show ended is Tyler Perry. What do you think of him?
He’s a pretty prolific dude. What he was able to accomplish is very, very impressive. There’s no way you could look at it and not be impressed. And what I like about what he did initially with those Madea movies is that it was an after-church crowd. Like, he was the first guy I saw in mainstream media that was speaking directly to that audience. I like that about him.
The common criticism about him is that a lot of his shows and films do more harm to the black community than good.
Who said that, Spike?
Well, yeah, Spike. And others.
Well, I can’t see how my life is harder because Tyler Perry exists. You know? I mean, I can certainly debate the artistic merits of his movies or the lack thereof, but to me that’s almost an irrelevant conversation, because I’m more impressed with what he was able to achieve. And I think that if I were Spike Lee, maybe I’d have certain issues. But I’m not mad at Tyler Perry. I’m happy there was a Spike; I’m happy there was a Tyler. I’m not gonna say, “Oh, I love Tyler Perry movies.” But that’s kind of not the point. There are people who do love those movies, so why shouldn’t somebody be making shit for them? Spike’s not gonna make that movie for them.
You’re a student of stand-up. You’ve been performing on stages, telling jokes, since you were 14. It seems like it’s difficult to hurt most comics’ feelings, but looking at Hartford [where Dave was heckled and refused to do his act] and the similar incident in Florida, you seem to be different.
Yeah, but it depends. Sometimes there’s something I really want to convey, and I get a little obsessive about it. So there’s that. It’s not that they’re not listening, but it’s like I’m trying to say this thing to them and they can’t hear me. Like, there were times when I was famous for things that became cumbersome. Half Baked was like that, where I had grown personally, and when I would go onstage, people would scream out shit from that movie. Or like, “I’m Rick James, bitch!” And I’d just be like, “Listen to what I’m saying, listen to what I’m saying.” It was frustrating—like I was being victimized by my work. I think it’s a Miles Davis quote where he says you spend the early part of your career trying to chase your influences, and the second half trying to get away from ‘em.
But are you more sensitive than most comedians? You said to Oprah once that you needed more “vitamin love.” Do you need more vitamin love than most people?
Oh, right. I have to say that comedians by and large are some of the most sensitive people on earth. Even if they’re socially callous. If you sat at the back of a comedy club and just heard the way we banter, you wouldn’t know that these were sensitive people, ’cause it’s such an open-air market of ideas. The other night, I was talking about Robin Williams with Bob Goldthwait, and people kept coming up to me saying, “Hey, Dave! Man, thanks for coming. We loved the show, it was so good to see you, blah blah blah.” Real nice things. And I go, “That’s very kind of you. Thank you.” And I look back at Bob, and he goes, “See, not everybody lets that shit in.” Maybe Robin Williams was one of those people who, even though everyone loved him, the praise just didn’t penetrate.
But do you ever feel guilty for being funny?
I have said some very witty, razor-sharp shit in conversations or even, like, offhandedly onstage. Some of ‘em I don’t even want to repeat. They were funny, but I just know that sometimes the things that scare you the most or make you want to cry the most or are the most tragic are the things you just gravitate to or address in a comedic context, partially because you shouldn’t. That shit’s dangerous. You know, you fuck up a lot doing that. But it’s exciting when it works, and it’s exciting to kind of just watch someone try. The short answer is, yeah, I’ve laughed at shit that I feel guilty about or made jokes about things that I felt guilty or ethically uneasy about after the fact.
Okay. When Chappelle’s Show took off and became the cultural phenomenon that generated millions of dollars and viewers, you had already been a professional comedian for nearly two decades.
At least. And it wasn’t just that I was doing stand-up before I did that show. I probably did eleven failed television pilots. And I have to be honest: Like, maybe one went to series. Another one was bought, but I quit.
Why’d you quit?
It just wasn’t good. None of ‘em were really good. And it took that experience, those experiences, to learn how to do television. I’m a slow learner. Early in my career, I was along for a ride. And then, later in my career, I was like, “You know, I should really drive. ‘Cause nobody has ever taken me to a place I actually want to go.”
So what I’m asking is: You earned that show. You earned the success. And you’d been in the business for decades already. So why was whatever happened that day on set so surprising that it made you have the reaction you did?
That’s a heavy question. It’s like the Mos Def lyric, Why did one straw break the camel’s back? Here’s the secret: the million other straws underneath it. I’m not such a waify dude that, like, just one thing could break me.
You’ve answered the question “Why did you leave?” numerous times, but it seems like people are still getting things confused. What’s the biggest misconception about your departure from Chappelle’s Show?
Here’s one funny thing: People are always like, “I heard you moved to Africa.” And in reality I was only there for about two weeks. I was on “vacation.” I don’t want to be too specific, but it wasn’t even like I necessarily left. I wasn’t like, “I’m leaving and I’m never coming back.” It wasn’t necessarily that kind of thing. But then there was a sequence of events…and ten years later, here we are.
So would you have stayed on the show if people’s reaction to you going on “vacation” was different?
Well, that’s kind of what I was saying. I didn’t leave with the intention that I was never coming back, necessarily. I don’t think it was that. I don’t think it was that type of departure. But the sequence of events were what they were, and everyone survived it. One hundred percent of the people involved survived it.
So what is next?
I have all these weird fantasies. Going coast-to-coast on my motorcycle and having random barbecues all over America. No show, no nothing.