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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, May 19, 2003

Funny man Dave Chappelle ignores the PC crowd

By Jeff Spevak
Gannett News Service

Guess who's coming to dinner? No, not Sidney Poitier — he has already eaten.

Dave Chappelle's stand-up act is touring in select cities nationwide.

Comedy Central

It's this hungry new comedian and actor, Dave Chappelle. You can witness him now, a stand-up comedian whose career is going places: To HBO, for his own special. To Comedy Central, for "Chappelle's Show." And back to Earth, after Nicolas Cage tosses his dead carcass out of an airplane at 20,000 feet in the film "Con Air."

That movie career? "Could be better," says Chappelle, whose stand-up act is touring in select cities nationwide. "Don't get me wrong, I've had some great moments. The thing about Hollywood is, the worse the project is, the more money you get for it. So if you're making a lot of money, you're in a lot of bad movies."

"Men in Tights" aside, Chappelle is Hot Exhibit Of The Moment No. 1 that the gulf between white and black America has narrowed to the point that the concept of 1967's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"— the daughter of two wealthy white socialites brings Poitier home to meet her parents and announces she's going to marry him — seems downright quaint.

"Absolutely," Chappelle says. "We have more in common than the generation before us. Our music crosses the gap more because of MTV and BET. Culturally, we're more aware of what each other is doing. The common ground is a little bit larger than the generations of 30 years ago. Today you have interracial dating; that's not shocking anymore. Black people come over to white people's houses all the time. Thirty years ago, 40 years ago, you could make a whole movie about that. Today, I couldn't even write a short sketch about it."

Yet, Chappelle shocks. But his current runs in the other direction. The hair of anyone who fancies himself politically correct stands on end when Chappelle, as he frequently does, tosses out a comment built around a racial stereotype. Let's test him:

Was Bill Clinton really the first black president?

"I hear that all the time," Chappelle says. "I say not really. When it comes down to it, he's a white dude. Bill Bradley would have been closer. He's got the jump shot. We're not gonna have a black president until we have a black president of McDonald's."

OK, he just gave us blacks relating to basketball and eating at McDonald's. Does that kind of thinking belong in the 21st century?

"I don't know how to respond to the PC crowd in general," Chappelle says. "I don't think people intellectualize the stuff that they laugh at. It's just a natural reaction. I can make an off-color remark and make somebody laugh even if they consider themselves politically correct.

One of Dave Chappelle's heroes is Charles Barnett, a black comic who died prematurely after contracting the virus that causes AIDS.

Comedy Central

"My jokes are completely culturally relevant. I'm not making things up."

Chappelle grew up in Washington, D.C., the son of a minister. But now he and his wife live on a farm outside Dayton, Ohio. "I've got two kids," he says. "I listen to music, watch movies, ride my bike. There's part of me that's like a 13-year-old. I still play some video games. I've got the extended adolescence. But in other ways, I'm wise beyond my years."

Well, wise beyond the impetuousness of his 29 years, anyway. There is one way to explore non-PC content in a way that's acceptable to everyone: present it as a museum piece, like old clips of "Amos 'n' Andy" for a discussion on racism. Chappelle does have one such item in his résumé.

Last year's "Undercover Brother" was a takeoff of '70s blaxploitation flicks, with guys in giant afros working for an all-black group called the Brotherhood, fighting a secret battle against the white establishment. In a supporting role, Chappelle, as the overly intense "Conspiracy Brother," nearly steals the movie as he uncovers insidious plots that only he can see, including the obliteration of black contributions in history: "Jesus Christ: black man," he says. "Babe Ruth: black man. Madonna ... slept with black men."

Chappelle's own favorite conspiracy? Anything about aliens on the Discovery Channel. Or the nightly news.

"We poor Americans have had our faith shaken in a lot of institutions," Chappelle says. "Our twin towers fell down, our corporations are corrupt, there's scandal in the Catholic Church. The changes have been so big, everything does have a conspiratorial feel to it. Man, it does feel like something big is working against us.

"That's the problem with conspiracies: You can't disprove 'em; you can't prove 'em."

Conspiracies seem to weave their way through "Chappelle's Show" as well. A half-hour sketch-based series airing at 10:30 p.m. Wednesdays on Comedy Central, Chappelle recalls that in his second episode, "I told the audience I'm holding my thoughts from them, because there are a lot of things that a young black man thinks that he can't say. But if a pretty white woman sang them, it's OK."

And out comes a pretty white woman, singing things like, "Crack was invented to destroy the black community."


"Considering the inequity of drug penalties between crack and cocaine," Chappelle says, "that could be something. That has the tinge of racism."

Basketball. McDonald's. Madonna and the NBA. And now crack cocaine. Other comics have been there, but that's before the PC police hit the beat. "I censor myself more than the networks," Chappelle says. "But I don't want to shock or offend as much as ignore the PC convention. It gets in the way of comedy.

"PC is moving faster than the hearts and minds of America are moving. I don't know; I don't like any kind of censorship. I don't like the stifling of any kind of ideas. This country was founded on ideas."

Ideas put out there by Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy — more lately Chris Rock — and a guy you probably never heard of, Charles Barnett. A black comic of the '80s with roles in films such as "D.C. Cab" and TV shows such as "Miami Vice," Barnett was one of Chappelle's biggest influences.

They met in the '90s, when Barnett's career was on the down side, working outdoor parks in New York City, "the kind of thing that will season you as a comedian," Chappelle says. "Performance techniques: If you're playing a comedy club, the crowd has bought into it before they even sit down — they've already paid. But a park show, you gotta convince them that you're interesting enough for them to stay, and interesting enough for them to pay. So it's a different hustle. These people might not even be drunks: At a comedy club, you can count on everybody being drunk."

Barnett's personal life was on the down side as well. "I didn't know it, but he was using heroin," Chappelle says.

Barnett had contracted the virus that causes AIDS from his drug use. "He died in 1995, on St. Patrick's Day," Chappelle says. He speculates that Barnett might be a household name if he were launching his career now. But in the '80s, there was only room for Eddie Murphy.

"I'm grateful to have met him,' says Chappelle, who's working on a screenplay about Barnett and will play the lead. "He told me a lot, had been to places I wanted to be. It was tough for him. I'm coming up at a time now when a lot of black comics are making it."