Dave Chappelle and Me: Two Brothers Meeting in a Pop Culture Whirlwind
It wasn’t like a visit to Lourdes. Or even a visit to Graceland.
But I still feel a little differently about life, after meeting Dave Chappelle.
I had the pleasure in Atlanta last night. Mother Times was cool enough to jump at my idea of advancing his sold-out Tampa-area shows this week by reporting on one of his first performances in a brief bust of Southern stand-up dates -- jetting me to the A-T-L for the second of six sold-out shows at The Tabernacle, a reconditioned, downtown church.
The real story drops in Thursday’s Floridian, where I’ll try dissecting Dave’s latest bit of madness while figuring out why fans still love this guy – who essentially walked away from them and $50-million, scuttling one of TV’s most groundbreaking new comedies. But I can slip a few spoilers here for those nice enough to put up with my blog blather.
The first surprise of the evening was seeing Mos Def, Chappelle’s buddy from his kickass concert film Block Party and a talented actor/rapper in his own right. Def later refused to speak on why he was helping open Dave’s shows with about 40 minutes of his own songs – or even to confirm whether he would be joining Dave here at Ruth Eckerd Hall – but he offered a pointed defense of his friend during the show.
“He said f--- being a star; I want to be a man,” said Def, drawing sustained applause from the sold-out crowd. “That’s about being a human being – one of my favorite groups out there.”
To those of us who have covered showbiz for a while, it sounded like one of those typically self-conscious justifications celebrities use to explain their latest excess. But, after braving an hourlong wait after the late show to quiz him while he signed autographs for the faithful few waiting by his tour bus, I’m convinced its what Chappelle believes, even as he struggles to explain a career-halting move he barely understands, even now.
Answering that question – explaining why he walked away from a lucrative contract with Comedy Central on the cusp of Eddie Murphy/Chris Rock-level fame – proved the backdrop of Saturday’s show; a theme to which he would return, again and again.
Meeting someone like Chappelle is always an odd experience for me. He doesn’t know me from Adam, though I have interviewed him a couple of times and have written several extensive pieces about his life and career. As a fan, I worried another unique comedy talent was being lost to the horrible vortex of high-level showbusiness and white-hot public attention; as a journalist, I was bummed that a major subject wasn’t available to me.
Indeed, my ATL trip was made necessary by the fact that Chappelle isn’t doing any press for his shows, these days (Why should he? Tickets for the Hotlanta shows were selling at $150 each last time I checked online -- double the $73 face value -- and Ruth Eckerd seemed to sell out his gigs fast as they could add them). His publicist ignored an email and three phone calls; even the tour’s promoter pointedly refused to speak with me on telephone to arrange my paid-for press ticket, sending just one email with nothing but the time of the show for my ticket. (at least he didn't hang up on me in mid-interview, as happened here)
But to his credit, Chappelle was friendly, if guarded, when we finally did meet, confiding that his departure wasn’t about succumbing to pressure as much as it was about refusing to give in to “The Game” – an exploitive relationship with the Hollywood powers that be which he explains during his show with voluminous references to legendary literary pimp Iceberg Slim.
His wide swath of newfound fans don’t always get his heady mix of streetwise philosophy and showbiz cynicism – the nosering-wearing woman sitting next to me Saturday was less-than impressed with Mos Def, Iceberg Slim or the fact that Dave’s actual stage time clocked in at about 60 minutes (and, of course, some bonehead had to interrupt Dave' flo to scream "I'm Rick James, bitch," evoking a bit the guy laid to rest two years ago).
But their heady devotion proves his career has some hang time yet – as comedy’s brainiest slacker struggles to find a career that can advance his art while reaching a crowd larger than a nightclub audience.
As Dave himself probably knows, that struggle is as compelling as any story he’s ever told onstage – a fitting Father’s Day present for a media/pop culture writer who is heartened by the thought of Chappelle continuing to subvert the Hollywood entertainment/exploitation machine from within.