Tuesday, October 13, 2009

27. Chappelle's Show

Every day, thousands of people from podunk towns across the country migrate to Los Angeles, California in search of one thing: fame. In the last decade, the amount of people who have a desperate need to become famous has grown exponentially. It's not even about fame's partner anymore; fortune. People want to be noticed and known by other strangers. And with the way our society is going (growing smaller, but at the same time people are more apt to get lost) it's not all that strange for folks to want to be noticed.

For the fame flockers that come to Hollywood, there is a minuscule percentage of them that will reach their goal of world-wide popularity. And once they do, they react in different ways. Some take their notoriety very matter-of-factly, like George Clooney or Matt Damon. Others seemingly lose their minds and confuse infamy with being famous, like Paris Hilton or myriad reality TV personalities.

The latter group that don't have a grasp on what fame truly is, are usually the most desperate ones. They are the ones that are void of talent and will do anything to stay in the public eye. The ones that do offer something to the public are comfortable in their own skins (at least publicly) and seem to adjust to their lot in life very well.

That's why when David Chappelle reached the pinacle of his career, it was so bizarre to see him walk away from a reported $55 million dollar payday and leave the spotlight because of principles. But in 2005, that's exactly what David Chappelle did.

This wasn't a decision that came lightly, for in June 2004, during a standup gig in California, a member of the audience was shouting catch-phrases from Chappelle's gigantically popular sketch show. This caused Chappelle to angrily rebuke the audience member and it seemed to change the way he looked at the show and how it had evolved into something that was defining his life. About a year later, during show production in 2005, Chappelle felt that people were beginning to laugh at him, not with him. This was the final straw as he people were not getting what he was doing, so he left.

“The Chappelle Show” was the type of program that was subtly brilliant in that there were two levels: one in which the audience realizes that Dave Chappelle is making fun of social more, be it racism or sexism or class-ism. It really did a great job of satirizing those in power, without doing so in a whiny, PC sort of way. Of course, there was also the second level of watching the show, the sort-of idiot level where the audience laughs at just what Chappelle is doing and don't bother to delve behind the joke to determine why its funny.

For example, in one sketch, there is a white family who happen to have the unfortunate last name “Nigger”. They are a typical 1950s, “Leave it to Beaver” style family who are completely oblivious to their surname. Shot in black and white, which leads the viewer to believe that these characters live in an era where racial integration was nowhere on the radar, the Niggers go through a normal day that endss with the mother and father going to a fancy restaurant. This culminates in Chappelle—who plays the family's milk man—saying that he is happy that a nigger can get a table in that restaurant.

What Chappelle is brilliantly satirizing here is how different words, when applied to different objects, can take on different meanings. Also he's making fun of a group of people's ignorance to a potentially hurtful word. Throughout the skit, Chappelle says their name more than anyone else and is seen laughing at it. He's disarming the word from any hateful connotations—he's taking the power away.

Aside from these reasons, the skit also had terrific writing and made the viewer stop and take a few minutes to ponder that word. I believe that this is what Chappelle wanted us to do with a majority of his sketches. However, there are the steakheads out there who don't get concepts like this and heard the word “nigger” and just started laughing. These are the people that rankled Chappelle and drove him out of the business.

It wasn't all the steakheads' fault though.

“The Chappelle Show” was on Comedy Central for two seasons (I don't include the third “lost” season where Comedy Central grabbed whatever it could salvage and pasted a few episodes together*) and was shown ad nauseam. This show was a big money maker Comedy Central and I understand why they aired the show so many times, but it did take away from the impact. Because once you saw a certain sketch, over and over again, it does lose some of it's subtlety and a viewer just laughs when a catch phrase is uttered.

* I completely understand why Comedy Central ran the last season of "Chappelle's Show" without the blessing of it's star. They have a network to run and it the time, this was their highest rated show, so I guess that some David Chappelle is better than no David Chappelle. But, it's still a pretty crappy move considering that these sketches weren't finished products and therefore did not meet the high expectations of Chappelle.

Had “The Chappelle Show” continued past two seasons, it would be interesting to see how Chappelle approached each season. Reportedly, another part of the reason why Chappelle left his show was because he didn't think that he could keep his standards up. To me, that's an admirable quality. Television history is littered with programs that have overstayed their welcome. The fact that Chappelle was concerned about the quality says a lot for him as an artist.

Because Chappelle cared and took such chances and kept the bar raised were the main reasons why the show was so damn good. It's been boiled down to a cliché, but when “Charlie Murphy's True Hollywood Stories” episode aired (AKA: “I'm Rick James, Bitch!”) anyone who watched that night knew it was going to be an instant classic. While Chappelle's Rick James was a charicature, Charlie Murphy (who is Eddie Murphy's real-life brother) played the role so straight that it was impossible to determine whether the stories were true—supposedly these happened in the early 80s when Charlie was a member of his brother's entourage—or were exaggerations. Also, interspliced throughout the episode was the real Rick James who would explain his actions, giving the vignettes some authority.

Another of “Charlie Murphy's True Hollywood Stories” was aired later in the season when Murphy and his friends were challenged to a game of basketball by Prince (played by Chappelle). Murphy and his cohorts, who all look like they could play serious basketball, were soundly defeated by a gaunt Prince and his bandmates who played a type of “fruity defense”. While not as popular as the Rick James piece, again Murphy played the role so straight that the humor of watching five strong men getting their asses beat by five fey men was extremely funny.

Like many sketch shows, “The Chappelle Show” is a product of its time and there were a lot of pop culture touchstones skewered like MTV's “The Real World”. Chappelle wondered why MTV always stuck one black person in a house with six white people and wondered why the black person was always painted to be the “crazy one”. He flipped the roles and had a white guy (Christian Finnegan) stuck in a house with six inner city black people.

Again, the subtext is what made the whole skit work because Chappelle is right, adding a black cast member to a predominantly white house is not realistic nor is it progressive—despite what MTV wants their viewers to believe. It's actually the opposite and the token minority will never see eye-to-eye with their castmates because of where they come from. And all it takes is some editing to make that person look nuts. Especially when it's the “street” black guy arguing with the “naive, corn-fed” white girl. Yet, it happens in every season of “The Real World”.

These are just some of the better skits, it's impossible to list all of them. Other favorites include "The Player Hater's Ball", "If a Black Guy Was President" and "When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong". While everything wasn't gold (there are a few clunkers), it had the highest hit-to-miss ratio of any sketch comedy show that I've seen (with the exception of "Mr. Show").

Comedians are among the most honest commentators of our society. They see our scabs for what they are and still pick at it. Chappelle (and Chris Rock too) was among the best when it came to picking at America's most tender scab: race. To comment on race in a way where the people that you are making fun of (the majority) are laughing uproariously, as well as tweaking the minority so that they're laughing just as hard is truly a gift.

We were lucky that we got two seasons of “The Chappelle Show” though it is thoroughly depressing that he couldn't soldier on for another few seasons during the Bush administration. That's when we needed honesty and laughter the most.

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