By Andy Taylor-Fabe
Daily Film Editor
At a time when most comedians have settled into a comfortable rut of post-Seinfeld observational humor or Def Comedy Jam-style “white people vs. black people” behavioral shtick, there are precious few comedians out there today who are defining their own styles and relying on their own wits. Dave Chappelle, one of the brightest and funniest young comedians today, feels that comedy must go deeper than most comics take it.
“You’ve got to have a more keen understanding of the situation. Some people do those kind of (racial) jokes because that’s all they got, you know, all their stuff starts like ‘when brothers are on a plane, they be like … ‘ And you know, some people like that … but I can pull my dick out and people will think it is funny, but you’ve got to go deeper than that.”
Chappelle started his career in comedy as a teenager in Washington, D.C., with his mother driving him to his club shows. Developing his comedic style in the late ’80s, his influences were clear to him. “When I started out, my favorite was Eddie Murphy. That was when he was getting really big, but later I started listening to (Richard) Pryor a lot, and I actually like Pryor’s stuff better … you know, there’s a real depth to it, but I always like Eddie’s movies better. I never really liked Pryor’s movies that much, but for straight comedy, you couldn’t beat Pryor.”
Although he became a hit on the East Coast club circuit, the beginning of his widespread success began when he was 20, when he made his Hollywood breakthrough in Mel Brooks’ spoof “Robin Hood: Men in Tights.” His scene-stealing performance as Ahchoo soon led to roles in other films as well as a sitcom called “Buddies.”
In 1996, he appeared in “The Nutty Professor” as an audience-abusing comedian who goes toe-to-toe with Eddie Murphy, and in 1997, he appeared in the high-budget action flick “Con Air” with Nicholas Cage, John Malkovich and John Cusack, in which he plays the devious inmate, Pinball. “If I had to choose one role where I look at it and think, yeah, I was good, that would be it … because my character is just crazy, man.”
Chappelle’s largest success, however, came from “Half Baked,” a munchie and burnout-filled salute to weed that Chappelle co-wrote and starred in. Along with Jim Breuer and Harland Williams, Chappelle combined the everyday adventures of the stoner with crazy schemes and screwball comedy. The film became an instant cult classic among chip-and-twinkie-eating college audiences.
Chappelle has also co-starred in many films since, including “Woo” (1998), “You’ve Got Mail,” (1998), “Blue Streak,” (1999), “Screwed” (2000) and the upcoming “Undercover Brother,” in which he plays Conspiracy Brother, who sees conspiracies where they sometimes may not exist. Acting is something that Chappelle will continue to pursue, but his hope is that his roles will become more diverse as he goes on. “I want to eventually play a regular guy – you know, a real character.”
So far, Chappelle has not been bombarded with offers to play the leading man. When asked why, he said, “Cause I’m funny looking. You know, when they’re making a regular romantic comedy, they don’t exactly come running to me. I’m on the short list to be (the leading man’s) funny best friend.” But as his career in Hollywood continues, he has been able to have more input into the creative process. “Yeah, I usually get a lot of freedom when I’m acting, especially when it’s a comedy, so the director will let me go for a while, and if I go too far, he’ll pull me back.”
As passionate as Chappelle is about movies, he is equally dispassionate about sit-coms, which are usually seen as the Holy Grail for comedians. “For me, it’s the opposite – They’re unholy. Some comedians, their comedy works real well in that format – like Ray Romano, his stuff works like that, but I don’t feel like it works for me. It’s so planned out. You have to worry about pleasing every audience, you know you have the network saying that you can’t say or do certain things, because you have to worry about sponsors too, but I always wondered how come the commercials can be all disgusting but we can’t do what we want on the show?”
Like most comedians, Chappelle faced some difficult times after Sept. 11 when people were too shocked to laugh and wondered if comedy and irony could recover. “I found that for a few weeks, I had to tone down my stuff because people were pretty out of it, and I’ve found that since then, I’ve had to quit doing some of my more political stuff with certain audiences because at first, they weren’t really enjoying some of it. Sometimes they get in there and once I start, they’re really into it and they seem relieved. But every audience is different, and you have to judge it based on how they react to everything. If you feel like they’re not into it, you can feel them turning against you.”
Chappelle also faces the same problem that actors and comedians alike must face when in public or even around friends – that everyone wants you to be funny. “People always expect you to be on, but I always try to be nice. It depends on what kind of mood I’m in and what I’ve got going on, what’s on my plate. There’s two kinds of people who will come up to you. There are people who want to talk to you because they like your work, and they’re usually really cool, and then you’ve got people who want to talk to you because they know you’re famous. And I don’t even really need to be there for that – because it’s really just them talking at me. They usually want to talk about other famous people that I know. ‘How was it working with so-and-so?’ I get tired of that pretty quickly.”
Chappelle’s comedy ranges from subtle political insight to relationship jokes to discussion of the way that white people talk, which he describes as being very “eeeven.” He said that his highly utilized white guy voice is “a composite character.”
Chappelle is able to move between the profound topics and goofy material with the ease. “That’s why I really like the college audience, because they can deal with the smart stuff and still laugh at the low brow stuff. I mean, when I started out in comedy and was playing colleges I was younger than most of the people at the shows, but now I’m older but I can still relate to them, you know, we listen to the same music and shit.” However, Chappelle doesn’t see his comedy as being aimed at one specific demographic. “I don’t feel like I have one target audience. I mean, certain people are going to think some stuff is funny and other stuff isn’t, and I’m always happy to see them there, and if you like me, then I love you, and if you don’t, then fuck you!”