It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly 10 years since Dave Chappelle walked away from his hit comedy series “Chapelle’s Show.” Essayist Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah has a really thoughtful piece up over at The Believer that looks past the headlines and into the people and places that helped form one of the best comics in recent memory. Though Ghanash explains that Chappelle politely but firmly turned down a request to be interviewed, she does talk to some of those closest to him, including his mother, longtime collaborator and co-creator of “Chapelle’s Show” Neal Brennan, along with comedic legend Dick Gregory.
To tell that story, Ghanash situates herself in Chapelle’s town of Yellow Springs, Ohio, to talk about what the comic’s work means to the discussion of race in America. Here’s a snippet:
Chappelle did such a good job of truth-telling, on every subject, that nobody knew what to do when he just stopped talking. In no way did his quitting conform to our understanding of the comic’s one obligation: to be funny. To talk to us. To entertain us. To make us laugh. We aren’t used to taking no for an answer, to being rejected, especially not by the people who are supposed to make us smile. Especially not by black men who are supposed to make us smile. And yet Chappelle did just that. And so, like everyone, I wondered what had happened. What had happened, and, more so, what had brought Chappelle to—and kept him in—Yellow Springs?At a stand-up appearance in Sacramento in 2004, a frustrated Chappelle lashed out at his hecklers from the stage, yelling, “You people are stupid!” So what was it about this small college town—where hippies slipped me bags of Girl Scout cookies, where Tibetan jewelry stores and fair-trade coffee shops dotted the main street, and where kindly white ladies crossed the street to tell me my wild hair was giving them life—that made it more satisfying than celebrity or fame?
What separated Dave Chappelle not just from Neal Brennan but also his fans is that he was suddenly vaulted into the awkward position of being the world’s most famous interlocutor in a conversation about race—the one conversation no one likes having.