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Thursday, April 14th, 2011

Looking Back at Chappelle's Show

Chappelle's Show is unlike almost any sketch comedy show before it. It doesn't come from the same sketch comedy tradition that SNL and Monty Python created; it's first and foremost a vehicle for Dave Chappelle. He and his co-writer Neal Brennan wrote every single sketch and Chappelle stars in almost every one. Although there are regularly featured actors like Charlie Murphy and Donnell Rawlings, there really is no permanent cast to speak of. The show really has more in common with vanity driven sitcoms starring stand-up comedians than any other sketch show in terms of it's approach to humor. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the show became the most popular sketch program of the 00s. It gave birth to one of the biggest (and some would say most annoying) catch phrases in pop culture history and pushed the boundaries of what was permissible on TV.

The show is probably equally famous for being controversial as it is for being funny. The first episode clearly established Chappelle's signature style of racial comedy with the black white supremacist sketch, which features Clayton Bigsby, a blind white supremacist who's unaware that he's black.

This bit characterizes many of the best material from the show in the way it takes a common stereotype about race and pushes it to the point of absurdity, exposing its stupidity. Chappelle also gets plenty of opportunity to mug and improvise, which is really what sells the sketch. Chappelle as a performer is really underrated, as his consistently brilliant performances are what really make such risky subject matter okay to laugh at. Much like another sketch show great, Bob Odenkirk, Chappelle is responsible for some of the funniest yells and tantrums that have ever been put on tape. His tirade at the end of this sketch spoofing MacDonald's cracks me up every single time:

Although race is clearly Chappelle's favorite subject to joke about, there are plenty of pop culture goofs on the show too, most famously the episode-long Rick James sketch. This has to be one of the most popular comedy sketches of all time. It seemed like there was a time when I couldn't go to a bar or party and not hear some drunk guy yell "I'm Rick James, Bitch." Like all catch phrases, this one quickly wore out its welcome, but it's not something you can really blame Chappelle for. It's a funny bit, and Chappelle's performance was as solid as ever. The sketch only aired once, which makes its popularity, and the popularity of the phrase, that much more amazing. Sadly, the Rick James sketch, which aired in the middle of the second season, was the show's peak. While there are plenty of great moments in the first season, it's clear that they are still very much finding their footing. The show only really excels in its second season, which is were many of the most memorable sketches are featured.

Chappelle's abrupt departure in the middle of the production of the third season because of his growing discomfort with the show's racial humor has been well documented in the media. Watching the three "lost episodes" that Comedy Central cobbled together from what was already filmed, it's easy to see why Chappelle may have been unhappy with the direction of the show, particularly the now infamous "racial pixie" sketch. Chappelle would later tell Time magazine that he was afraid he was no longer satirizing racial stereotypes but just perpetuating them. Sketches like the one above tend to make me agree.

Realizing how sensitive the sketch would be, the show has a Q&A with the studio audience after the racial pixies sketch air to get their reactions. It's admirable of them to attempt to start a dialogue about all of the issues and questions that the show stirs up, but ultimately that doesn't really have a place in a sketch show, and it's clearly just a way to pad out the episodes.

Almost all of the sketch shows I've looked at have ended after short runs, and I've often lamented the fact that most sketch shows are canceled before they are given the chance to find an audience. Chappelle's Show is not one of those programs. The show should have ended with the second season. Although he probably could have handled it better, Chappelle was right to leave his show. While the racial pixies bit has received the most attention, none of the sketches from the lost episodes are very good. It's a shame to think Chappelle might have retired forever from the national stage, but I have a lot more respect for him for knowing when enough was enough.

Carleton Atwater lives in Boston. He also writes about beer at Beeriety.com.

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  • http://www.twitter.com/pablogold Pablo Goldstein

    The 2nd season DVD of Chappelle's Show is first thing I would rescue out of my apartment if it caught on fire. It's hilarious, angry, smart, and one of a kind.

  • Justin Grace@facebook

    great article, but:
    "none of the sketches from the lost episodes are very good"

    the tupac sketch is maybe the best of the series. one of the most pure and beautiful examples of heightening i've ever seen.

    • wishmewell

      @Justin Grace@facebook That's exactly what I thought when I read that part. I do agree that the lost episodes are mostly not great, but man that Tupac sketch gets me every time.

  • iamconnor

    The article says the rick james sketch only aired once, but I recall seeing it on re-runs, I have no proof of this though, so I could be wrong.

    • http://www.twitter.com/pablogold Pablo Goldstein

      @iamconnor He means they only did the Rick James character once. But the sketch was part of the Charlie Murphy True Hollywood Stories sketches which included the Prince story… which IMO is waaaaay funnier.

      "They kept setting these fruity picks"
      "How about a game of basketball. You guys versus…. The Revolution"
      "Game. Blouses."