Happy days for comic

Chappelle's TV fame leads to concert gig

September 04, 2004|By Robert Lloyd | Robert Lloyd,LOS ANGELES TIMES

This is Dave Chappelle's year - "the best year of my career, by far," he says in his new concert special, For What It's Worth, premiering tonight at 9 on Showtime.

He's just signed a new contract reported to be worth as much as $50 million with Comedy Central, home to his Emmy-nominated Chappelle's Show; the DVD of his show's first season has sold more than 1.5 million copies; and he's set to make movies for Paramount - corporate sibling to Showtime and Comedy Central in the big happy family called Viacom, not at all coincidentally.

That is a lot of money, but it's no easy job making people laugh, let alone millions of them. Just standing up in front of a crowd with nothing but a microphone to protect you is hard enough, even with prepared remarks. Comedy is the least protected of the stage arts - and the comic knows immediately and absolutely when he's dying.

Chappelle's comedy can be hit-and-miss, not so much in that it varies in quality (though inevitably it does), but because he roots around in subjects that make people uncomfortable. What some call edgy, others find overreaching.

At the same time, Chappelle is at a point now where he can't not succeed - he's achieved comedic critical mass. His self-selected audience is primed to laugh; they are his before he opens his mouth. (Which means that as an artist he has to think twice as hard about his material.) The son of a Unitarian minister, and himself a family man who makes his home in an Ohio farmhouse, Chappelle has a bearing that is sort of soft-street - he's hip but not hard, which allows for his considerable crossover appeal. (You don't get $50 million out of Viacom without crossover appeal.) The audience - the performance was filmed at San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium - is a carousel of color and seems happy to laugh at itself as well as at others. And Chappelle leaves no stereotype unturned.

He begins, as traveling monologists will, with some local color (gays in the Castro, Birkenstocks, addicts at Starbucks "smoking crack and drinking coffee ... talking politics," San Francisco being mellow because - I paraphrase - all the black people are in Oakland), then moves on to Asians. He says he can't tell them apart.

"Some people say all black people look alike. We don't get bent out of shape. We just normally call these people ... policemen."

He advises his audience to stop worshiping celebrities. "I'll say anything," he says. "I've done commercials for Coke and Pepsi. ... All I know is Pepsi paid me most recently ... So: Tastes better."

Defending Bill Cosby's right to a controversial opinion, he notes, "I spoke at my old high school and I told them kids straight up: If you kids are serious about making it out of this ghetto, you got to focus. You got to stop blaming white people for your problems. And you got to learn how to ... rap! Or play basketball! ... You're trapped. ... You got to get to entertaining those white folks."

Yet there are perils to fame. On Michael Jackson: "Just remember when you look at that thing that he calls his face, that he did that for you somehow. Somehow he thought, 'Maybe it'll help. Maybe people will like me more if I turn myself into a white ghoulish-like creature.' ... He did it for you."

Chappelle's plan is somewhat less surgical.

"Keep watching me," he says by way of goodbye. "I'm going to try to make it interesting."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

TV

What: Dave Chappelle: For What It's Worth

Where: Showtime

When: 9-10 tonight

In brief: Chappelle takes his popularity and controversial comedy to San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium.

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