New York — When talking about his up-and-down career, Dave Chappelle is fond of quoting his relatives. When Chappelle decided to become a stand-up comedian in his native Washington, D.C., at age 14, it was his father, a music and voice teacher, who warned him of show business: "If you're on your deathbed, and your best friend has an audition, he might not show up." Chappelle remembers his grandmother saying that you should never be the first black person to do anything. And it was his grandfather, whom Chappelle describes as a "very proper dude," light-skinned, blind from birth, who told him the story of being on a bus in his black D.C. neighborhood the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. On this of all days, a white person had decided to board the bus, and it was causing a ruckus. Chappelle's grandfather thought the white fellow foolish, until he realized this "white fellow" in question was ... himself.
That particular anecdote became the basis for Clayton Bigsby, a blind, black white supremacist whom Chappelle played in a sketch on the first season of "Chappelle's Show" on Comedy Central (Bigsby is seen joining a truckload of rednecks in harassing himself). The series just wrapped its second season amid growing ratings and increased media attention (a best-of from the second season airs Wednesday at 10:30 p.m., and then, beginning May 11, Comedy Central will begin rerunning season two Tuesday nights at 10).
"Chappelle's Show," taped in studios formerly used by Black Entertainment Television in Upper Manhattan, is often profane and racially incendiary, playing with subjects best not touched these days by the networks, who are busy sanitizing scripts in the face of congressional pressure, post-Janet Jackson, to make programming more "decent." But on basic cable you can get away with more, and Chappelle, in a way that feels less revelatory than Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor but revelatory nonetheless, has taken advantage.
His show is kind of like a salon, a raunchy salon with Chappelle as host, usually dressed in floppy hats and baggy street clothes, introducing comedic ideas that are then illustrated by filmed sketches that star Chappelle. Chappelle's host persona somehow channels both the emcee qualities of Bob Hope and the languid gait of Snoop Dogg. He has a way of diminishing his edge with a smile and a "Who me?" nonchalance. The angry comic, or at least the screaming one, is a cliche in stand-up; Chappelle goes the other way.
Almost everything on "Chappelle's Show" is written by Chappelle and Neal Brennan, his writing partner going back to the 1998 pot-inspired feature "Half-Baked." Sometimes too there are musical guests -- hip-hop artists unaccustomed to appearing on a network that has mostly gone after the young male comedy vote with signature fare such as "The Man Show."
It is evident in the sketches that Chappelle can do a lot of characters and voices -- white, black and otherwise -- and that his comedy is all about inverting racial stereotypes to find the humor in still-uncomfortable issues. This season, viewers have seen his ebullient, high-voiced crackhead Tyrone Biggums ace any challenge on "Fear Factor." They have seen Chappelle send up '70s disco king and former cocaine fiend Rick James. Last season, a mock news piece imagined what would happen if descendants of slavery were given reparations ("Eight thousand record labels have been formed in the last hour," the newscaster intoned). And this season, there was the sitcom parody "The Niggars," filmed in black and white, featuring a white "Leave It to Beaver"-like family whose last name happens to be that word. Chappelle played their milkman, greeting the family at the breakfast table by cheerfully shouting, "Good morning, ... " well, you know.
The sketch is eyebrow-raising; even though common in black slang, that word is verboten on most of TV, to say nothing of polite society. Chappelle doesn't think he's doing anything that new. As he says: "If you put anyone's private discussion on television, it might look edgy. If a politician slips and has a candid moment where he might say some real [expletive], it just looks like, 'Oh my gosh, what are you saying?' So here's one show that actually acts like it happens on planet Earth." In so doing, Chappelle is also filling a void unclaimed since "In Living Color," which ran on Fox from 1990 to 1994, and "The Chris Rock Show," which aired on HBO from 1997 to 2000.
Being on cable, "they can do racial stuff we can't," said Steve Higgins, producer of NBC's "Saturday Night Live." Though Higgins credits SNL creator Lorne Michaels with providing strong protection from censors, he noted that the network declared Puerto Rican humor off-limits on "SNL" after a "Seinfeld" episode used a Puerto Rican Day parade as the butt of a joke. Interest groups protested and NBC apologized, pulling the episode from its rerun schedule.