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Chappelle's on a roll making people laugh

September 03, 2004|Robert Lloyd | Times staff writer

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 Saturday night on Showtime. He's just signed a new contract with Comedy Central, home to his Emmy-nominated "Chappelle's Show," reported to be worth as much as $50 million; 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. (Public speaking is reportedly the No. 1 American phobia.) 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 -- it's likely one won't like everything he does. You may, for instance, have a low tolerance for masturbation jokes but no problem with racial humor. You might not like drug humor, or may find the word "weed" rates an appreciative laugh. The idea of applying Botox to one's testicles may strike you as hilarious or cause you to leave the room. 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.

Until cable television, comedians, whose routines were built to arc over the length of a nightclub or theater set, had only a few minutes to state their case -- they boiled their acts down to a single effect. The live hour concert lets story roll into story, allows for a wider range of frequencies, one might say, of volume and timbre, of emotional peaks and valleys. Chappelle is more animated here than on his series, where he can sometimes seem laid back to the point of narcosis. Tall and lanky and an avid skateboarder, he has a tendency to twist his body for emphasis and use his arms for balance even off wheels. He ranges across the stage, sometimes crouching on it. He seems real all the time, and right much of it.

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 mellow because -- I paraphrase -- all the black people are in Oakland), then moves on to an extended bit in which a masturbating homeless man holds a busload of terrified passengers hostage. He has a Native American encounter ("I studied you in social studies. You're a hunter-gatherer, correct?" "I am ... an alcoholic"), which ends in the evening's first weed joke. Later he notes that, "All white people talk about when they get high is other times that they got high."

He can't tell Asians apart. "Some people say all black people look alike -- we don't get bent out of shape. We just normally call these people ... policemen." American money "looks like baseball cards with slave owners on it." He mistakenly says that George Washington wrote the Declaration of Independence, but perhaps this is just comedic license. (Still, facts are facts -- he builds another bit on faulty knowledge of the supposed origin of AIDS.) He advises his audience to "stop worshipping celebrities so much." "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

Yet there are perils to fame. (Chappelle is, for his part, tired of people shouting "Rick James, bitch!" at him.) 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."


`Dave Chappelle: For What It's Worth'

Where: Showtime

When: 9-10 p.m. Saturday

Rating: The network has rated it TV-MAL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with an advisory for coarse language).

Starring: Dave Chappelle

Directed by Stan Lathan; written by Dave Chappelle

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