It was a clumsy dismount," says Dave Chappelle. For the past couple of weeks, everybody has been looking for Chappelle. Turns out, all this time Chappelle has been looking for himself too. He is without a doubt the hottest, edgiest and most talked-about comedian today. But on April 28, he walked away from his highly rated sketch-comedy series, Chappelle's Show, and vanished into speculation, rumor and the whispers of unnamed sources. His agent, his publicist, even his writing partner didn't know where he had gone. Comedy Central had to put on hold a show that was scheduled to begin its third season at the end of this month, a show that ranks as its most buzzed-about offering, a show that had been put together in a deal worth $50 million. Chappelle, however, who had fled to Durban, South Africa, on what he describes as a "spiritual retreat," was eager to portray the sanity of his decision when he spoke to TIME exclusively last week.
"I'm not crazy," Chappelle said. "I'm not smoking crack. I'm definitely stressed out."
In the past year, Chappelle, 31, has emerged as the most revered comedian among the youth of America, with a fresh, satiric take on race, sex and pop culture that's often profane, sometimes profound, always provocativeand incredibly popular. The DVD of Chappelle's Show: Season One is the best-selling television-series DVD of all time; Chappelle's Show: Season Two is due in stores May 24 and has already generated almost 2 million preorders. Says trailblazing comic Dick Gregory, who challenged social and racial taboos in the '60s: "When you mention his name among young folks, it's like mentioning Jesus in a Christian church." So Chappelle's MIA act set off a storm of media that hadn't been seen since, well, maybe the week before or so, when news broke that Tom Cruise was dating Katie Holmes. But it seemed as though everybody had questions and nobody had answers. Was Dave off the show for good? Was he a party animal? Was he on drugs?
Was he smoking too much marijuana? Was he smoking too little? Ohand was Dave crazy?
Chappelle's hasty hiatus was an unexpected turn in a success story that TIME started following last November. I introduced myself to the notoriously press-shy Chappelle through a shared connection (my wife's brother-in-law is a childhood friend of his), and as the conversations unfolded, Chappelle decided to give TIME extensive access to the production of his new season. He even stopped by TIME's offices in New York City several times, always coming off as approachable, engaging and irreverent. (At one encounter, he tweaked TIME's editors by saying he was reporting a story for Newsweek.) But in conversations before he skated for South Africa, the tension was showing. "Later today I gotta call the head of the network [Comedy Central chief Doug Herzog], and I gotta face the music," Chappelle said on April 19. "I gotta tell this dude either I'm doing it or not.