Dave Speaks

He's today's hottest comic. He has TV's coolest show. So why did Dave Chappelle flee to Africa? An exclusive interview with the runaway funnyman

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PETER VAN AGTMAEL / POLARIS FOR TIME

RUNAWAY COMIC: The well-traveled comedian paused for a moment last week on a pier in Durban, South Africa

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According to Chappelle, it's the people around him who have changed.

His wife Elaine and two children live on a farm in Ohio. Except for a cutting-edge hip-hop concert he sponsored last September in Brooklyn, N.Y.—among the acts were the reunited Fugees—he says he doesn't go out much: "I didn't buy a farm in Ohio to support my party habits. I drive a Toyota. My lifestyle hasn't changed at all."

As Chappelle sees it, his flight to South Africa was an extreme version of his efforts to keep his feet on the ground. He met in Durban late last week with TIME's Johannesburg bureau chief Simon Robinson, although he declined to meet at the place where he was staying, choosing instead the uShaka Marine World on Durban's shore.

As Chappelle walked along the beach, he painted a picture of someone struggling to come to terms with his position and power as well as with the people around him and the way they were reacting to that $50 million deal. Without naming specific people--"Out of respect, I'd rather say those things directly to the people involved than through the press"—he seems to blame some of his inner circle and himself (but not his family) for the stresses created by last year's contract. "If you don't have the right people around you, and you're moving at a million miles an hour, you can lose yourself," he says.

"Everyone around me says, 'You're a genius!'; 'You're great!'; 'That's your voice!' But I'm not sure that they're right." Among those close colleagues, Chappelle's growing distrust has apparently set off no small amount of anxiety. His publicist, Matt Labov, called TIME as this story was being edited, demanding to know if Chappelle had said anything inflammatory about his agent or manager.

Chappelle accepts some blame as well for the stalled third season.

"I'm admittedly a human being," he says. "I'm a difficult kind of dude." His first walkout during shooting "had a little psychological element to it. I have trust issues, things like that. I saw some stuff in myself that I just didn't dig. It's like when I brought a girl home to my mom, and it looked as if my mom really didn't like this girl. And she told me, 'I like her just fine. I just don't like you around her.' That's how I feel in this situation. There were some things about myself that I didn't like. People got to take inventory from time to time."

He turns to his faith for help in that regard. Says his friend Salim: "If he wants to talk religion, then I'm there as someone to talk to."

Yet Chappelle is low-key about his beliefs: "I don't normally talk about my religion publicly because I don't want people to associate me and my flaws with this beautiful thing. And I believe it is a beautiful religion if you learn it the right way. It's a lifelong effort. Your religion is your standard," he says. "I want to be well rounded, and the industry is a place of extremes."

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