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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Chappelle says he has been recognized by about six people in Africa.

"It happens so sporadically that when it does, it freaks me out because I have to remember, 'Oh, yeah, I'm famous.'" During the interview an American woman hails him. "No. 7!" he says. "Wow, I'm not that big in Africa. I've got to do an action film here."

By fleeing to South Africa, Chappelle may have found some peace of mind, but he has threatened a career for which he has long yearned.

Born in Washington, at 17 he told his father, a music teacher at Antioch College, and his mother, an African-American-studies professor at Prince George's Community College, that he was passing up college for comedy. He had been doing stand-up since he was 14, cracking jokes about Jesse Jackson's presidential run on an open-mike night in D.C. Comic Mario Cantone recalls Chappelle performing in Manhattan's Washington Square Park in the '90s for strangers and loose change. "I remember thinking, Boy, that takes balls," says Cantone. "It's tough enough for me to get on a stage."

For Chappelle, humor comes as easily as conversation. "Telling jokes is like a language I know really well," says Chappelle. "When I'm up there, I speak fluent joke. I'm up there, and I'm talking about seeing Hotel Rwanda, which is an incredibly sad movie, and I'm getting laughs. It's that kind of language. You just have to know how to do it." Comedy titan Mel Brooks, who gave Chappelle his first significant film role as one of the Merry Men in Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), says he spotted some special qualities in the fledgling comic early on. "He had timing," says Brooks. "That's very rare, even in our better comedians. He really knew when to deliver a line."

But Chappelle's talent wasn't universally and instantly recognized.

Not in his own mind anyway. There's a concept in the African-American community called the HNIC—the Head Negro in Charge. The notion holds that for various reasons in the U.S.—having to do with limited opportunities, pervasive racism and fear that if too many black people get too much stuff there won't be anything left for white folks—only one black person is allowed to be on top in any field.

Colin or Condi. Denzel or Jamie.

50 Cent or the Game. Chappelle certainly felt it was true in comedy—and the HNIC was Chris Rock. He was on Saturday Night Live; he was hosting the MTV awards; he was starring in big-ticket movies like Lethal Weapon 4. Meanwhile, Chappelle was starring in cult movies like Half-Baked and appearing in failed TV series like Buddies, and he was struggling to get himself recognized as one of the funnier participants on Def Comedy Jam. "When Chris Rock was real big, the word was, I was irrelevant; they don't need you," says Chappelle. "I almost felt like I was in his shadow. People would come up and say, 'Chris, can I have your autograph?' I would say to myself at that point—this is a young man's ego--'I wish just once that people would say that I'm the best. I just want to touch it. I just want this industry to admit it.'" Chappelle didn't wait for a break—he decided to create one. He and his co-writer Brennan (the two met at the Boston Comedy Club in New York City) launched Chappelle's Show on Comedy Central in 2003.

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