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's misgivings about his success kept growing. Increasingly, when he walked down the street or slipped offstage at comedy clubs, people would approach him—black and white and Hispanic and Asian and other—and say things like, "I love your show, I don't care what anybody says. Don't let them change you." The phrase echoed in his head: Don't let them change you. Chappelle used to work Washington Square Park with a stand-up named Charlie Barnett, a brilliant jokester and crack addict who died of AIDS. Barnett, who co-starred in the movie D.C. Cab in 1983 and later fell on hard times and slept in the streets, used to tell Chappelle, "If you fight change, you'll end up f_____ up like me." Chappelle realized he was caught in a paradox: he had always embraced change. Now he was resisting change.

And resisting it was having its effects.

The third season hit a big speed bump in November 2004. He was taping a sketch about magic pixies that embody stereotypes about the races.

The black pixie—played by Chappelle—wears blackface and tries to convince blacks to act in stereotypical ways. Chappelle thought the sketch was funny, the kind of thing his friends would laugh at. But at the taping, one spectator, a white man, laughed particularly loud and long. His laughter struck Chappelle as wrong, and he wondered if the new season of his show had gone from sending up stereotypes to merely reinforcing them. "When he laughed, it made me uncomfortable," says Chappelle. "As a matter of fact, that was the last thing I shot before I told myself I gotta take f______ time out after this. Because my head almost exploded."

That led to him to the hajj. After his return, he got back to work, and by mid-April enough sketches had been filmed to fill perhaps five shows (Chappelle's stand-ups, which introduce and close the pieces, have yet to be filmed). One sketch riffs on the fact that slain rapper Tupac Shakur seems to still be releasing up-to-date songs. (In the segment, a man in a club hears a Tupac song that's so uncannily topical it talks about specific people in the club.) There was also a sketch called "Celebrity Injustice" examining newsmakers, like Howard Dean, who in Chappelle's opinion had been treated unfairly in the press. In the sketch, Chappelle demonstrates how Dean should have turned his much-maligned scream into a trademark instead of accepting it as a liability. "Every time I look at raw footage of that sketch, it makes me laugh," says Chappelle.

Although he felt that the sketches he had finished were funny, he wondered if they were as riotously funny as his prior work. Not everyone shared his fear. "I finally saw the sketches two nights ago," Comedy Central chief Herzog said last week, "and they looked great to me. I sat in a room full of people and watched them, and everyone had the same opinion—they're as good as anything he's ever done."

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