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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Brennan too feels Chappelle has lost none of his touch: "They're really, really funny. And I'd be confident showing them to anyone on Earth. Literally—Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Chris Tucker, Martin Lawrence, Richard Pryor." He thinks the real problem was indecisiveness. "Dave would change his sketches so much, and it just got to the point that the show never would have aired if he had his way," says Brennan. "He would come with an idea, or I would come with an idea, pitch it to him, and he'd say that's funny. And from there we'd write it. He'd love it, say, 'I can't wait to do it.' We'd shoot it, and then at some point he'd start saying, 'This sketch is racist, and I don't want this on the air.' And I was like, 'You like this sketch. What do you mean?' There was this confusing contradictory thing: he was calling his own writing racist."

Chappelle defends his standards. "When they say I make $50 million, it's not like the network is shelling out $50 million," he says. "I get part of the DVD revenues. Each person that buys the DVD, they're buying it because they believe in something I did. I could make a s_____ product for these people, but then that breaks the respect bond. I don't want to make a s_____ product. I wouldn't feel good about it. I'd be rich, and I'd still be miserable, and then I'd have to lie to myself more and more just to make myself feel cool about it."

So what does Chappelle do next? And what will happen to the show?

Herzog says he has told advertisers and staff that he believes there will be no Chappelle's Show in 2005: "I don't know what the guy's thinking. This is a guy who walked off his own show and kind of left everybody bewildered." But he also leaves the door open—wide open—for the comic's possible return. "Do we still want to be in business with Dave Chappelle? Of course. Dave's an enormous, enormous talent. We're in the comedy business, and Dave's a comedy genius." As for Chappelle, last week he sounded raring to go but not sure he had a place to go to.

TIME Do you plan to start up the show when you return to the U.S.?

CHAPPELLE Hopefully, yeah. Since I've been gone, I haven't really talked to anybody. I've only talked to my family. So when I get back, [I hope] everything will be up and running, or we'll make other arrangements. I don't know what the lay of the land is.

TIME Your idol, Richard Pryor, had his own difficulties. Is there something about the comedic mind that brings them on?

CHAPPELLE There will be no lighting myself on fire, man. I think it does have something to do with the comedic mind. For the most part, ever since I've been going through this, I think a lot of entertainers, black entertainers in particular, have been really helpful in giving me some perspective and shedding light on it.

TIME Which entertainers have reached out to you?

CHAPPELLE Lauryn Hill. She did give me some advice. She told me to be truthful at all costs. Which is a tall order, but which was really good advice. Otherwise you're going to run into one embarrassing situation after another.

But the advice that seems to be uppermost on Chappelle's mind is that of his father, who died in 1998. Upon hearing that his son wanted to try comedy, says Chappelle, "he said, 'Name your price before you get there. And if you ever find it's more expensive than what you're prepared to give, then get out.'"

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