Sunday, May 15, 2005

out of africa

the country has been abuzz about dave chappelle's disappearance, and the recent rumors that he had checked himself into a mental institution in south africa.

according to time magazine, which claims to have caught up with him, he is in south africa, but he's not in any kind of institution.

the article is long (that is, if you know how to get in)... i won't quote the whole thing, but here is a good chunk of it:

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. Or if I do it, this is how I gotta do it. But what if he says no?

Then I gotta muster up all the balls I got just to say, 'Well, then, I'm walking away.'" Chappelle's words didn't sound that serious at the time—he is a comedian, after all. Just over a week later, he left the country. Our conversations, however, continued by phone after he reached Durban:
TIME Are you on drugs?

CHAPPELLE I haven't smoked marijuana in months. My drugs these days are nicotine and coffee.

TIME Are you in a mental facility?

CHAPPELLE No, no, I'm not in a mental facility. I'm actually staying with some friends [at the home of a man named Salim], although I did consult a doctor when I was here.

TIME A psychiatrist?

CHAPPELLE It was a 40-minute session. I guess he was a psychiatrist.

We just chewed it up, and that was the extent of it.

TIME Why did you take a break?

CHAPPELLE My personal feeling is I didn't like the direction of the show. I was trying to explain it to people, and no one was feeling me. There's a lot of resistance to my opinions, so I decided, Let me remove myself from this situation. You hear so many voices jockeying for position in your mind that you want to make sure that you hear your own voice. So I figured, Let me just cut myself off from everybody, take a minute and pull a Flintstone—stop a speeding car by using my bare feet as the brakes.

says Herzog, it was ultimately up to the show's namesake: "He absolutely has complete creative freedom.

There's no one from the network sitting on his head. Dave is in charge of his own world." Chappelle's writing partner, Neal Brennan, agrees. He tells TIME that Chappelle had "literally absolute, complete, creative freedom" and plenty of time to work. To some extent, his colleagues profess bafflement about Chappelle's reaction to what seemed to be garden-variety creative differences. "There were 1,000 ways to deal with this," says Brennan. "By the numbers, this was the worst way to have done it. He couldn't think straight. It was fight or flight—and he chose flight."

And then there are those voices in his mind that Chappelle speaks of.

While no one in his circle will talk publicly of it, some describe him as exhibiting increasingly paranoid and erratic behavior. At one point, Brennan says, "I told him, 'You're not well.' He didn't answer." Brennan won't speculate on Chappelle's health but argues that something about his pal of 14 years is different: "Has he made changes in his life? He's 140 degrees different than he was a year ago."

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."

But as the late rapper biggie smalls once observed, mo' money, mo' problems. In August 2004, after Chappelle's big deal was announced, people started calling him a genius a lot more. They started laughing at the wrong jokes for the wrong reasons at the wrong times. And to his mind, the show became more like working at Wal-Mart, although for a much higher salary. But he kept on with it. Says Chappelle: "Fifty million dollars is a lot of money. And what I'm learning is I am surprised at what I would do for $50 million. I am surprised at what people around me would do for me to have $50 million." Although news of the deal was heavily reported, the conflicted Chappelle didn't actually put his name on the pact until last March. Says Chappelle: "I was thinking for the longest—I'm not even gonna sign this s___."

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."

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.

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