I am not merely referring to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's election special, although their sideways glance at each other and the appearance of big toothy grins on their faces after they announced that Barack Obama was now projected to win the election is one thing that I will always remember about that night. That was enlightening but not what I found significant about Comedy Central's Tuesday night election coverage. I am more interested in what came after Stewart and Colberts banter. Immediately following The Daily Show coverage, David Alan Grier's new show "Chocolate News" came on. Chocolate News is a satirical news program (much like the Daily Show) that views current events strictly from an African-American perspective. Tuesday night's program started with a cold open: Grier standing on-stage wearing a finely pressed suit and an irrepressible smile. The audience was deathly quiet; Grier shook his head a few times before saying: "Holy...SHIT!"
It was a huge moment in cable television history as far as I am concerned and it put a huge smile on my face. But there was something about it that was missing to me. David Alan Grier is a very funny comedian and I have enjoyed the bits and pieces of Chocolate News that I have seen, but there was someone else I would have liked to see on television that Tuesday night. I wish I could have seen one of the most brilliant artistic minds of our generation: Dave Chappelle.
We live in a fast moving cultural world of fleeting media. The tendency is always to honor what is NOW, NOW, NOW instead of what is gone. And if you'll allow me a second of your time, I would like to reflect on what is gone. I know Dave Chappelle is not dead, he is still out there living a quiet life on an Ohio farm. Maybe you'll see him a time or two on the stand-up circuit but that sighting would be as rare as seeing a unicorn in the woods. So as far as the mainstream is concerned: Dave Chappelle is dead. He won't be back on TV ever again, he won't produce a catchphrase as popular as "I'm Rick James, bitch" ever again and he certainly won't resume production of a sketch comedy show; for all intents and purposes he might as well be a ghost. And I, for one, think we have lost something that we cannot easily replace.
This very week, we could have been entreated to a heartfelt, intriguing and absolutely hilarious perspective on one of the most monumental Civil Rights achievements in our country's history. But Dave wasn't there. We missed a huge opportunity for the best art and material this brilliant man could ever produce. And make no mistake: Dave Chappelle is an artist. Dave Chappelle is an artist (and a damn good one) because of how much he has suffered over his creativity and the product he has produced. Men and women who don't care, don't suffer. Men and women who write for a television show, write a novel or shoot a scene with many camera angles just for the paycheck, don't suffer. But artists suffer. They suffer over the enormity of what they are trying to express, the delicate nature of interpreting the material and the reception that their art ultimately receives. And Dave Chappelle suffered terribly.
Anyone who has seen his mid-2000s show, Chappelle's Show, can attest to its quality. Dave and his creative team developed two seasons worth of some of the most hilariously depraved sketches ever conceived. In a time of political correctness, Chappelle did his best to tear down the walls among all the races of America, poking fun at their stereotypes and the way we all interact with each other. Highlights included: a white supremacist who was in actuality a blind black man unaware of his color, a season of The Real World in which the house-mates were all black except for a lone white kid from the 'burbs and of course, some of Charlie Murphy's infamous "true stories". The show became immensely popular and seemed to strike a chord with America regarding the melting-pot nature of their unique country. Comedy Central, sensing gold, even negotiated a $55 million deal with Chappelle for future seasons.
But production on Season 3 was halted midway through filming when Dave simply disappeared. He had simply decided that he could no longer go on with this show. He disliked the long hours, being away from his family and the overall mood on-set. He left the country to live in South Africa claiming that he needed perspective on his life and a break from fame. Whether or not, he ever achieved what he was looking for, we may never know. Chappelle never resumed production on the third season, effectively leaving dozens of employees jobless, and hasn't starred in any other mainstream entertainment since. In later interviews, Chappelle would claim that he believed his show was starting to perpetuate racial stereotypes instead of making fun of him. He no longer believed that it what responsible of him to produce the show. My question to you is: how can a man turn down the financial security of $55 million? The only answer that I can see is that he believes in the power of what he is doing, the art that he is producing and he does not like what that power is doing.
This illustrates the tricky and powerful nature of art. All of the media that support art are businesses and all those businesses must make money, which puts the artist in a precarious position and can often dilute the quality of his or her art. So, as sad as I may be that a huge moment in history without the perspective of one of our finest creative minds, I still must be grateful that Dave Chappelle pulled the plug when he did. Chappelle did something that seemingly only happens once a century. He let the art defeat the business. He chose to end something when he felt it was time to end it and when he felt the enormity of its influence was starting to escape his grasp. Maybe if Chappelle and his show were still around today, it would be a shell of what it once was: just a broken man doing the same jokes he always has, picking up a paycheck and no longer believing in what he is doing. Regardless of how controversial it may have been, Dave Chappelle did something that I believe all essential art should now do in this fast-moving age we all live in: Get in, change things forever, get out and give a generation the rest of their lives to figure out what in the hell they just witnessed in the blink of an eye.
Art in a fast time must come fast and leave fast.
Even if I wish the good stuff could last forever.