Chappelle's Show: The Lost Episodes(Paramount Home Entertainment, 7.25.2006)
Lately, Dave Chappelle must feel like Tupac Shakur having an out-of-body experience. I can't imagine the comedian's thoughts while watching the "lost" sketches, which just aired throughout July and are gathered here on one disc. Essentially, Chappelle is experiencing everything that happened to Tupac after the rapper was murdered in 1996 -- new material released after Shakur's death, friends and colleagues jumping in to defend or decry the musician's life and work, an ongoing media argument as to the giant cultural legacy left behind by one man -- except Chappelle aint dead.
We've all heard the story. Chappelle, expecting to be quickly cancelled for his brazen revelations about how an intelligent, American Black man views the ugly, unmentionable realities of systemic racism in America today, inexplicably finds himself creating a massive hit for Comedy Central. Amazingly, the uglier the truths revealed week after week, the bigger the phenom becomes. Debuting in the summer of 2003, Chappelle's Show is weaved firmly into the pop culture zeitgeist by early in the following spring with phrases like, "I'm Rick James, bitch!" printed up on t-shirts and Chappelle's Show DVD sales setting records in the millions.
For a while, Chappelle goes along for the ride. The image of handcuffs he finds himself in to close each show appear to be metaphorically loosening, even as the pile of money he's holding in this same image appears to be metaphorically growing. Chappelle signs a $50 million contract to kick off Season 3, ready to take head on the stratospheric fame embraced by Eddie Murphy just twenty years earlier.
Then, out of nowhere, Chappelle makes the move that will one day be recognized as the moment a legend was born. Chappelle, a Muslim by practice, but apparently remembering Jesus Christ's question, "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his soul?", walks away cold, while Season 3 is still in production. Dissatisfied with where his talent and hard work have left him, Chappelle travels to Africa to regain perspective.
Of course, stories of Chappelle being crazy, on drugs, and the like emerge and the media decides to bitch, bitch, bitch about how a celebrity -- and, of all things, a black celebrity -- could be so unappreciative of his fame and turn his back on the joys of Hollywood. But just like Muhammad Ali is loved, loved, loved today for the conscience he practiced while cowards insulted him, eventually Chappelle will be acknowledged as a man of integrity before his time.
Walking away from his show at the height of its popularity is Chappelle's equivalent to Ali's refusing to fight in Vietnam. Ali lost some of the best years of his professional life to a difficult jail sentence and, believe me, even though Chappelle escaped the jail sentence of creating a show he no longer loved or believed in, neither the media nor the general public is going to let him forget it any time soon. Thanks to some unspoken crazy thinking, it was decided a long time ago that having agency over one's existence is a privilege, not an entitlement in Hollywood. Minds are blown and blood boils when someone actually stands up for themselves.
So how are the Lost Episodes sketches, you ask? To be honest, they aren't as consistent as I'd like them to have been, but some classics definitely emerge from the bunch. Most interestingly, Chappelle repeatedly associates newfound fame and fortune not with luxury and ease of lifestyle, but with paranoia and a chance to seek revenge on those who have done him wrong. Some of the best sketches emerge from Chappelle's growing weariness towards the "big time" and, as a black man living in America, he certainly has a lot of scores to settle. A Howard Dean byah! sketch and a segmemt making fun of how curiously prophetic Tupac's lyrics remain to this day are hilarious, vintage Chappelle, as is a short segment featuring a newly-rich Chappelle as a baller on an episode of MTV Cribs.
The extras here mostly reveal what could have been, including a hilarious, unfinished sketch built around the idea of remaking the latest Michael Jackson molestation trial into the "Thriller" video with Jackson taking on a gang of children and his eyes glowing yellow when the "not guilty" verdict is read. This is genius stuff that feels like Chappelle's version of an abandoned Orson Welles' project to which only unfinished bits and pieces remain.
A making-of featurette and the audio commentaries for each episode gather together Chappelle's former co-writer Neal Brennan and Chappelle's Show regulars Charlie Murphy and Donnell Rawlings (who also host the lost episodes). Brennan, Murphy, and Rawlings discuss various aspects of creating the sketches and preparing them for air after Chappelle's departure, but the unspoken is what's most interesting here. Obviously, there is a lot of bad, or at least confused, blood between Chappelle and those he worked with most intimately on the show. No doubt, a lot of politicking and tongue biting had to take place for this potpourri of sketches to be released in such a slickly produced, smoothly rolled-out package of episodes, even if Chappelle was never directly involved.
Of note, in what could be considered a low, intentionally personal blow to Chappelle's character, the second episode on this disc features the controversial pixie sketch that prompted Chappelle to walk away from the show for good, followed by a 10-minute audience discussion as to whether Chappelle was justified in fearing the sketch racist. I think it's a low blow to include this extended audience discussion, because not only is Chappelle not around to defend himself, but by including both the sketch and discussion, it reinforces the popular notion that Comedy Central and Brennan are rational and open to dialogue, while Chappelle is just strident and impossibly stubborn in his beliefs.
That said, Chappelle did turn himself into a hijacker without a hostage early in this mess. He expected Comedy Central to bow to his demands of not airing the pixies sketch, despite refusing ever to return to the show. I don't blame Comedy Central for asking, "Where's the incentive in all this?" If I were a company about to lose my most talented, moneymaking star without a chance for negotiation or compromise, I wouldn't be open to shelving the little capital I had left on good faith either. But the real question, which will probably never be answered, is how did this situation get so damn ugly and out of hand in the first place?
Dave Chappelle's future should be bright no matter what he tries next. Obviously, he doesn't want the mega-celebrity life that Eddie Murphy embraced then so brilliantly chastised in his 1987 stand-up film, Raw. Instead, Chappelle could age like other great stand-ups such as Paul Mooney or even Richard Pryor. But in the back of Chappelle's mind, a part of him has to fear that he walked away at the height of his powers. If he becomes the next Jimmy Walker, turning his back on superstardom may become a regret. But if he blossoms into the legend he's meant to be, quitting Chappelle's Show will reveal an integrity reserved only for those who actually recognize the priceless value of their soul and the one-of-a-kind perspective that their uniqueness provides them. -- Jason Woloski