Dave Chappelle has been back for years now, but we’re far from done obsessing over the way he left. Partially, that’s thanks to the gradual nature of his return. Around 2012, he started popping up in comedy clubs again, unannounced and undocumented. Then he went on tour, sat for interviews, posed for fancy magazine covers, put together nights of pop-up magic with with his famous friends. In 2014, he did ten glorious nights of stand-up at the grand Radio City Music Hall. It seemed, perhaps, like something major was next.
But it’s been a few more years now since that moment of ubiquity. There were more gigs, more chatter, more tossed-off greatness. But as of right now, Chappelle has nothing on the books. So without new action to distract us, we still look back at 2005, when he walked away from Chappelle’s Show.
The hyperbolized version of events is that Dave flipped out. The phrase that always seems to be used: he “ran away to Africa.” The truth is, as Chappelle explained shortly after to TIME: he went to Durban, South Africa, for two weeks, in part to spend time with a family friend. Yes, he did it while Comedy Central was awaiting the delivery of new episodes of his show. But it’s far less dramatic when you find out he basically just went on an early vacation. (And it also makes you wonder: would the story have been splashed with that much melodrama if Chappelle had gone to, say, Martha’s Vineyard? Would we be talking about him “running away to Cape Cod”?)
There’s also an interesting tidbit that no one ever seems to bring up. According to TIME, the third season of Chappelle's Show was first postponed in December of 2004. During the break Chappelle — who’d been a practicing Muslim since 1998 — attempted the hajj, but only made it as far as Turkey, because he didn't have a visa to enter Saudi Arabia. And it was that December postponement — and not Chappelle’s South Africa trip, which came in May of 2005 — that was spurred by the “Pixies” incident, one that has become infamous for Chappelle’s Show fans.
The show, TIME explains, was filming
… 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 sketch would eventually air on a curtailed three-episode third season hosted by Charlie Murphy and Donnell Rawlings.
Looking back now, it feels like vintage, cocky Chappelle's Show: lowbrow aesthetics, a simple set up, and a piece of comedy so brash it could only have come from this show. Today, it’s hard to image a place on TV for a sketch like this (Key & Peele, for all of their considerable merits, would not have gone this far). You can understand how a white man laughing long and hard at Chappelle in blackface would have been deeply unsettling. You also look at it and think, this is a show that, again and again, had the courage of their convictions to take even bigger swings than this.
To his credit, Chappelle has not shied away from admitting the impact that walking away from the show has had on his life. Appearing on Letterman in 2014, before the Radio City gigs, he talked about being at a nice restaurant with his wife, and seeing a man across the room that he knows has $100 million, and noting that they are both eating the same entree. “OK, so, fine, I don’t have $50 million,” he said — the much publicized sum for the amount of Comedy Central’s money that Chappelle walked away from. “I have $10 million. The difference in lifestyle is miniscule. The only difference between $10 million and $50 million” — he paused, his playful boyishness briefly returning — “is an astounding $40 million.”
It seems, understandably, that he is neither all the way at ease with the decision, nor is he lamenting it daily. He is, rather, still chewing it over.
“Pixies” didn’t actually kill the show, of course: the peculiar swirl of attention, expectations, and responsibilities that landed upon Chappelle after the (deserved!) instant-canonization of his show would have caught him eventually.
Above everything else, I think it’s the responsibility part — the sense of duty to his own material — that did him in. When the “I’m Rick James, bitch!” shouts started, Chappelle was horrified: he was never aiming for cheap catchphrases. So he pulled the plug. He couldn’t imagine how to make TV that was neither pandering to what he’d already done, that was not just feeding a suddenly indiscriminate demand for his material. So he walked away.
It’s dramatic, yes, and since he’s yet to fully, fully return to us, we still obsess over the way he left. That’s just a part of our obsession, though. The brunt of it is directed toward the material he did make. Quotes from his summarily perfect sketches pop up in my head all the time. Little random ones. “You think this is a game? This is dude’s night out!” “Oh, yeah. Baretta did that shit.” “Tyree, you stabbed my dad!” It’s understandable that we obsess over how he left. It’s better to remember that, for two years, he never missed.