Still Smokin'

"We made a mistake with O.J.; we celebrated too openly": Dave Chappelle
Danielle Levitt

Dave Chappelle isn't thrilled with every aspect of the fame he's garnered from the success of his hit program on Comedy Central. On Chappelle's Show, which combines sketches with musical guests and a little bit of standup, the comedian has complained of people who greet him with the popular catchphrase, "I'm Rick James, bitch!" when he's out with his kids.

He makes the same point about inconsiderate fans at his June 25 performance at Minneapolis's Orpheum Theatre, where signs on the doors warn audience members that hecklers will be removed. A couple of weeks ago in Sacramento, it seems, the audience participation got out of control. Chappelle reportedly walked offstage for two minutes and, upon his return, excoriated the outspoken crowd members, telling them to "shut up and listen." At his sold-out Twin Cities performance--which draws a racially diverse crowd from teens to fortysomethings--a few yahoos still insist on yelling out lines from the TV show. Chappelle, looking vaguely military in his familiar cap and baggy jeans, and smoking cigarettes almost constantly, sounds a little annoyed by them. But mostly he brushes off the loudmouths, reminding them that he's quite familiar with the quotes, thanks.

The talk-back must be mild compared to other stops on the tour: Chappelle states that he's enjoying Minneapolis. "This place reminds me of Purple Rain," he says happily.

Prince has been a subject on the TV show in a hilarious segment of "Charlie Murphy's True Hollywood Stories." Murphy, the real-life brother of Eddie, seems to have a knack for getting into odd situations with famous acquaintances. An installment about a combative Rick James produced one of the show's best episodes and skyrocketed the aforementioned tag line into the popular lexicon. In the Prince tale, the musician (played by Chappelle) and an entourage challenge Murphy and some friends to a game of basketball at Paisley Park. Murphy is skeptical, but his team receives a trouncing from their hosts. Having impressed his guests with his game, Prince then proceeds to serve them pancakes. (A Prince interview on BET later confirmed the story's veracity.)

At the Orpheum, almost none of Chappelle's material is so clean. Instead, he dishes up a feast of sex and drugs--the staple foods of standup. The comedian riffs in his laid-back manner on how marriage has changed his masturbation habits: The act is now most often done while he's hiding in a corner. He also brags of his bright idea to have his balls Botoxed. He seems sure the ladies will be lining up to orally pleasure his newly smoothed skin.

In the past, Chappelle has lamented the fact that some fans associate him only with marijuana, mainly because of his role in the movie Half Baked. But the sticky subject remains one of his favorites. One sketch from last season's Chappelle's Show satirizes the paranoid anti-pot TV spot wherein a young girl on a bike is shown at a fast-food drive-through, about to be mowed down by three stoners in a car. In Chappelle's version the ad ends with the lecturing voiceover, "If you're a girl under the age of 12...and you're high on marijuana...don't ride your bike."

At the Orpheum, Chappelle baits the crowd a little on the subject of his own indulgence. "I'm not smoking weed anymore..." he begins, and the audience boos predictably until he continues. "No, wait, let me finish. I'm not smoking weed anymore with black people." A few more boos erupt. "I'm sorry, but I'm only smoking with white people from now on." Now a few cheers. "When black people smoke weed, they talk about their problems too much. When white people get fucked up, they only talk about one thing: the last time they got high."

This brings up Chappelle's favorite topic of all, race--a subject he occasionally illuminates and consistently and brilliantly exploits. In one very funny skit from the show's second season, Chappelle genially hosts a game show called I Know Black People. The white contestants include a cop, a social worker, a writer for Chappelle's Show, a DJ (who claims to have "a lot of black friends"), and a professor of African American studies. There's also a Korean grocery-store worker, and, inexplicably, a black barber. The questions about black American culture explore such themes as what's a "badonkadonk," what are the missing lyrics to the theme from Good Times, and whether pimping is easy. And then there's the conundrum of why black people like menthols so much, which prompts one contestant to sheepishly admit that she doesn't know why--only to learn that her answer is correct. "Nobody knows," Chappelle says gravely.

Live, Chappelle addresses the subject of high-profile blacks on trial. "We made a mistake with O.J.," he says. "We celebrated too openly." After he claims to doubt the guilt of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson, he voices suspicion of the accuser in the latter case. "What 10-year-old kid's dying wish is to meet Michael Jackson? That kid doesn't remember Thriller. I remember Thriller, and I'm not sure I even want to meet the dude. That's like me asking to meet Chubby Checker."

While Chappelle may not want you to use the word bitch around his kids, he's not particularly a moralizer of the Chris Rock mold. Toward the end of his well-received Orpheum performance, Chappelle reminds the crowd that celebrities are only people, not experts--himself especially. "I've done commercials for both Pepsi and Coke," he says. Citing the insidious nature of advertising, he returns to menthol cigarettes and points out that he doesn't smoke them: "I stay away from all the stuff that's marketed to black people--that's where the poison is." Chappelle, who seems to be selling to just about everyone these days, may spill a little venom--but there are always a few puffs of sweet leaf to make sure the medicine goes down.

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