Day Eighty-Nine: An Excerpt on the Fall of Chappelle’s Show

by Tom Noonan

It makes the most sense to start this chapter at the end, with Dave Chappelle sitting on a beach in South Africa and giving an interview to Time Magazine’s Christopher John Farley on why he chose to bail on a 50 million dollar contract for a third season of his show.  The most popular narrative is that fame crushed him.  Like a brick wall behind a newly opened door, it stopped his personal momentum abruptly, so he had little choice but to run.  This is an easy out, though, a cliché that makes the comedian’s decision to leave all his success behind easier to relate to or just plain easier to live with.  This is not to say that the fame narrative is not true; it certainly is a pretty dominant part of the story, but there was always something else that came through in every interview he ever gave answering questions about why he left the show.  In the Time article, he tells Farley,

“Coming here I don’t have the distractions of fame. It quiets the ego down. I’m interested in the kind of person I’ve got to become. I want to be well rounded and the industry is a place of extremes. I want to be well balanced. I’ve got to check my intentions, man.”

The fame stuff is there, sure, but it is the last part of the quote that really sticks out, the part about “checking his intentions”.  Chappelle has always cited an incident on set as his reason for leaving the show, when a production worker began laughing at him while he was filming a sketch in blackface.  In her essay “Art in the Age of Political Correctness”, Rachel Jessica Daniel presents the moment as something that “made [Dave] feel uncomfortable and led to him leaving [the show]”.  Even this story has an overgrown shadow, as it was more of a catalyst for reflection than a final, conclusive moment.

What is significant about this incident, it seems, is that it happened while Chappelle was filming the “Pixie Sketch”, a sketch he would later bring up in the Time article as proof that his show’s voice was beginning to corrode.  More than a year after Chappelle formally left the show, Comedy Central aired the sketch under the supervision of Chappelle’s former collaborators Charlie Murphy and Donelle Rawlings who helmed the show in the creator’s absence.

Watching the sketch now, removed from the cultural moment during which it was created, it is clear that Chappelle had a reason to be worried.  The idea behind the sketch is that every race has certain stereotypes they try to keep themselves from playing into, which, on its own, works as a particularly simple piece of Chappelle logic and follows a similar thought process to the one Chappelle and Brennan were known for.  The problem with the sketch is that it portrays these stereotypes in small caricature pixies, all played by Chappelle, that actively tempt the members of the race they represent to live up to their own cartoonish personas.  Instead of portraying racism as an external problem, something that someone else imposes upon you, the sketch portrays racism as the show never had before, as a self-constructed prison.  When Dave plays the “black pixie” as a cane-twirling, fried chicken worshipping cartoon, he wants us to laugh at the absurdity of the stereotype, but the black man being goaded by the pixie, who is also played by Chappelle, is openly, and painfully, struggling with his own race.  Chappelle would often be quoted as saying he thought the sketch reinforced stereotypes rather then sending them up, but it seems closer to reinforcing racism as a self-inflicted problem.  Here, the only racist in the sketch, it seems, is Dave himself.

The other major problem with the sketch has to do with something Maria Edgeworth wrote on in her “Essay on Irish Bulls”.  Edgeworth recognized that the clever misdirection of language inherent to the Irish humor was being wrongfully misinterpreted by British readers as a lack of education.  She argued that playing into stereotypes to destroy them can be dangerous business when there are people who actually give credence to those stereotypes outside of your work.  In short, those people will not see the joke, only the stereotype, and the whole exercise will be counter-productive.  Chappelle’s “Pixie Sketch” runs into the same problem, and it becomes very glaring when the audience is presented with a “Latino Pixie”[1].  Appearing as matador with a pencil-thin mustache, Chappelle adopts a heavy accent in playing the leopard-skin loving pixie.  During this part of the sketch, Spanish-American actress Charo appears briefly with Dave’s stereotype to snort some cocaine then quickly take off.  In this brief scene, there is no joke, no Chappelle line that cuts through the racial muck to help us make sense of it all.  It is just a stereotype and gives us Chappelle’s Show at its worst.

After the sketch is played, Rawlings and Murphy poll the audience to see what they thought about its content.  It is an interesting moment, pulling back the curtain to reveal that even those involved in the process were unsure of how responsible their own work turned out to be.  The response is mostly positive, with some people arguing that the “white pixie” was by far the least offensive, but there is one comment that sticks out.  It is kept till the end, probably purposefully as the segment is obviously heavily edited, and comes from a younger black woman in the audience.  In short, she says that it is not the show’s job to educate people and that comedy shows should not have the burden of educating.  This is an interesting argument that certainly has some truth to it, but it also does a great deal of damage to the work Chappelle and Brennan did before “The Pixie Sketch”.  Their goal had never been education, sure, but it had always been focused on proving a larger, coherent point about racism in America.  As sketches like “Clayton Bigsby: Black White Supremacist” and “The Niggar Family” prove, Chappelle and Brennan fostered a responsible yet biting voice to talk about racism in what was being termed “post-racial America”.  It was something that had never really appeared on television, this voice, with its high and low-brow roots.  This is why it is so hard, but important, to watch “The Pixie Sketch” because we can feel them losing their grip on that voice.

Had Chappelle not left the show, he might have left the sketch off the air, realizing this as the moment he flirted too heavily with the line between satire and bigotry[2].  Unfortunately, the show only stayed around for two full seasons, so we will never know exactly how touching those boundaries could have affected Chappelle and Brennan’s approach to talking about racism.  What we are left with are some of the most critical, intelligent, and hilarious commentaries on racism ever produced.  About midway through the first season, the show aired a sketch set in the first class section of an airplane and follows a chain of racist thoughts of passengers worrying about the people sitting in front of them.  The sketch begins with two stereotypical-looking Middle Eastern men who are arguing over who should have won American Idol.  The camera moves on to the next row to where two black men sit and worry about “those terrorist sons of bitches” in front of them.  We then see a white father and daughter who are openly worrying about the black men in front of them, then two Native Americans worrying about the white people stealing their seats and calling it “manifest destiny”, and then two bison cracking jokes about the Native Americans.  When we get to the last row, we see Dave Chappelle and Neil Brennan asleep, with Chappelle letting a newspaper rest on his chest with the headline, “America United”, scrawled atop a more than half page American flag.  Then Dave twitches a little and scratches his crotch.

The sketch is short and a little heavier-handed than Chappelle and Brennan’s best work, but it serves as a perfectly succinct version of their America.  The chain of racism starts after two innocuous reality TV lovers are mistaken for terrorists, and it only gets uglier from there.  For Chappelle and Brennan, racism is inextricable from our culture; it is something that sits with us on airplanes and injects itself into the movies and TV shows we watch.  They do not really have a solution to the problem but instead seem content in destroying the “post-race” façade held together by newspaper headlines like the one Chappelle holds here.  This is what Chappelle’s Show accomplished: it scraped away that numbness we had built up over time so that we could try and ignore the racism that permeates our culture.  It reminded us of the work that still needs to be done.  It took the complicated legacy of hip-hop’s ascension to pop-culture significance and broadcast that voice in another medium, always making sure that it was a voice worth listening to.  It did all that, and then it stopped and scratched its crotch.

[1] It should be noted that Rawlings and Murphy were not nearly as talented at framing sketches with their introductions as Chappelle.  Where he would give context, they only gave summaries.  This contributes to the problem.

[2] I feel like I should comment here that I am not calling Dave Chappelle a racist.  I am saying that the sketch portrayed him in that way.  It made racism internalized, which went against the show’s own logic.