We revisit an interview from the archive with a young Dave Chappelle, as originally featured in the September 1993 edition of the magazine.
Dave Chappelle’s friends think he should be happy. Age 19, three films coming out in the next six months and a meteoric career as a stand-up comedian. Even crusty old news magazine Time recently decided to replace a review of Mel Brooks’ new film Robin Hood: Men In Tights with a profile of the film’s surprise star, Chappelle.
Chappelle is furious. “Did you see that issue of Time magazine?” he growls. He is not interested in his own profile. He is pissed off with a cover story about white kids shooting each other. “Black kids have been doing that for years. But if a white kid shoots the side of a building it makes the cover. This country was founded on racism and it is all still there. Because I am black, I am only three-fifths of a man in the US constitution.
“People in this country say, ‘How come them niggas can’t get it together?’ Do they think that slavery was a party? Sure. We all came from Africa to do a little yard work for you. We picked a little cotton, ate a little water melon, had a beer and called it a day. Come on. One hundred million slaves were killed in the US compared to six million Jews in the Holocaust.” Chappelle is on a roll when out of the blue his manager walks past and says with a knowing smile, “Are you interviewing the angry nigga?”
It’s a term Chappelle uses about himself, but don’t try it out on your own. “I don’t care if you are PC or not, but just don’t call me a boy or nigga,” he says. Not if you’re white. He tells a story about taking two white friends to a party in LA: “These guys were in shock – they had no idea that black people sometimes call each other nigga as a term of endearment. They saw the brothers at the party shouting, ‘What’s up nigga?’ to one another and one of my white friends got so excited he started yellin’: ‘Hey! How you niggas doing?’ The music stopped and everyone looked at them. It was the most serious thing at the time. But it was the funniest thing in retrospect.” Much of Chappelle’s current routine relies on similarly uncool experiences. “I am at my most creative when something bad happens,” he says. His best jokes are little stories about growing up black in Washington DC and Ohio. “I am like a pilot. I take the audience on an aerial view of racism. People get the idea that I hate white people. I don’t have any hatred. You can’t be a comedian and hate people. To get your point across you have to have a lot of love in your heart.”
But for some black brothers, Chappelle exhibits a little too much love for white people. Several have accused him of being an Oreo (an American expression for a black man who is white on the inside). “In LA in particular,” Chappelle says, “they are into real racial hatred jokes, so my act comes over as soft.” While he isn’t bothered by this reaction, it does worry him that “white folk exalt me because any time a black person shows any sign of intelligence they are impressed”.
Onstage at the Montreal Comedy Festival last month, Chappelle leaps around like a man on a piece of elastic. His face and voice contort into different characters and each gag is prefaced by a smart social insight which hits you like a tiny dart. The Incredible Hulk: “I am black, he is green! Fuck it! That’s close enough.” Wonder Woman: “In her bad-assed red hooker boots… What kind of role model is that for children?” A gunless British policeman trying to talk a criminal out of stealing a TV because: “It ain’t right. You wouldn’t like it, sir, if you had saved up for a TV and someone stole it.”
Like some modern-day superhero, wherever there is prejudice and stupidity Chappelle is there trying to diffuse the situation and bring awareness by turning it into a joke. “Racism is like a cancer. If it is not treated, it is just going to grow,” he says. To help combat the problem, Chappelle has developed his own alter ego, Trick Whitie Man, a character who can change from black to white. He developed the idea, he says, because “none of the other superheroes ever rescue black people”. In Chappelle’s capable hands, The Adventures Of Trick Whitie Man has now grown from a couple of sketches into a hugely funny one-hour show which he will be performing at this month’s Edinburgh Festival.
If you can’t make it to Scotland and can’t stand Mel Brooks’ films (although Chappelle did write his own jokes for Robin Hood – among them a very funny spoof of Denzel Washington playing Malcolm X), then you can wait to catch some of Chappelle’s humour in Doug Liman’s new film Getting In, co-starring Kristy Swanson and Andrew McCarthy, which opens in America in December. Alternatively, Chappelle has a minuscule role in the new Kathleen Turner/Dennis Quaid movie Undercover Blues. “They call it a cameo part,” he says, “because if it was any smaller I would be off the screen.”
For someone so young, Chappelle is extremely grounded. Asked about the future he says that apart from getting maximum attention and ideally his own TV show: “I want to be successful and not become an asshole.”