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Dave Chappelle Biography

Selected works


Actor, writer, comic

From a very early age, Dave Chappelle could make people laugh. Chappelle realized the power of his natural talent and made some very serious goals for his art. As a teenager, he crafted his standup comedy act out of the realties of his life growing up black in the capital city of the United States. Racism and racial division became his main targets, and he approached them with an outrageous irreverence that often shocked his audiences into shouts of laughter. Though Chappelle has worked toward recognition and success, he has continually refused to tone down his style or dilute his outspoken African-American point of view in order to make his comedy "more acceptable." As a result, he has gained fame and success on his own terms, and has become especially popular with young audiences who appreciate Chappelle's sly social commentary and aggressively satiric style.

Born David Chappelle on August 24, 1973, in Washington, D.C., he grew up in the city and the nearby suburb of Silver Springs, Maryland. Summers were often spent in Yellow Springs, Ohio with his father who was a professor at Antioch University. He enjoyed the peaceful rural atmosphere of Yellow Springs, and as an adult, his home on an Ohio farm would become a family refuge from the more hectic entertainment worlds of New York and Los Angeles.

Chappelle was only 14 when he first performed his standup comedy act in public venues in Washington. His mother, a Unitarian minister, was very supportive of her son's talent and frequently accompanied him as a chaperone when he performed in nightclubs and bars. After a few years on stage, Chappelle began to win comedy contests, and by the time he was a senior in high school, he was traveling to comedy jobs on the road, excused from school by the principal so that he could pursue his career.

After his graduation from high school, Chappelle made a bargain with his parents. Instead of going to college right away, he would go to New York to work on his comedy act. If he did not succeed after one year, he would consider college. While working with other comics in the Washington area, Chappelle had learned a lot about the comedy clubs of New York, and he had grown to feel that he had to go there to become a real success in comedy.

Chappelle took two different approaches to developing his art as a performer and breaking into the national comedy scene. Other comics had advised him that the Boston Comedy Club in Greenwich Village was a good place for younger comedians, so he began performing there to build his reputation in the city. His plan worked well, and within weeks he was not only performing regularly at the Boston, but at comedy clubs all over New York.

However, Chappelle was not content just working the club circuit. He wanted to keep an edge of street-wise spontaneity in his work. To do this, he went, quite literally, out on the street and performed comedy in the parks and sidewalks of the city, alongside other street performers. There he met Charles Barnett, a street comedian who became his good friend and mentor. Working on the streets taught Chappelle confidence and honed his fast-paced aggressive style. He was impressed by the courage and skill of street comics like Barnett, who had the nerve and skill to capture the attention of passers by, but whose work was seen by so few. When Charles Barnett died of AIDS, Chappelle planned someday to make a film about his mentor, with himself portraying Barnett.

Just before the end of his first year in New York, Chappelle performed at the Montreal Comedy Festival. His success at that large event left no doubt that he was destined for a career in comedy. His dedication and nerve were tested during the early 1990s when he was booed off the stage during his standup comedy debut at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem. However, in 1992 he won critical and popular acclaim for his television appearance in Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam on HBO. His popularity began to rise, and he became a regular guest on late-night television shows such as Politically Incorrect, The Late Show With David Letterman, The Howard Stern Show, and Late Night With Conan O'Brien.

In 1993 Chappelle landed his first film role: the Mel Brooks comedy Robin Hood: Men in Tights. He had small roles in several other films, but it was his role as the nasty comic Reggie Warrington in Eddie Murphy's 1996 film The Nutty Professor that brought him to the attention of Hollywood.

Suddenly Dave Chappelle was in demand for character roles, and he did several films in the next few years. In 1998, he co-wrote his first film, Half Baked, a tribute to Cheech and Chong, a comedy duo who had made a series of recreational-drug-related slapstick comedies during the late 1970s and 1980s. Though Half Baked enjoyed some success, Chappelle was disappointed with his first experience in filmmaking. He felt that the studio had weakened the film by trying to make it more acceptable to conservative audiences. He did not like losing control over his work, and this experience would influence his later choices.

Chappelle had dabbled in developing television pilots beginning in the early 1990s. After creating more than ten, one pilot, called Buddies, was picked up by ABC in the early 1990s. But as Chappelle recalled to 60 Minutes, as quoted on the CBS Web site: "It was a bad show. It was bad. I mean when we were doing it, I could tell this was not gonna work." Indeed, it aired for only 13 episodes before cancellation. As his comic popularity continued to rise, Chappelle attracted network attention. The FOX television network offered to build a situation comedy around Dave Chappelle's comedy in the late 1990s. Chappelle was interested, but when network executives began to suggest adding white characters to the cast in order to broaden the show's appeal, the comic withdrew from the deal. As much as possible, he would always refuse to compromise his principles or his comedy.

Chappelle continued to write and perform in films as well as on stage. In 2000 he did a very successful one-man show for HBO called Dave Chappelle: Killin' Them Softly. In 2003 he was offered a chance to do television on his own terms. Comedy Central, a comedy network, offered Chappelle his own show. Chappelle's Show, a half-hour program, repeated several times each week, featured Chappelle and a cast of regulars and guests performing satirical skits. Cable television proved to be a more comfortable location for Chappelle's outrageous comedy, and the show soon developed a devoted following. Though no topic was safe from Chappelle's sharp satire, racism remained a major focus of his biting humor. His first show, for example, featured Chappelle playing a blind leader of a white supremacist movement who does not realize that he is black. Each half hour was packed with skits like "Race Draft," in which members of different races get to claim celebrities as their own, and "Ask a Black Dude," in which whites ask show regular Paul Mooney questions about being black.

Though Chappelle's Show is designed for hilarity, a very serious political message underlies the show's attacks on racism and bigotry. Even the musical guests reflect the show's hard-hitting social critique, by focusing on hip-hop artists, whose music contains pointed political messages and appreciation of black culture. Critics recognize the similarities between Chappelle's comedy and that of comedian Richard Pryor during the 1970s. Pryor's wife spoke for her ailing husband on 60 Minutes, saying that Pryor approves of Chappelle's work and has "passed the torch" to him. Chappelle's respect for Pryor showed in his response: "That's a lot of pressure. He was the best, man. For him to say that is, you know, that's something, I don't even know if I'll attempt to live up to that."

At a Glance …

Born David Chappelle on August 24, 1973 in Washington, D.C; married Elaine; two children.

Career: Comedian, 1987–; actor, 1992–.

Memberships: Screen Actors Guild.

Addresses: Web—www.davechapelle.com.

Despite his modesty, in the early 2000s Chappelle seemed well on his way to such super stardom. The DVD of the 2003 season of Chappelle's Show quickly became the best selling DVD of all time, surpassing the popular Simpsons cartoon show. In 2004 Comedy Central signed Dave Chappelle to a two-year contract to continue his show.

Selected works


Undercover Blues, 1993.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights, 1993.

Getting In, 1994. Comedy: Coast to Coast, 1994.

The Nutty Professor, 1996.

Joe's Apartment, 1996.

Bowl of Pork, 1997.

The Real Blonde, 1997.

Damn Whitey, 1997.

Con Air, 1997.

You've Got Mail, 1998.

Woo, 1998.

Half Baked, 1998.

Blue Streak, 1999.

200 Cigarettes, 1999.

Screwed, 2000.

Undercover Brother, 2002.


Def Comedy Jam, 1992.

Dave Chappelle: Killin' Them Softly, 2000.

Chappelle's Show, 2003–.

Dave Chappelle: For What It's Worth, 2004.


The Dana Carvey Show, 1996.

The Dave Chappelle Project, 1997.

Damn Whitey, 1997.

(With Neil Brennan) Half Baked, 1998.

Dave Chappelle: Killin' Them Softly, 2000.

Chappelle's Show, 2003–.

Dave Chappelle: For What It's Worth, 2004.



Jet, August 23, 2004, p. 37.


Dave Chappelle, www.davechapelle.com (January 21, 2005).

"Chappelle: 'An Act of Freedom," 60 Minutes, www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/10/19/60II/main650149.shtml (February 8, 2005).

"Chappelle's Show." Comedy Central, www.comedycentral.com/tv_shows?chappellesshow (January 21, 2005).

"Interview with Dave Chappelle." mulDoomstone Interviews, www.deathvalleydriver.com/muldoomstone/Chappelle.html (January 28, 2005).

—Tina Gianoulis

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