“Dave is the embodiment of Mark Twain’s observation that ‘against the assault of humor, nothing can stand,’" Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter said in a statement. “For three decades, Dave has challenged us to see hot-button issues from his entirely original yet relatable perspective.”
Although the Kennedy Center declined to identify potential entertainers at the gala performance, expect prominent names in comedy, including fellow stand-up performers. Typically, featured entertainers have a personal or professional connection to the honoree; Chappelle performed at Murphy’s gala in 2015.
Known for his incisive, off-kilter and sometimes controversial approach to joking about race, family and relationships, Chappelle has influenced a generation of younger comedians since becoming a national sensation with “Chappelle’s Show,” his early 2000s sketch comedy series on Comedy Central. His subsequent sudden retreat from the public eye added a layer of mystique, but Chappelle has been actively performing stand-up since 2013 and has since won two Grammys and two Emmys.
The son of academics, Chappelle grew up in Silver Spring, Md., and began performing stand-up when he was a 14-year-old student at the Duke Ellington School for the Arts.
“It hit me like a revelation,” he told The Washington Post in 1993. “I didn’t think I could do anything — I was a mediocre basketball player, a bad student — and all of a sudden I realized I could make money being funny.”
He frequented clubs in the D.C. area as a teenager and, after high school, he moved to New York City to pursue comedy. “I was the first person in my family to not go to college who had not been a slave,” Chappelle told James Lipton in 2006. “So I was really breaking from tradition.”
At age 19, Chappelle made his film debut in the Mel Brooks comedy “Robin Hood: Men in Tights,” followed by roles in Murphy’s “The Nutty Professor,” the short-lived sitcom “Buddies” and the 1998 stoner-cult favorite, “Half Baked,” which he co-wrote.
Chappelle also continued with stand-up comedy. His 2000 hour-long HBO special “Killin’ Them Softly,” filmed at Washington’s storied Lincoln Theatre, remains among his most memorable material. The comedic perspective on police brutality and drug addiction he offered would translate to sketch comedy three years later on “Chappelle’s Show."
The series became an instant hit. Its ratings helped bolster the network, and DVDs of the series broke sales records. In the age before streaming, on-demand video and YouTube, Chappelle’s sketches about Rick James and a blind, black Ku Klux Klan member somehow became ubiquitous. The fame would also have unintended consequences for his stand-up, though; it wasn’t uncommon for audience members to interrupt his live performances by shouting catchphrases from the series.
Chappelle released another stand-up special in 2004, but the next year, at the height of his professional success, he walked away from a $50 million Comedy Central deal. Since then, he has offered layered explanations for that decision, ranging from questioning the social responsibility of the sketches to the personal demands of the work. For years after, Chappelle remained a somewhat elusive figure, performing stand-up intermittently while living with his family on a farm in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He began touring nationally again in 2013.
In 2016, Chappelle signed a $60 million Netflix deal for several stand-up specials, which included sets he had already filmed and held in his vault. “The Age Of Spin & Deep In The Heart Of Texas” and “Equanimity & The Bird Revelation,” released in 2017, made his comedy accessible to millions once again. Many fans welcomed his return, while some of the material, particularly about transgender people, drew criticism.
The pair of specials won him two Grammys for best comedy album, and an Emmy for outstanding variety special for “Equanimity.” Chappelle also hosted “Saturday Night Live” days after Donald Trump’s surprising win in the 2016 presidential election. He won an Emmy for the episode, which he then donated to his alma mater, Duke Ellington.
“This is a trophy, but it represents years of hard work,” Chappelle told students at the school in 2017. “In the course of a career, you go through so many things. You learn on the job. You embarrass yourself. You fall down. You get up. You try harder. I quit my show, and people said I’d never work again. I got up and tried harder. I still do my art almost every day. I still think about my art every day. I want you guys to have this just so you know that even though the odds are wildly against you, this can happen for you.”
The Kennedy Center’s Rutter said, “Dave is a hometown hero here in Washington, D.C., where he grew up. We’re so looking forward to welcoming him back home.”
Chappelle will become the fifth black recipient of the Mark Twain prize. Past recipients include Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg and, the very first Mark Twain honoree, Richard Pryor. (Last year, the Kennedy Center’s board of trustees rescinded Bill Cosby’s 2009 award following his sexual assault conviction.)
The performance gala will be televised Jan. 6 on PBS stations.
Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that Dave Chappelle won one Emmy. He has received two. The story has been updated.