Hours before his new comedy special dropped Tuesday on Netflix, Dave Chappelle wasn’t preening on a red carpet or partying with his deep bench of A-list funny friends. No, the comedic GOAT was in his hometown urging deep-pocketed Washingtonians to donate to his beloved alma mater, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
“I’m happy that you’re interested in the special,” Chappelle said in his speech to donors before the screening of “The Closer” at the Angelika Pop-Up theater at Union Market. “I’m happier that you’re interested in Ellington.”
Ellington, one of the few area art schools that educate a student body composed primarily of people of color, announced its plans during Monday’s screening to rename the school’s theater after Chappelle, one of its most famous and dedicated alums. The Dave Chappelle Theatre dedication will take place on Nov. 23.
Chappelle said having the theater named after him was “the most significant honor of my life.”
“I’ve been honored many ways, many times. This means the most,” said the comedian, who counts multiple Grammys, Emmys and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor among his accolades.
“I used to skip school. I would hide in there when I was skipping class. Who would have thought that that theater would one day be named after me?” Chappelle said. “But I understand it because sometimes when you love things, they love you back. And I loved that school.”
Sandi Logan, Ellington’s principal, said the love was felt in real time. “Every time we ask him to do something, he’s always done it.”
Chappelle insisted on coming to D.C. for the evening, which was a donor event wrapped up in a special screening and a testament to his devotion to the school. Ellington, which hopes to raise nearly $1.5 million by the year’s end to help pay teachers’ salaries, has a goal to reach and the title of Chappelle’s latest special, “The Closer,” seems to sum up every fundraiser’s dream: to close.
Arriving in his signature Chappelle-branded jumpsuit, the 48-year-old didn’t waste time singing Ellington’s praises. Sure, the audience, which included rapper Talib Kweli, D.C.-native funnyman Red Grant, and Wanda Durant, mother of basketball star Kevin Durant, were there to see Chappelle, but the school was the thing.
“The Ellington School saved my life,” said Chappelle, pledging $100,000 himself — and then immediately joking, “That doesn’t mean I’m going to do it.”
While at the mic, Chappelle told the story of hosting “Saturday Night Live” for the first time in 2016, just days after Donald Trump won the presidential election. The comedian had been out of the national spotlight for years following his 2005 exit from “The Chappelle Show,” and thought his decades-long career was on its last legs.
But when he took the stage at Studio 8H, something special happened. “I murdered that s---,” Chappelle said. Afterward, SNL’s forever-producer Lorne Michaels pulled the comedian aside and said, “Tell Peggy Cooper I owe her money.” Arts patron Peggy Cooper Cafritz founded Ellington in 1974.
Legacy was the overarching theme of the evening: Both Duke Ellington School of the Arts’ legacy as an institution that fosters great talent — which Chapelle is a product of but is careful not to take credit for — and Chapelle’s own comedic legacy, which has been building since he started doing stand-up in downtown D.C. after school.
Those excursions turned into years of stand-up gold. And then, of course, “Chappelle’s Show,” his groundbreaking early-aughts series on Comedy Central. Next there was the dramatic exit, the move to small-town Ohio and relative radio silence for years. Then that 2016 SNL hosting gig in Trump’s America. The next year, Chappelle came roaring back with a $60 million Netflix deal and the debut of his first two specials, “The Age of Spin” and “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” Those were followed by “Equanimity,” “The Bird Revelation,” “Sticks & Stones,” “8:46” (released on YouTube but produced by Netflix), and finally (maybe?) “The Closer.”
In all those hours of punchlines, Chappelle has been autobiographical, controversial and unapologetic. He’s told jokes about meeting O.J. Simpson and trying to square comedian Bill Cosby’s life’s work. He’s taken a stab at celebrity culture and cancel culture. He’s waded into the deep end with the LGBTQ community as a whole and the trans community specifically. In short, Chappelle has gone there without a seat belt or guard rails.
“The Closer,” which has been streaming for less than 24 hours, has already garnered buzz from the comedian’s defense of embattled rapper DaBaby and his own long-standing issue with so-called political correctness. The name suggests an ending, a bow. But Chappelle — who says in the special that he is done making jokes about the LGBTQ community and, in fact, never had a problem with them, but with White people in general — won’t say whether he is really done done with Netflix. So is this his final project with the service?
“Hopefully not, but for now definitely,” Chappelle told The Washington Post.
When asked how he’d define the arc and evolution of his six-special Netflix run, and what it means to him, Chappelle was hesitant.
“That’s the kind of question I am reluctant to answer because it might impede people’s interpretation of my art, and the fun part about putting something out there is seeing how they interpret it,” he said. “I know what it means to me, but that’s for me to know and for them to speculate about. And that’s why it’s art.”