So where would Rachel Dolezal go?
“I think black,” Chappelle said Sunday, referring to the Spokane, Wash., NAACP president who last week was outed by her own parents as a white woman who had been masquerading as black for 10 years. “We would take her all day, right?”
Chappelle, 41, was in town to deliver the commencement address to this year’s graduating class of his alma mater, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. In explaining why artists are important to contextualizing the world, he cited Dolezal.
“The world’s become ridiculous,” he told the awestruck grads at George Washington University’s Lisner auditorium. “There’s a white lady posing as a black lady. There is not one thing that woman accomplished that she couldn’t have done as a white woman. There’s no reason! She just needed the braids! I don’t know what she was doing.”
Despite the mention in his speech, backstage and no longer held to the constraints of a 15-minute time slot, Chappelle revealed why he would wait a while before he incorporated any Dolezal jokes into his act, if he decides to do so at all.
“The thing that the media’s gotta be real careful about, that they’re kind of overlooking, is the emotional content of what she means,” Chappelle said thoughtfully, between drags of American Spirit cigarettes. “There’s something that’s very nuanced where she’s highlighting the difference between personal feeling and what’s construct as far as racism is concerned. I don’t know what her agenda is, but there’s an emotional context for black people when they see her and white people when they see her. There’s a lot of feelings that are going to come out behind what’s happening with this lady.
“And she’s just a person, no matter how we feel about her.” Yes, the man who came up with the idea of Clayton Bigsby, a blind black Klansman (who doesn’t know he’s black), was reserved when it came to Dolezal.
“I’m probably not going to do any jokes about her or any references to her for awhile ’cause that’s going to be a lot of comedians doing a lot. And I’m sure her rebuttal will be illuminating. Like, once she’s had time to process it and kind of get her wind back and get her message together.”
Even though Sunday’s address marked a warm homecoming for Chappelle, complete with standing ovations as he entered and exited the stage, the comedian said it was “nerve-wracking” to address the students. He was clearly humbled by the honor. Chappelle graduated, “barely,” he said, in 1991.
“It seems like just yesterday, when they announced my name to walk across the stage, it was like I had won a prize,” Chappelle told the crowd. “It didn’t feel like something I had earned. And then — I’ll never forget — I opened up the little book and there was no diploma in it.”
Chappelle asked why.
“They were like, ‘You owe books, man.'”
Chappelle recounted the time his algebra teacher told the students they would need to pay close attention because they would use the information for the rest of their lives.
“I have never needed a single algebraic equation,” Chappelle said. He paused. “And I have made millions of dollars.
“The world’s a changing place. Turns out, you don’t need to be smart because the Internet. Most of the things you need to know — somebody’s already thought about them.”
Chappelle also drew huge laughs when he shot back with his own version of events after he was booed in Detroit earlier this year on his comeback tour.
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “They said I got booed off stage on TMZ. I got booed, but I didn’t leave. I was contracted to do an hour and that’s exactly what I did. And then a few people got mad and said, ‘we want our money back!’ And I said heeell no. I’m Evel Knievel. I get paid for the attempt.”
He started sneaking into comedy clubs when he was 14. His audition for Ellington wasn’t his best work. The night before his audition, he went to a bookstore and asked for a monologue. “Any monologue,” he said. “Just give me something.”
He tried, unsuccessfully, to memorize five minutes of Mark Twain and the next day, “it was terrible. I kept forgetting the lines.” Finally, a teacher asked Chappelle why he wanted to act.
“I told them, ‘I don’t!” Big laugh from the crowd. “I hang around comedy clubs and a comedian told me if I wanted to be a successful comedian, I should learn how to act. So, that’s why I’m here.”
It was the first time during the entire process that the teachers smiled. And it was enough. He was in. And 24 years later, he was back, a hometown boy who made good.
In those years, Chappelle learned some things. And one of the most valuable lessons, which he gleaned from another comedian, was that he didn’t have to be constantly funny as long as he was always interesting.
“Most comedians gauge success solely on laughter,” Chappelle said backstage. “But basically, he put me on to the idea that it’s other metrics besides laughter to gauge whether the show is going well. A guy who only thinks about laughs is like having a 64-[crayon] Crayola box but only using about 13 colors.”
So if laughs aren’t the metric, what is?
“Well,” Chappelle said, “I’m not going to give you the secret recipe, but I’ll tell you this: I have done, on many occasions, shows that have gone as long as six hours. Nobody left. They weren’t uproariously laughing the entire six hours, but I was interesting and they were fine with that.”
At its height, before TiVo and other methods of delayed consumption became ubiquitous, “Chappelle’s Show” was appointment television. Sketches such as the racial draft and Clayton Bigsby still hold up as prescient social commentary. Limited to just over two seasons, it became a part of valued pop culture ephemera after Chappelle famously walked away from a $50 million deal with Comedy Central, then jetted off to South Africa and disappeared.
The years that followed weren’t necessarily the kindest. Everyone wondered if Chappelle had lost his mind. When he started doing the late-night circuit to promote shows at Radio City Music Hall last year, Chappelle had to address what everyone was wondering: What kind of man walks away from $50 million? He told David Letterman he had $10 million in the bank, and that the difference between a life with $10 million and a life with $50 million was “minuscule.”
In April, the industry site Comedy Hype sent Chappelle fans into a tizzy when it deduced that he was taping footage for a comedy special during a tour stop in Austin.
Chappelle wouldn’t confirm or deny whether a special was forthcoming, just that he had in fact been taping.
“I don’t know if I’m going to put it out or not,” Chappelle said. “There’s a few things I filmed I’ve been sitting on. … In an hour on television, it’s hard to encompass everything you’re doing in a particular time in your profession. You’ve got to look at it as a snapshot of a much-larger picture. It’s like taking a class picture. You just want to die when it’s over.”
So, after all that’s happened, is he happier?
“I’m a more mature version of happy,” Chappelle said, contemplative again. “When I was making the show, I was very happy. It was a very difficult show. It was very exciting, it was fun, but I was happy to do it. … But life is like the Crayola box I told you about. I use more crayons now and I have a much rounder, happier experience, a fuller experience, a more interesting experience just for doing it. And I know myself and my preferences better than I did when I was a little younger.
“I’m happier in the way a guy gets happier when he starts to mature,” the comedian said. “It doesn’t make things easier, but I’m so much better at handling them.”
Correction: In his quotes about Rachel Dolezal, Chappelle was mistakenly heard as saying “context” instead of “content.” The article has been updated.