On Sept. 18 of last year, soon after signing a reported $50 million deal with Comedy Central for two more seasons of his show, Dave Chappelle threw an enormous block party in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood. Hundreds of people showed up for a concert featuring Kanye West, the Roots, Erykah Badu, and a reunited Fugees, and Chappelle had the daylong event filmed for a documentary. ”He made it a point to walk around and greet his fans, taking time and just vibing with everyone,” says Jamel Shabazz, who Chappelle hired to take pictures of the event for a potential companion book. ”I saw nothing but positivity from that young man.”
Eight months later, Chappelle is in a radically different place and his sketch-comedy series has fallen apart. On May 4, not 24 hours after Comedy Central touted Chappelle’s Show’s third season to a group of advertisers, with promos for a May 31 premiere still airing, the cable network hastily announced that the season would not proceed as scheduled. In fact, the situation had become far more dire than the network ever let on.
EW has learned from a source close to the show that on April 28, the comedian flew from Newark airport to South Africa to check himself into a mental health facility. (Neither Comedy Central nor Chappelle’s publicist would comment to EW; his publicist has repeatedly denied persistent rumors of drug use.) Production had temporarily shut down back in December, scuttling a planned February premiere; reports at the time said Chappelle had the flu and that the show would come back in April or May. But this time the series is unlikely to return. Staffers are looking for new jobs, and wondering what happened to their $50 million man.
”My strong feeling,” says another show insider, ”is that Dave couldn’t handle the pressure.” Former Chris Rock Show producer Nelson George saw firsthand how challenging it is for someone to suddenly be deemed ”funniest guy in America.” Though Rock handled it well, George said, ”it can mess up your creative process, [where you’re] second-guessing, ‘Is that as funny as what we did last year?”’ The expectations — popular, critical, and financial — can seem unfulfillable.
Chappelle’s retreat comes after a grueling climb up the comedy ladder that has consumed nearly two decades. The 31-year-old has been a stand-up comic since he was 14, and suffered through 11 network pilots that had about as much in common with his edgy comedy as Richard Pryor’s did with The Toy. (Only one show ever made air, ABC’s 1996 Buddies, canceled after four episodes.) But on his Comedy Central show, he was able to give his incendiary, daring style free rein: He and partner Neal Brennan wrote nearly every sketch, conjuring up such characters as a blind KKK member who doesn’t realize he’s black, and a cop-stabbing, whore-slapping Wayne Brady. It was a dream opportunity, and redemptively popular (averaging 3.1 million viewers). It was also a debilitating workload. ”Dave always wanted his work to be perfect and would never settle for anything less,” says Chappelle’s former manager Barry Katz, who met the comic when Chappelle moved to New York City after graduating from high school in Washington, D.C. ”He’s mellow at times, but also driven in a way that few artists have been.” And trying to achieve his perfection with a small staff is virtually impossible. Says George: ”With TV, no one person, or even two people, can write [a season’s worth of shows] that are all very funny.”