On January 22, 2003, Comedy Central premiered a new sketch comedy series by a funny, yet relatively unknown comic named Dave Chappelle. Named simply Chappelle’s Show, it was a modest little production that aired on a Tuesday and, suffice it to say, one of the most important moments in television began. I remember watching the first episode in my room with the sound low, because my parents did not allow me and my sisters to watch TV during the school week. I remember that very funny (and now incredibly dated) opening sketch and I remember that great blooper of that first sketch that followed it. Then, of course, there was the final sketch of the night: the black white supremacist frontline sketch; I was still relatively young at this point but even then I knew how ridiculous this idea was and but I was still too young to fully grasp just how daring of a sketch it was. With it, Chappelle’s Show had already cemented its legacy in the first episode.
Ten years later, it’s hard to watch the show without thinking of it in some sort of pseudo-psychological way. You look for the cracks within the show that led to Chappelle quitting: the symbolism in the sketches, the hints of animosity, hell even Paul Mooney seems prophetic in retrospect. It’s hard to remember how you felt when you first watched the show all those years ago. For that first season, I remember loving it instantly (I also remember being one of the few of my fellow classmates watching) and I remember planning out ways that I could watch it each week without my parents catching me. The second season was even better—in fact, it’s one of the best seasons of any television series—and suddenly everyone in my school knew every line of every sketch. I knew how great the show was then but, having been a television obsessive at that point (and just being an all-around pessimist), I never felt good about the show’s third season. At the time it was mostly a fear that it just wouldn’t be as funny or as good as those first two seasons but, as we all soon would find out, there was a lot more to it than that. By now we all know the story (and if you don’t, start here), the show was a machine and it no longer felt comfortable so Dave bolted. That’s not what matters believe it or not; despite the controversial ending of the entire series, Chappelle’s show was too good a series and too important a moment to have that overshadow it.
We could argue all day whether Dave should’ve left or not. Was the show getting too big to handle? Maybe, was it dangerously close to moving away from responsible yet extreme social commentary to just plain masked racism? Possibly, did he make the right call by turning down the money and leaving at the peak? It depends on what vantage point you look at the situation. What I do know is that for two years Dave Chappelle captured the world’s attention by putting on one of the most brilliant, important and funny programs to ever air on television. Yes there were the lost episodes that make season 3, and while it had some great moments, it just didn’t cut it—it’s basically The Godfather 3 of the series. Chappelle’s show was a phenomenon and a force; when you think of lil Jon, you’ll think of Dave first (same goes for Rick James, Prince, Wayne Brady and R. Kelly). I still say “game, blouses” and “this ain’t trading places nigga, this is real fucking life! Protect ya got damn neck!” on weekly basis. Charlie Murphy will always be the guy who got UNITY jabbed into his forehead, Donnell Rawlins will always be “Ashy Larry, Marcy projects… Marcy son, what!” Wayne Brady will always be the guy the scariest black actor ever and when a rapper says “turn my head phones up” or some variation on a track, I will forever laugh. When I remember Making The Band, all I’ll really remember is Chappelle’s parody of it; if I actually heard a white person scream “white power” in public, I would laugh because of Chappelle too. Tyrone Biggums, Tron, ridiculous comedy special tropes, Mos Def making bird calls and Dave running out of a press conference when questioned about oil are some of the best things ever, and no matter what Rashida Jones does she’s never more perfect than when she tells her friend all about “some pads that’ll make your flow mothafuckin’ tizight.” At the end of season 2, Dave’s last words were, “we shook up the world!” That you did Dave… that you did.