A stunned 8-year-old girl stood shivering in the drive-through of a New Jersey burger and rib joint, powerful wind gusts threatening to send her sailing into the bitter cold air. Blood was splattered across her porcelain-white face and puffy pink winter coat. A bicycle with training wheels lay in a sad, crumpled heap beside her. She had just been hit by a car.
On any other day, a scene like this would be the furthest thing from comical. But on Dave Chappelle's popular sketch series, Chappelle's Show (Wednesday nights at 10:30 on Comedy Central), almost anything can be mined for laughs.
"We're shooting a spoof of an antidrug commercial," Chappelle explained one recent, blustery afternoon between takes. A crew of more than 20 swirled around the site in Hackensack, tweaking lights, steadying boom mikes. "This is going to be funny when it's done," this 30-year-old comic promised. And it was.
Instead of coming to the aid of the injured girl, Chappelle's character, frantic and presumably high, hopped on the victim's rickety four-wheeler and took off.
It is the sort of sly, transgressive humor that fans have come to expect from Chappelle's Show, an audacious half-hour sprint that finds Chappelle keenly mocking everything from the absurdity of public-service announcements to the complexities of race relations in the United States. "There are no sacred cows," Chappelle said. On camera he calls his show "America's No. 1 Source for Offensive Comedy." Off camera, Chappelle, a married father of two, insists his show is not offensive at all.
"If I did these things in a nightclub, it wouldn't seem edgy," he argued. "I'm not trying to push people's buttons. But at the same time when we're making this, I don't want to hold back. Our MO is to dance like nobody's watching."
'Can he say that?'
Chappelle's lack of restraint coupled with cable's anything-goes ethos has created an environment in which characters like Tyrone Biggums, a scheming crack addict in dire need of lip balm, and Clayton Bigsby, a blind white supremacist utterly unaware that he is black, can come to life.
"Third World Girls Gone Wild," another sketch, spoofs the "Girls Gone Wild" video series. Instead of young nubile blondes flashing their breasts for Mardi Gras beads, Chappelle's version features smiling native women dancing topless in remote African villages.
He has skewered the R&B; singer R. Kelly and the original superfreak Rick James, and he has imagined a "Racial Draft" in which different ethnic groups swap prominent culturally ambiguous celebrities. The white delegation wins Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Jews score Lenny Kravitz, and African-Americans walk away with Tiger Woods, a self-proclaimed "cablinasian." "So long, fried rice; hello, fried chicken," Chappelle, with Woods-like golf apparel and large dentures, declares.
"Dave Chappelle isn't content just to play the race card," said New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell. "He shuffles the entire deck."
Before stretching his gangly frame out on a couch in his trailer, Chappelle said, "I've always liked an element of danger in comedy." He lighted what would be the first of many Winstons. His voice barely rose above a whisper. "I like the idea of people watching and asking, 'Can he say that?' "
'The broke Huxtables'
Chappelle, a native of Washington, D.C., has been cracking wise since he was 14. Chaperoned by his mother, a Unitarian minister, he would frequent comedy clubs around the capital, delivering jokes about Jesse Jackson's presidential bid and the furry alien Alf. Asked why he was allowed to begin his career barely out of junior high school, Chappelle, who graduated from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, said: "D.C. was the murder capital of the year. Selling crack was the No. 1 after-school job. In contrast to all the bad things I could have been doing, how benign does telling jokes sound?"
Though his parents were separated, Chappelle, the eldest of three, described his childhood as idyllic. Race and politics often figured in dinner table conversations. "We were like the broke Huxtables," he joked. "There were always books and magazines around."
Chappelle skipped college and headed straight to the New York comedy club circuit. It was at the Boston Comedy Club in Greenwich Village that he met his longtime writing partner, Neil Brennan, a doorman at the club, who gave him advice about how to improve a joke.
Brennan, who is white, and Chappelle would go on to write and act in the 1998 stoner movie Half Baked, about a group of friends who spend an inordinate amount of time getting high. Over the years Chappelle has appeared in more than 14 films including Mel Brook's Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Undercover Brother and The Nutty Professor with Eddie Murphy.
Hollywood has been kinder to Chappelle than network television has. His first sitcom, Buddies, about a friendship between a black man and a white man, was quickly canceled in 1996 after less than a year. "I knew from the outset that it was not going to work," he said. Two years later, Fox offered him a sitcom based on his life as a struggling comedian in New York. When executives asked Chappelle to add more white cast members, he abruptly quit and publicly accused Fox of racism.
But Chappelle is feeling at home on Comedy Central. "He is a major talent that everyone wants to be in business with," said Lou Wallach, the channel's vice president for original programming. And as for Chappelle's provocative style, "We're never going to water down his point of view," Wallach said.
Changing from a neon-blue jumpsuit into a brown gas station attendant's uniform, Chappelle readied himself for an evening shoot. The sketch, "When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong," is about a black executive who loses his job after a militant outburst. "He could've walked away," Chappelle said ominously, "but he decided to keep it real."
For the first time in ages, Chappelle said, he feels comfortable. Keeping it real has worked for him.
Where: Comedy Central
When: Wednesday, 10:30 p.m.
In brief: Slightly shocking, smart, subversive urban comedy.