Comedian Dave Chappelle is one of pop culture's most intriguing enigmas. In 2005, his Comedy Central show was a hit, he had a new $50 million contract for a third season and sales of his DVD were setting records. Then just a few weeks into production on a planned third season, he bolted for South Africa without explanation.
Chappelle's Show: The Lost Episodes, which begins airing tonight at 9 on Comedy Central, is the product of what the medium's most daring comedian left behind. Cobbled together from sketches that were taped in April 2005 during the days that preceded his departure, the "lost" episodes are littered with shards of pain and flashes of anger and ultimately leave viewers feeling empty and flat.
Comedy Central certainly has the right to air the three episodes - each of which runs 22 minutes. Not only did executives at the cable network pay Chappelle well for the work he did give them, they also waited a year before moving forward without him.
Still, between the heavy-handed padding between sketches (mainly consisting of standup chatter by cast members Charlie Murphy and Donnell Rawlings) and the troubled take on success that Chappelle's incomplete work offers, the episodes leave one with a slightly sour taste. It is not unlike the reaction one might have in reading an incomplete manuscript published after a writer's death. Think F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon. Published after Fitzgerald died in 1940, the unfinished work offers a bitter, but poorly focused, look at success in Hollywood.
The recurring themes of tonight's "lost" episode are the high price of success: Chappelle's discomfort with suddenly being rich and the way he succumbs to the temptation to visit revenge on all those who once did him wrong. Although it's basically one joke played over and over, the first sketch offers the sole glimpse of the great comedic energy Chappelle can generate when he is on his game.
It opens with Chappelle in a barber's chair.
"How much I owe you?" he asks the barber, who has just heard the news about Chappelle's $50 million contract.
"Eleven thousand dollars," the man says.
"What? The board says $8," Chappelle shouts, pointing to a chalkboard of prices.
"That's the old price," the barber says.
The joke is repeated in a second scene when a carwash attendant charges Chappelle $873.
And on it goes until Chappelle finds himself at the Internal Revenue Service facing a snarling bureaucrat who tells the entertainer that he owes $25 million.
"Twenty-five million? That's half my money. You ain't done half the work," Chappelle shouts.
By the end of the IRS sketch, Chappelle's bodyguard has been shot in the chest three times.
As the man lies dying, he whispers to Chappelle: "Your greed did this to me, Dave. You didn't have to do two more seasons. No matter how good it is, they're only going to say it wasn't as good as last season."
Vengeance forms the core of the most bitter and least-funny sketch in tonight's show. Featuring a rich and famous Chappelle who exacts revenge from a former girlfriend, a talent agent and a comedy club owner, the segment seems awash in an unsettling mean-spiritedness.
First, a newly wealthy Chappelle visits a woman to whom he once proposed. He urges her to leave her husband and join him. She does - only to find out that the proposal was a ruse to wreck her life.
The scene ends with Chappelle and his wife and their son mocking the woman's misery and her inexpensive clothes. "Look at the coat," Chappelle says fingering her cheesy-looking fur jacket. "Is that squirrel? A thousand squirrels had to die so that you could be fly," he cackles as the woman dissolves in tears.
Chappelle's encounter with the comedy club owner who once told him he didn't have what it took to be a success ends with the comedian pushing the man down a steep flight of stairs in his wheelchair and setting the club on fire. Chappelle laughs maniacally at the destruction - but there is nothing original enough in the writing to elicit even a smile from the viewer.
Forget original, one would settle for clever by the end of the episode. But even that is in short supply in the detritus of Chappelle's final days at Comedy Central.
Since returning from South Africa, Chappelle appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and tried to explain his abrupt departure. He told Winfrey that he was profoundly uncomfortable on the set of the show while these episodes were being taped.
"I would go to work on the show, and I felt awful every day," he said. "I felt like I was some kind of prostitute or something - like, if I feel so bad, why keep showing up to this place?"
Chappelle's disquiet clearly comes through in the not-so-bargain-basement remnants Comedy Central has chosen to air - and for armchair psychoanalysts that might be enough.
One can't help but wish, however, that he had stuck around and tried to turn his agony into art as Richard Pryor did on his short-lived 1977 NBC series The Richard Pryor Show.
Without the full force of Chappelle's soaring comedic vision, The Lost Episodes is merely a frustrating reminder of great promise unfulfilled.