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Chappelle s appeal to the faithful
Dave Chappelle

It's been eight years since comedian Dave Chappelle walked away from $50 million and his iconic sketch program, Chappelle's Show.

Since then, he has become an elusive, quasi-mythical figure of underground comedy. His bitter social observations, sharp wit, and Loony Tunes-inspired timing have arguably made him one of the most revered and sought-after comics of his generation.

Perhaps this is why tickets for his two Perth shows at the Riverside Theatre sold out in less than 10 minutes.

From its inception on Comedy Central in 2004, Chappelle's Show defined itself as a brave and clever assault on Bush's regressive America. The first episode contained the now infamous Frontline sketch, in which Chappelle played a blind white supremacist leader ignorant of the fact that he himself was black.

But Chappelle was reportedly in a constant battle with Comedy Central to fill the show with his idiosyncratic brand of righteous humour. The show became a platform to voice the inequalities between white and black, the haves and have-nots, the ignorant and the overlooked. The result was 2½ seasons (the third being unfinished) of cutting-edge material, that was immensely popular not only in the US, but here in Australia.

Chappelle has been haunted by the success of Chappelle's Show. He has walked off stage at stand-up shows after being heckled with the shows iconic "I'm Rick James, bitch!" catch-phrase.

Chappelle left the show halfway through its third season to refocus on his stand-up because he reportedly felt his artistic integrity was being undermined by the network heads and show-runners, saying he wanted to refocus on his stand-up and take a sabbatical from the fame game.

Raised by academics in Washington, D.C., Chapelle started his stand-up career aged 14. Citing Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Buggs Bunny as his main influences, his stand-up is a mix of intuitive story-telling, social commentary, and 18+ quips. His bits are tinged with a cartoony surrealism that lends the often confronting material a palatability that would otherwise be lost on most audiences.

For example, in For What It's Worth, Chappelle asks the audience "how old is 15 really?" in relation to R Kelly (at the time) allegedly urinating on a 15-year-old girl.

The question is crass, and Chappelle knows it, joking that "if a man cannot pee on his fans, I don't want to be in show business anymore." He continues by telling the story of Elizabeth Smart, a white 15-year-old whose kidnapping gathered a lot of media attention, while the kidnapping of a seven-year-old black girl (who escaped her captors) went relatively ignored.

The story now turns on America's perception of Elizabeth Smart as a young, helpless innocent when he then says, "Let's look at 15 again" and tells the story of a 15-year-old African-American boy who received life in a Florida prison for accidentally killing his neighbour while practicing wrestling moves.

Chappelle finishes with, "If you think it's OK to give him life in jail, then is should be ok to pee on him."

His comedy is propelled by a desire to give voice to America's marginalised, especially those within the African-American community.

The 2005 documentary/concert project Dave Chappelle's Block Party was an exercise in extreme charity, with Chappelle hiring marching bands from poor and isolated Southern high-schools to play alongside Kanye West and Erykah Badu, giving out tickets to ghetto kids, and bringing together musicians who had been long retired or egregiously overlooked.

His ongoing quest for privacy has given Chappelle an undeserved reputation as an eccentric on the comedy industry periphery.

It is hard to imagine any comic walking away from such a large sum of money and a hit show. It's harder still to imagine a comic who at the peak of their celebrity stops to question the integrity of their art, and turns to faith and family instead of fame.

Chappelle lives with his wife and kids on a farm property in Yellow Springs Ohio, not a place known for its stand-up scene.

But he recently started doing secretive gigs throughout America and surprised and delighted fans when he announced an Australian tour. Like Tyrone Biggums wants crack, we want Dave Chappelle.


Dave Chappelle performs on February 25 at Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre.