Los Angeles Times, February 13, 2003

By James Verini

The comedian Dave Chappelle’s incendiary mind moves at a clip, its paradoxes and paranoias forming into characters and spilling out of his Gumby-thin frame almost faster than he can give them words.

This is true whether he’s on the stage, as he will be Friday night at the Wiltern, or on his new half-hour sketch comedy show on Comedy Central Wednesday nights.

Behind that large-eyed stare, between those ears that act and look like radar dishes, it is a city street corner in July, brimming with dime-bag prophets, caterwauling grandmothers, fed-up workaday slobs, the whole place ready to combust. It’s a rogues’ gallery, a la the “GoodFellas” barroom crawl. There’s Clayton Bigsby, the white supremacist who happens to be black (he’s never noticed he’s black because he’s also blind, of course); there’s Tyrone Biggums, the unrepentant crackhead who lectures grammar school classrooms on the pleasures of addiction.

For a long time Chappelle has wanted as many people to peek inside the caldron as can fit. He’s pursued fame. But now that he’s famous, here’s a question: If he had to, where would he choose to bring his repertoire of characters to life: before the massive audience of TV, where he’s helping cure us of the “Friends” decade, or on stage, where he can go for broke? Would he choose one mic — as one of his favorite rappers, Nas, would put it — or a network and a deal?

“If I had a gun to my head?” Chappelle says, sounding exhausted but alert over the phone from New York, where shooting for “Chappelle’s Show” is running over. It’s typical of Chappelle to put things into stark visual terms. Guns to heads. “I’d take stand-up. Definitely. The stage. No committee, no corporate machine. It’s easier.” But what about the Big Time? What about the challenge?

“I meet these actors who say, ‘I’m always trying to challenge myself.’ And I’m always like, ‘Why?’ ”

Which is not to say that Chappelle is lazy. He has the TV show , and it’s not his first. (His first, a short-lived ABC comedy, “Buddies,” aired in 1996; and a Fox show died prematurely in 1998 when the studio allegedly asked Chappelle to add more white characters and he very publicly quit.) He tours constantly and has been in 15 movies, one of which, “Half Baked,” he wrote. He shuttles between a farm outside his native Columbus, Ohio, where he lives with his wife and 2-year-old son — another is due in March — and New York.

He and his writing partner, Neal Brennan, write the entirety of “Chappelle’s Show.” Oh, and he is, at 29, a 15-year veteran of the stand-up world, which he cracked in Washington D.C., his freshman year in high school (his mother, a Unitarian minister, lived there and his father, a music professor at Antioch College who died in 1998, lived in Ohio).

No, by “Why?” Chappelle doesn’t mean why so much as how. For Chappelle is already a walking mess of challenges. He is constantly challenging — his audiences, executives (and, no doubt, given the number of bleeped profanities and racial epithets on “Chappelle’s Show,” someone at the FCC), but most of all himself — to examine the bounds of polite thought. Like the great socially obsessed comics he takes after — the Lenny Bruces, the Richard Pryors and George Carlins — he carries a world not just of worries but of worried characters in his kinetic, spindly self, and they’re all fighting for prominence.

There’s Clayton Bigsby. There’s Tron, a jobless Harlem craps shooter living in a make-believe future America where slavery reparations have become a reality; he replaces Bill Gates as the world’s richest man when he parlays his reparations check into a billion-dollar fortune. And there’s Chappelle’s consummate creation, Conspiracy Brother, who will tell you that George Washington Carver was not only responsible for myriad uses for the peanut, but also invented the computer … out of a peanut. “A peanut!” he yells, with a mixture of righteous indignation and disbelief at his own preposterous notion — a trademark Chappelle delivery.

“Every black dude has a Conspiracy Brother in them,” he says. “Listen to any barbershop conversation. That attitude, like, ‘I don’t know what the truth is, but I know it ain’t what they’re telling me.’ ”

But don’t call him a political black comedian, like Chris Rock, to whom he is often compared. “Stylistically, we’re different,” he says. “Rock will make a point and be more analytical and logical. I’ll be more abstract and incorporate the point into a story.”

Surprisingly, Chappelle cites Jim Carrey, whose facility for outer-body physical convolutions he shares, as a bigger influence. “You don’t know what he’s going to do next but you know he’s capable of doing anything. I’m attracted to that danger on stage.” His preferred comparison, however, may be to rappers (Mos Def and Talib Kweli have appeared on the show), who, he points out, share two essential tools with comedians: metaphors and punch lines.

“Rappers are hyper-aware of culture at large, not just their culture,” he says. “That’s how comedians should be.”

Chappelle ambles back to the funny: “Black comedians especially have an inside-outside perspective, like Yakov Smirnoff.” A punch line and a metaphor. A simile, anyway.

Happily, “Chappelle’s Show” does not call to mind that ’80s novelty act. There is nothing cute about it. On the contrary, watching it, one is often amazed that Chappelle was able to get it on the air. The sketches waver between crass and outrageous the way “Saturday Night Live” sketches, these days, waver between insipid and vacant.

“The timing was right,” Chappelle says. “I wanted to do a show of stuff I thought deserved to be seen but didn’t have a venue, and Comedy Central wanted to court the urban market, as they say. But it didn’t dawn on me until a couple of weeks ago that people would actually be watching it.

“We created it in such a vacuum. Our philosophy was: Dance like nobody’s watching.”

He’s been offered other sitcoms over the years. Why not take one? “Sitcoms are generally devoid of opinion now,” he says. “And I’m an opinionated guy.”

Calling Chappelle “opinionated” is like calling Shaquille O’Neal “husky.”

Chappelle, who describes his TV show as “basically my stand-up act with visual aids,” has turned his opinions into a crowded Weltanschauung. In a style reminiscent of Lenny Bruce, he is not content to stop with observation, but embodies his questions in characters, and sees them through to their absurd conclusions. Thus he asks, “What would happen if slavery reparations became a reality?” and arrives at Tron, the craps-shooting Bill Gates of Harlem.

He adds a physical component as well. His eyes register surprise and worry as well as anyone since Harpo Marx. He uses his gangliness like Jackie Gleason used his girth, dancing like an electrocuted puppet when he’s excited, collapsing in on himself like a cheap umbrella when he’s been had.

He’s even managed to smuggle his own personality into a slew of forgettable movies. There was Pinball Parker, the petty thief in “Con Air,” who matches wits with the erudite John Malkovich — until he’s thrown from the plane. His disco-balling, cab-driving Mephistopheles in “200 Cigarettes.” And, playing assistant to Tom Hanks’ bookstore mogul in “You’ve Got Mail,” he delivered the only funny line in the movie. Describing the reaction their new superstore will get from the local residents, he quips: “We may as well be opening a crackhouse.” You can bet Nora Ephron didn’t write that.

Chappelle has done fewer movies lately. He has been working on the show, but he is also, as they say, over the Hollywood thing.

“I haven’t been in L.A. in years,” he says, when I ask him what it will be like to play his first auditorium show here. “L.A. was a nightmare for me. I was young and had a lot of money. And you lose yourself. I saw a lot of good people go bad. It was like a bad movie, you know? It was like, ‘What’s happening to you, Frank? You’ve changed.’ ”

“I’m excited to be coming back,” he added.