There seem to be two types of debuts in stand-up comedy: the unexpected laugh explosion that’s talked about for years after, or the Dave Chappelle Special. The latter goes like this: Run on stage, try to tell a joke, get jeered off in less than 90 seconds. ”It was like getting knocked out by Tyson,” recalls Chappelle of his first big gig, an amateur night at New York’s Apollo Theatre in 1989. ”The whole crowd was booing. Even little kids were screaming, ‘Boo! You suck!”’
Seven years later, crowds still yell for Chappelle, but not in a somebody-get-me-a-bodyguard kind of way. At only 22, the Washington, D.C., native has refined his sweetly anarchic act to achieve A-list status on the stand-up circuit — at the same time that he’s branching out from it. He made his TV-starring debut in the ABC sitcom Buddies (on hiatus) and will costar in Eddie Murphy’s remake of The Nutty Professor, due this summer. ”One thing that sets Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy apart is their ability to improvise and create,” notes Tom Shadyac, who directed Professor. ”Dave has that ability too. He’s another guy who could break out.”
He’s also a guy who could break down if you took his mike away; while filming Buddies, he still did stand-up. ”If I don’t go on for a week, I get jittery,” he says.
What does stand-up offer him that film and TV can’t? ”I like walking into a roomful of strangers and leaving with a roomful of friends. It’s pure.” Chappelle plans to keep it that way by making sure his comedy stays accessible. ”I don’t want to come on stage and say, ‘I was filing my taxes and got back a big return, so I bought this car…’ I don’t want this to make me complacent and lazy.”
A debut like the Chappelle Special makes you take success seriously, which means keeping it funny.