You’ve no doubt heard by now all the hullabaloo about how Dave Chappelle left his eponymous show mid-season last year and decided in the end to walk away from a $55M business deal. Some people think he ought to grow up. Others have thought he’s just an underachiever or just crazy. Personally, I think he walked away because he has integrity.
Look, I’ll admit my bias up front: I’m a big fan of Chappelle. For a decade or more, my family and I were the only Asians living in a small, rural, conservative town in Tennessee. Just imagine how blown away I was the first time I saw his Clayton Bigsby sketch. Chappelle’s comedy is definitely unique and controversial because his skits and standup often talk about race relations, discrimination, and other commonly unpalatable subjects. But he’s managed to present these subjects in a way in which people might feel just comfortable enough to start talking and thinking about them. That’s certainly not easy to do, and my impression is that he’s not just doing it to get laughs and a paycheck.
Earlier this year, I watched his 2-hour long interview on Inside the Actor’s Studio, and a few days ago, I caught his brief discussion on Anderson Cooper. He’s also spoken on Oprah. When I watched my first interview with him, I was initially surprised, and later impressed, that Chappelle responded honestly and seriously to the many questions and opinions raised by his comedy. He’s put a lot of thought into what he does, and even though he admitted he didn’t know whether what he was doing was “right”, he believed in doing it because he felt that certain issues needed to be talked about more in this country, and if he helped that get going, great.
Chappelle’s mentioned before that he’d like to think there are people out there who “get” what he’s doing. I’d love to think I was one of them, but being neither white nor black, and having talked to Southern friends from both groups about their attitudes and feelings about the other group, I can tell you with a fair amount of confidence that I can’t fully understand black/white race relations because I haven’t lived as either one. Discrimination? Sure, as a Chinese-American woman, I’ve faced it on many an occasion. But it’s not comparable to the experiences of many of my friends who are black, Navajo, Mexican.
Misunderstanding and worse are all over the place. I’ve traveled a lot, and guess what? There are plenty of Europeans who have no interest in ever visiting the US because they think we all tote guns from watching shows on TV. Europeans and Americans have plenty of misconceptions about Asians, and vice versa. There are big time tensions between the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. China has problems with Uighur Muslim minorities. Taiwan has a problem with China. Dominicans don’t generally like Haitians. And on and on. So much for understanding and peace in the world. About the only solution I’ve found that alleviates a bit of this is one-on-one, earnest dialogue between individuals, but just relaxing the tension to begin with is tough.
All this preamble is just to set up the fact that what Chappelle was attempting to do, let alone be successful at, wasn’t easy to begin with. In the end, I believe Dave Chappelle left his show because he placed his values above money. As I understand it from seeing his interview with Cooper, he increasingly felt he was losing control over his show, and at one point, thought he might have crossed a line, feeling that he’d become “socially irresponsible”, in particular after doing a sketch in which he appeared in blackface.
In the end, money is only a proxy, and at $55M, a good one to measure how strongly someone’s beliefs are. How many people would have been able to walk away from a deal worth that amount? Cynics might argue that everyone has a price, and perhaps if they’d bumped the amount to $100M or $150M, we’d be seeing a few more seasons. And you could argue that leaving the show the way he did was certainly not the most professional way to go about it. Perhaps. But we’re all human and certainly not perfect.
I can’t claim to relate to what Chappelle’s going through — I mean, geez, I write an anonymous personal finance blog. But in his situation, I’d probably have caved to the pressure around me and continued on with the show despite myself, or broken down mentally fighting what was in my heart and what I felt I “ought” to do. Then again, I (and I’d venture to say, most of his critics out there) don’t have his observational skills, wit, timing, let alone his delivery, so I doubt I’ll ever have to worry about it.
The point here is that money is what it is, but it’s not life, health, or happiness. You can give a kid $1M but without a strong set of values to go along with it, it won’t make him happy in the long run. So thanks, Dave, for giving us an opportunity to simultaneously laugh and think about ourselves, and for having such integrity.