Dave Chappelle first came to widespread attention in the mid-'90s through small-but-memorable roles in films like The Nutty Professor and Con Air. Anyone paying attention to stand-up comedy, however, already knew him as one of the funniest comics on the road. Since breaking into films, Chappelle has begun the transition to higher-profile roles (in You've Got Mail, Blue Streak, and the stoner comedy Half-Baked, which he co-wrote) while periodically returning to stand-up. From the road, Chappelle spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his past, his multifaceted career, and fatherhood.
The Onion: Do you find it's pretty easy to get back into the swing of stand-up after doing a bunch of movies?
Dave Chappelle: Not easy. It's fun, man, it's always like an education. Stand-up is the kind of gig that'll show you where you're at.
O: You started doing stand-up when you were 14. What was your material like then?
DC: Kind of like it is now, actually. It was shorter, one-liney and shit. And then it kind of evolved into stories as I went along.
O: Is any of that stuff still in your routine at all?
DC: Oh, no, I don't do any jokes that old. I might have maybe one or two jokes from high school that I still do.
O: How long do you usually keep jokes in rotation?
DC: You get sick of 'em, you know. Either I do them on TV, and then you worry, like, "Oh, everyone's gonna see it," so you chuck it, or you just get sick of saying it. After a while, a joke, if you say it too much, just becomes contrived, or fake-sounding.
O: Jerry Seinfeld would go on Letterman and do stuff from the openings of his show. It always kind of puzzled me, because if you have the most popular show on television, chances are, people know the jokes already.
DC: Yeah, that kind of thing is no fun as a comic. Seinfeld, he was doing that show all the time, so he kind of had an excuse. He didn't have time to do stand-up. A guy like me, I have no excuses.
O: You have lots of time on your hands?
DC: Too much time on the brother's hands.
O: At what point did you realize you were a comedian and not just some guy telling jokes for fun?
DC: Oh, from the beginning.
DC: Just for the love that I had of it. I just always loved stand-up. It's like magic. You say something, and a whole room full of people laughs together. Say something else, they laugh again. The fact that people come to see that and participate in that... I don't know, it's just like magic.
O: What made you want to do it to begin with?
DC: I don't know. I started when I was 14. I figured out that's what I wanted to do when I was 14. Even when I was six, I can remember people telling me, "You're gonna be a comedian," and all this stuff.
O: You headed out to New York right after graduating high school in Washington, DC. Were there any doubts that that was the right thing to do?
DC: Nah, no doubts. At the time, I was reading this Miles Davis book, and he was talking about coming to New York right after he was in high school. It kind of made me feel like, "Yeah." I didn't want to go to college; I wanted to do stand-up. And I figured, "What's the point of doing stand-up around DC? I'm always going to be under-appreciated [there] because I started there." I felt like I was strong enough and unique enough that I should give it a big leash to shine. New York was the best thing that ever happened to me as a comedian.
O: How long were you there?
DC: 'Til last November. I've been there ever since, pretty much. Something about New York, man: You can do more comedy there probably than you can anywhere in the world. If you're interested in being funny, New York is the place to go. If you're interested in making it, then maybe L.A. is the better place to go. But you can make it in New York, too. I think you have a better shot in New York, actually.
O: Are the crowds easier there, or smarter?
DC: Everyone who wants to make it in comedy goes to L.A., so a million comedians fight for time on three stages. If you get in there in New York, you're working eight times a night sometimes. Who's going to be funny, the guy who works once a week, or the guy working eight times a night?
O: What's your level of celebrity right now? Do people recognize you in the airport?
DC: Yeah, but the way I am now, I got my hat pulled up low and no one can really see me. I'm ducked out. But, yeah, people do recognize me, and I have a pretty interesting fan base. It's a diverse group.
O: What do people recognize you from?
DC: Well, it depends on who it is. With younger people, it's always Half-Baked, Blue Streak because it's on cable. Women, it's always You've Got Mail. Nutty Professor is pretty much everybody across the board. It seems like they like that one.
O: How was it making the transition from stand-up to films?
DC: Boy. Easy. It was accidental. You know, when you don't know what you're doing, it's almost easier to do something. Unless it's heart surgery or some shit like that.
O: With Half-Baked, were you concerned about how an openly pro-pot movie would be received?
DC: Nah. As a matter of fact, I thought they pussyfooted around the issue. Like, if I had my way... there's a lot of things that were like, "Don't cuss so much in it." I was like, "It's a fucking weed movie. It's so immoral anyway that it's like, where are you worried about cursing in a weed movie?" But I wasn't too concerned about it. You've got to remember, man, during that whole experience, I was 23. When you're 23, your concern is not for the greater good of humanity. I didn't feel like I was unleashing an evil on society or anything. At the time, that's what I was into, and I did a movie about it.
O: Were you worried that you'd become the pot-humor guy, like a Cheech and Chong figure?
DC: I never really worried about that kind of shit. I mean, I'm sure people would want to see you as that, but I think I've done enough other things that I didn't worry about it too much.
O: Are you working on other movies now? Have you been writing more?
DC: I think the next thing I'm going to do is write a flick, because the things that are coming down the pipe for me aren't the strongest movies.
O: Like what kind of stuff?
DC: Well, it's just like, if a script comes to me, it's already gotten to Will Smith, Chris Tucker, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, and Martin Lawrence. And then it gets down to me. So if it's a good script, five or six guys have to say no before I even get an option whether I want to do it.
O: Do you think Hollywood has a cap on the number of black comics that can be popular at one time?
DC: Sure seems that way. Yeah, I'd say it is, more so than with our Caucasian counterparts. It's an issue, and whenever we do something that's good, it's more of an issue. Like it's almost never expected of us. They're stingier with the opportunities. It seems like there's never enough famous white people.
O: What else is on your mind these days?
DC: Not much. I'm a new father.
DC: Thanks, man. I got married recently.
O: How's that treating you?
DC: So far, so good. Less sex than I expected, but other than that, it's a pretty good lifestyle.
O: And the kid?
DC: The kid is the best thing that ever happened to me.
O: What's his or her name?
O: Where does that come from?
DC: It's Arabic. It means Solomon, the Arabic version of Solomon. But it's like, it was Biblical. I'm David, I figure, Solomon. David Jr. sucks, because then everyone is going to compare him to me all his life.
O: Another Freddie Prinze Jr. kind of thing.
DC: Yeah. I'm not George Foreman or Freddie Prinze.