Over the weekend, Dave Chappelle emerged from his secret underground bunker to make an appearance at The Roots Picnic in New York City. He took photos with celebrities and got mad at anyone with a cell phone in his line of sight, but also, he took a not-so-thinly-veiled dig at Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s now wrapped Key & Peele sketch comedy show. In a shot heard round the world, Chappelle criticized the show for ripping off his own Chappelle's Show, saying, "Put some respect on my name. Y'all don't know what I've been through, watching Key & Peele do my show the last five fucking years."
Yeah, that’s enough to get any Chappelle fan who has been pining for him to finally get back to his place in the spotlight riled up—after all, he’s just saying what we’ve all been saying for years. Key & Peele made bank, Emmy nods, and critical acclaim off of being a distant cousin to Chappelle's Show the imitation: the Poochie, the Rockin Dog, if you will. I’m not going to be lie: I am guilty myself of writing off Key & Peele and calling its creators “cornballs,” because in my eyes (and the eyes of many others), they could never touch the king.
Dave Chappelle has been an untouchable force in comedy for over a decade, lauded for his utterly fearless approach to race and relationships, especially in the face of White America, which was probably saying the same things he said but behind closed doors (#Heh). He made Rick James a household name again, rewrote the rules of comedy, and gave black people a voice to all of the bullshit going on in the world. He also left us for over a year under the most murky pretenses.
We’re to believe that he walked away from Comedy Central’s historic offer for the third season of Chappelle’s Show because he wanted freedom and because he felt the pressures of fame suffocating him. He saw a few white execs laughing too hard at his "N****r Fairy" sketch. His friends had abandoned him. So, he took his proverbial ball and went home. And for all of our begging, wishing, and asking for more, he didn’t answer. For its part, Comedy Central, like any company trying to make a dollar, moved on.
Key & Peele fulfilled a void left by Chappelle, as much as we hated them (or pretended to hate them, considering their ratings). Don’t shoot the messenger here. What exactly did the show do wrong? Make jokes about black people and race? Have actors dress up in different outfits, impersonating celebrities? In Living Color did that too. What is it about Key & Peele? The love of Chappelle’s Show has twisted into this really weird, elitist fandom where nothing before or after it can be compared directly. It was a great moment in time, sure—but its creator left the show. He's the one who let two younger comedians swerve into his lane.
Sure, we can chalk this up as a harmless punchline—but there’s always truth within a joke. Hell, he taught us that rule himself. (Go watch his stand-up special "Killing Them Softly.") Serious or not, Chappelle doesn’t really have the right to talk down on a formula that he himself created, and he also can’t act like he originated lampooning race and discrimination or that he was the only one to ever question the status quo of society’s shortcomings. Sure, he was the most successful (at the time), but he only re-ignited a conversation that comedians he looked up to—like Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor—started. Should they come at him for some respect on their name, too?
The fact is, comedy has evolved without him—and it looks like that gets to him. His shows sell out, and any appearance he makes in public is Kanye-like in its feverish reporting, but something is missing. He’s not the center of comedy he once was, and he probably will never be again. Other than when Comedy Central fills its programming block with a marathon, people have stopped talking about Chappelle’s Show. The legacy that Chappelle wanted to leave is still intact, mostly because he ended his show on his terms. But he doesn’t have control on what comes after—nor should he. You can’t reveal a market’s need for a commodity, vacate the space, and then express frustration when someone comes along to smartly fill the hole your absence has left. That’s just business—and sketch comedy does not work the same way retiring Michael Jordan’s number does.
Chappelle has become defined by his legendary story of letting fame go while giving "The Man" his ass to kiss. It’s a story about a guy sticking up for himself, but at the same time, it's one about not fully actualizing and capitalizing on the grasp that he had on the world. He chose obscurity—so how can he be upset that others took his blueprint and attempted to feed their families doing so? Like a thief in the night, Chappelle has quietly gone back into his cave, only to return when it’s time to collect checks and snatch cellphones. But in the process of regaining his name, he’s turned his back on the underdogs, again. Ain’t that a bitch.