DANIELLE LEVITT/COMEDY CENTRAL / NYT Enlarge
He's not crazy.
He's not smoking crack.
But he is on "spiritual retreat."
He's "stressed out."
He's Dave Chappelle.
And crack open Chappelle's Show: Season 2 Uncensored (Paramount, $36.99), one of the most anticipated DVD releases of the year, and you get a cruel tease. Out flops a flyer with a picture of the Comedy Central superstar in a brooding pose and a reminder to watch Tuesday nights at 10 for the new third season of the network's huge hit.
Huger than The Daily Show.
Huger than South Park.
And apparently no more.
I received this set in the mail about an hour before Entertainment Weekly broke the story that Chappelle was unlikely to return for a third season. This, despite a $50 million contract with Comedy Central. Entertainment Weekly also reported that Chappelle had checked himself into a mental health facility in South Africa - which, according to an interview with the comedian in last week's Time magazine, is not true. Neither are crack rumors or the crazy rumor. But a spiritual retreat in the face of a $50 million contract, and the stress $50 million produces, quite true.
That flyer was suddenly funnier and sadder than a mass-mailing of wedding invitations arriving in mailboxes a few days after the wedding was called off. And yet another part of me wanted to believe it was an elaborate gag.
Dave Chappelle pushed over the edge by pressure, success?
Stressed by good fortune?
Going to South Africa to clear his head?
Sounds like Chappelle's Show to me. Or at least it should be an episode, if he ever gets back together with writing partner Neal Brennan. And even if he doesn't, if two seasons are all we get, it's better to go out this assured than straining for fresh laughs. (In fact, maybe The Simpsons should take a hint.) The DVD of the first Chappelle season is the top-selling DVD of any TV show in the history of the format, and given how much sharper and fearless the second season was, how it vaulted Chappelle to icon status, I can't imagine another TV series outselling season two. (It was a bestseller on Amazon months before its release on Tuesday.)
Many of the best punch lines (and even some of the plots) I can't describe in this newspaper. But there are sketches so audacious and gutsy, and so honest, they stand with the best of Monty Python and better than anything Saturday Night Live has come up with in a decade. And that's only partly because Chappelle approaches race and racism (his presiding subject) the way it gets talked about, not the way we'd like it talked about.
Season two produced as least a few instant classics, but the ones that make this set well worth it are the racial draft sketch and "Charlie Murphy's True Hollywood Stories." The racial draft (with a funny turn by Mos Def and RZA) imagines a draft for racially ambiguous celebrities. Black people draft Tiger Woods away from the white contingent. White people get Colin Powell from the black contingent - but only if they'll accept Condoleezza Rice as part of the deal.
Charlie Murphy is the older brother of Eddie and his stories are all brushes with fame (Prince makes him pancakes) delivered in the straightforward style of someone you meet at a party and instantly bond with; his are amazingly weird tales of how the rich are different from you and me (with dramatization from Chappelle). But the sketch that will haunt Chappelle if this is the last season is an episode where he quits Comedy Central and is replaced by Wayne Brady, once described on the show as a man who "makes Bryant Gumbel look like Malcolm X." Brady (the real Brady, not an parody) rises to the challenge and kidnaps Chappelle, and, a la Training Day, plays a predatory Denzel to Chappelle's timid Ethan Hawke.
Comedy Central, if Dave is still too stressed by his $50 million - consider that Brady's audition.
SQUARE PEGS: Speaking of TV, another month, another 75 new box sets of old TV shows on DVD. There's a simple test for sorting through them: Rent before you buy. If you're awake at 3 a.m. watching one episode after another, it's a keeper. Four recent keepers: The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete First Season (Fox, $29.98), an early '70s gold mine of character actors and shuffling charm; Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, Vol. 1 (Warner, $29.98), the Cartoon Network's intermittently brilliant pastiche of 1970s Hanna-Barbera toons with 21st-century litigation; Seinfeld: Season 4 (Columbia, $49.95), the season it all came together and became watercooler material and "The Bubble Boy," "The Contest," and "The Virgin" entered our pop ether; and improbably enough, The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Mysteries: Season One (Universal, $39.98).
The Hardy Boys Mysteries and Nancy Drew Mysteries, which debuted in 1977, were like a remarkable case of TV's Fairness Doctrine taken to the extreme: The heroes alternated Sunday nights at 7 - when they weren't pre-empted by ABC Sports (which seemed like a weekly occurrence). Pamela Sue Martin was Nancy and Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson were the Hardy Boys, and the closest they came to cool was Cassidy performing "Da Doo Ron Ron" (included here). Seventies' fashions aside, very little about these low-impact adventures has aged. Extras are nonexistent, except for this gem: a reproduction of Stevenson and Cassidy on the cover of Dynamite magazine, suitable for taping to your bedroom wall and pledging your undying love to.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org