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Fears of a Clown

Dave Chappelle got a colossal deal for the new season of his hit show. So where is it? The inside story of pressure, partying, power struggles—and a great comic's vanishing act.

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By Devin Gordon

May 16 issue - "I'm so sorry," says Dave Chappelle, chuckling as he shakes hands with a visiting journalist. "This is a terrible way to meet a person." It is late afternoon and Chappelle has a long night of work ahead, so the introduction is a bit rushed. But more than likely, he's referring to the fact that he's covered in blackface, with white painted lips, white gloves, a red vest, a black cane and a Pullman Porter cap. Yes, that's definitely it. It is November 2004, just a few weeks into shooting on the third season of "Chappelle's Show"—a process that will soon become far more tortured than anyone ever expected. At the moment, though, all is tranquil. Today's scenes are part of a delicately titled sketch, "The N----r Pixie," in which Chappelle plays a cackling, devil-on-the-shoulder creation who serves as the self-hating conscience of famous black men, such as Tiger Woods and Chappelle himself. Hence the racially combustible costume. In Chappelle's universe, this is high comedy—the kind of brazen stunt that has become his show's calling card. As he heads back for another take, he flashes the journalist a giant grin: "Bet you never met a real live coon before!"

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During NEWSWEEK's visit to the set, Chappelle, 31, appeared in complete control. As the minstrel-accented pixie, he kept busting up the crew with his profane ad-libs over footage of Woods attempting a putt. ("Show 'em how n----r you are! Stick your d--k in the hole!") Between takes, he would snap back into regular-guy mode, chatting quietly with his wife, Elaine, and horsing around with his two little boys, who were visiting from the family's home in rural Ohio. The show seemed on course for its Feb. 16 premiere.

Two weeks after our visit, however, Chappelle's publicist disclosed that the star was halting production on the series, canceling magazine commitments and indefinitely delaying the start of the third season. The stated cause: "intense personal issues." The season premiere was soon rescheduled for May 31. But just last Wednesday, Chappelle and Comedy Central jointly announced that production had been halted—and the season premiere indefinitely postponed—yet again. The need for this latest delay, which was announced less than 24 hours after a network presentation to advertisers, evidently took Comedy Central by surprise. The channel had aired promotional spots for the May 31 premiere the previous night.

What's going on with Dave? Published explanations for the ini-tial delay ranged from a nasty flu bug to "walking pneumonia" to writer's block. According to friends of Chappelle's interviewed by NEWSWEEK, however, the real cause of all the turmoil is more complicated. Since last summer, when Chappelle signed a staggering deal with Comedy Central worth up to $50 million to produce two more seasons of the show, friends say he's been worn down by a toxic combination of too much pressure, too much partying—and a creative rift with the network.

From its very first episode, "Chappelle's Show" has been an electrifying presence on TV. The centerpiece of the pilot, which aired on Jan. 22, 2003, was a gaspingly funny, nine-minute tale about a blind white supremacist named Clayton Bigsby who's actually black and doesn't realize it. With each new classic sketch ("the Racial Draft," in which various races gather, a la the NBA draft, to "claim" ethnically ambiguous celebrities; the now legendary "I'm Rick James, b---h!" episode), buzz spread like lit gasoline. But Chappelle, who writes the entire series with longtime pal Neal Brennan, had more on his mind than jokes. He brought a rare cultural consciousness to the show, offering platforms to unsung heroes of black comedy, including Paul Mooney, a top writer for Richard Pryor. For his musical guests, he bypassed the bling-and-booty set in favor of true hip-hop artists, such as rapper Mos Def and neo-soul virtuoso Anthony Hamilton.

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