It was Johnny Hartman, an American jazz singer and friend of Chappelle’s college professor parents, who first suggested he should become a comedian. At this point the young Dave Chappelle was still at school and drawing comic inspiration from the early work of Eddie Murphy and the stinging social critiques of stand-up Richard Pryor.
Chappelle moved to New York to pursue a career as a comic after finishing theatre school. At his first big show at Harlem’s famous Apollo Theatre he was booed off stage, a moment he later described as giving him the courage to continue performing.
He quickly garnered a reputation on the comedy circuit and at age 19 made his debut as ‘Ahchoo’ in the film Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Later that year he opened for the legendary woman of soul Aretha Franklin at Radio City Music Hall, a job he told Rolling Stone he was certain she didn’t choose him for personally.
“Was I as good as Aretha Franklin? Nah. But my job was just to get people used to looking at the stage."
In the mid 1990’s he appeared in various television shows and films, making a name for himself and his comedic prowess. He was given a main character in his own show Buddies in 1996 and appeared in a supporting role in The Nutty Professor, a film starring one of his comedic idols Eddie Murphy.
In 1998 he co-wrote and starred in the cult stoner-film Half Baked with fellow comedian Neal Brennan and debuted his first full-length comedy special Dave Chappelle: Killin' Them Softly on HBO in 2000.
He was given his own weekly sketch comedy show Chappelle’s Show on the Comedy Channel in 2003 and it quickly became one of the most popular on the channel. It featured sketches on American pop culture and politics, sexuality, racial stereotypes and hip-hip culture.
The show complemented Chappelle’s interest in music by featuring weekly performances by hip-hop and soul artists including Cee Lo Green and Ludacris. It also promoted the work of other black comedians such as Paul Mooney and Charlie Murphy.
During this time, Chappelle starred in and produced the successful documentary Dave Chappelle’s Block Party which follows him as he organises and hosts a neighbourhood concert in Brooklyn featuring artists such as Kanye West and The Roots. He transported residents of his own town, Yellow Springs in Ohio, to the concert at his own expense.
Chappelle infamously walked away from his show during the filming of the third season, citing burnout and stress brought on by a hectic filming schedule. It was later aired as ‘The Lost Episodes’ with regular cast members taking over hosting duties from Chappelle.
After taking seven years off full-time stand up, Chappelle returned in 2013 with a headline gig at the Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival. He later returned to New York’s Radio City Music Hall performing ten nights in June 2014.
He has continued to perform sporadically and has been involved in charity work as well as spending time with his wife and three children.
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party premieres on NITV on Sunday the 17th of January. Season 1 of Chappelle’s Show will begin screening at 9.30pm on Friday nights from Friday the 22nd of January.
Watch Chappelle's Show on SBS On Demand.