Dave Chappelle received the Mark Twain Prize for Humor for merit in October, but his admiration for the craft is also noteworthy. It’s on display in Tuesday’s PBS special (9 EST/PST, times may vary), which includes footage from the ceremony and a stand-up set performed the night before.
The comedian, 46, who co-created Comedy Central’s “Chappelle’s Show,” told the Oct. 26 DC Improv audience that his wit served as a source of protection while growing up in the nation’s capital.
“We don’t shy away from the jokes. In fact, humor was our mode of survival,” he said. “The only reason I never got my ass whooped on these streets is because” others viewed him as “hilarious.”
But Chappelle’s punchlines don’t hit without controversy. In his most recent stand-up special, “Sticks & Stones,” released on Netflix in August, the comic expressed his disbelief of Michael Jackson accusers Wade Robson and James Safechuck, and downplayed Louis C.K.’s sexual misconduct.
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From the DC Improv stage, Chappelle said he was touched to receive the award, in his expletive-filled, feather-ruffling way.
“Man, I cannot tell you what it is like to get an honor like this in the very city I started from,” he began. “In fact, a little trivia for you: The first show in this very room, I was the first comedian on stage. It was me, a guy named Brian Regan, and some (lesbian) named Ellen DeGeneres.
“We didn’t know she was gay back then. We were all trying to get (with her),” he continued.
Despite getting laughter and applause for his DeGeneres remarks, the stand-up offered an insincere apology. “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought this was a comedy club,” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen, this might be America’s last safe place to say what you feel like saying, and laugh at what you feel like laughing. This is sacred ground.”
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Chappelle has not been one to bend to his detractors.
“I don’t want to live in a country with a brittle spirit,” he told the Improv audience. “I want to live amongst soldiers.”
He encouraged attendees not to censor themselves. “You can use what you think. Use it. Don’t be afraid,” he advised. “Don’t let these (critics) button your lip. Say it anyway.”Get the Entertainment newsletter in your inbox.
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The stand-up’s candor was applauded during the Kennedy Center ceremony by “Saturday Night Live” cast member/comedian Michael Che.
“When we talk about honesty, we talk about not being afraid to tell people the truth about how we feel. Because that’s the connection that comedians can have with people, and I think nobody does it better than you, ever,” Che told Chappelle. “He’s willing to make fun of everybody, whether you’re white or gay – end of list.”
Chappelle pledged his allegiance to comedy before the Kennedy Center crowd: “There is something so true about this genre, when done correctly, that I will fight anybody that gets in a true practitioner of this art form’s way, because I know you’re wrong.”
As he told the comedy club crowd, he knows the value of his comedy career since he’s experienced life without it, after walking away from “Chappelle’s Show” in 2005.
“I know what I got, ‘cause I lost it all,” he said. “I got to tell you something, and I don’t talk about it often. Have you ever worked all your life for something and have it not work out? That happened to me.
“It was tough,” he continued. “Think about it: I was gone for 12 years, it’s not a little bit of time. It was hell. I watched (others) that I knew become very famous. I watched the world go on without me, I mourned the loss of it, and after a while, I didn’t care. Coming back was terrifying.”
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