Since he famously walked away from his hit Comedy Central series “Chappelle’s Show” nearly a decade ago, Dave Chappelle has become the comedy equivalent of J.D. Salinger, a celebrated artist happy to stay out of the limelight and keep his work mostly to himself -- much to the dismay of his many eager fans.
But the reclusive comedian has been slowly edging back into the spotlight over the past year. On Tuesday, he made his first late-night television appearance in six years on “The Late Show With David Letterman” in advance of a string of eight nearly sold-out stand-up shows at Radio City Music Hall next week.
Naturally, Letterman, like millions of others, was curious about Chappelle’s decision to abruptly quit his popular and hugely influential sketch comedy series during production of its third season and flee to South Africa.
“Well, technically I never quit,” Chappelle clarified. “I’m seven years late for work.” (Well, more like nine, but OK.)
As for leaving the country, a move that at the time sparked wild rumors about a possible mental breakdown or substance-abuse issue, Chappelle said there was a more pragmatic reason for it: “There’s not too many good hiding places left in America."
Being at the center of a media storm was “like living on the corner of perception and reality,” he said. “It’s a weird place to be.”
Letterman also wondered whether Chappelle had any regrets about walking away from a deal with Comedy Central worth a reported $50 million.
“It’s very hard to go through something like this because no one’s really done it before,” the comedian said, “so there’s not too many people that don’t think I’m crazy.”
At first, Chappelle made it seem as if the money didn’t bother him, insisting that the difference between the lifestyle he can afford with $10 million and that of someone with $50 million is “minuscule.”
But, proving he hasn’t lost any of his comic timing in his time away from the limelight, Chappelle continued, “The only difference between having $10 million and $50 million is an astounding $40 million. Of course I would have liked to have that money."
Chappelle explained that his feelings about giving up the money were “complicated.”
“Money is the fuel for choices... That’s not nothing, it’s something,” he said, “but it’s not the end-all be-all."
“And let’s say you had the $40 million, who’s to say you’d be a happier or better person?” Letterman asked.
“I think I might be a happier person,” Chappelle replied. Hey, at least he’s honest.
The Chappelle comeback tour continues Friday, when he’ll pay a visit to Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show."