Throwback Thursday: When Dave Chappelle Was the Hottest Comedian Around

Jean-Paul Aussenard/WireImage
Chappelle at the 2003 Commie Awards in Culver City.

The star of the Comedy Central megahit 'Chappelle's Show' was honored with a Commie Award in its first season but soon found fame uncomfortable and abruptly walked away from a $50 million deal: "Nobody saw it coming. I don't think it was something that Dave plotted out," former castmate Donnell Rawlings tells THR.

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Before Luther, Obama's anger translator, there was Black Bush. George W. Bush's black alter ego was just one of many characters Dave Chappelle made popular during his tenure on the Comedy Central megahit Chappelle's Show. In its 2003 review, THR wrote that the series, co-created by Chappelle and Neal Brennan, was "packed with potential." Its first season scored three Emmy nominations, including one for outstanding variety, music or comedy series, though it won none, instead earning the title of funniest new TV series at Comedy Central's short-lived awards show, the Commie Awards.

But Chappelle found fame uncomfortable, bristling when fans shouted his catchphrases (including "I'm Rick James, bitch!") at him during stand-up sets and while he was at Disneyland with his children. In 2005, he abruptly bowed out, walking away from a $50 million deal for the third and fourth seasons and fleeing to South Africa on what he described as a "spiritual retreat." Production was suspended, leaving the cast and crew wondering just what had happened. "Nobody saw it coming. I don't think it was something that Dave plotted out," former castmate Donnell Rawlings tells THR. "I just got a call and I was like, 'Oh shit, what am I gonna do now?'"

Six years after the end of Chappelle's Show, Key & Peele premiered in the same time slot and now reigns as Comedy Central's sketch-comedy king (both its stars, Keegan-Michael Key, who plays Luther the anger translator, and Jordan Peele, have cited Chappelle's Show as an influence). Meanwhile, Chappelle, 41, continues to tour as a stand-up; he plays Cleveland on June 10.

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