'Saturday Night Live' Castmembers, Sarah Silverman Honor Dave Chappelle: "Critical Thinking Is His Art"

ALEX EDELMAN/AFP
Dave Chappelle

As the comedian received the Mark Twain Prize in Washington, guests Neal Brennan, Bradley Cooper, John Legend, Lorne Michaels and Q-Tip, among others, honored the stand-up "rock star."

While President Donald Trump was getting booed at Game 5 of the World Series at Nationals Park in Washington on Sunday night, the mood across town at the Kennedy Center was joyous during the 22nd annual Mark Twain Prize celebrating Dave Chappelle. “There’s so much love and laughter in this room today,” comedian and former Daily Show host Jon Stewart observed as he toasted his friend and former fellow Comedy Central star. “Is this what it was like when Obama was president?”

Longtime collaborators and fellow comedians including Neal Brennan, Marlon Wayans, Chris Tucker, Jeff Ross, Michelle Wolf and George Lopez also showed up to celebrate Chappelle. Fresh from his appearance on Saturday Night Live the previous evening, Chance the Rapper breezed his way through cheering crowds along the red carpet as well. Grant Hill and wife Tamia, chairs of the Mark Twain Prize, were also there to show support. Previous Mark Twain Prize recipient Eddie Murphy couldn’t be there in person, but he recorded a video tribute that played for the crowd of luminaries.

Friend and collaborator Common spoke candidly and warmly about the man of the hour. “Dave Chapelle is one of the most brilliant voices and minds that we have in this day and time,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “He’s been a beacon for a lot of different progressive thought, different ways for us to look at things. He’s always bringing people together," Common added. "There’s not many people who can get Lebron and Will Smith to come out, and then get Jay-Z or Beyonce to come out, and then get Kendrick Lamar to come out and Donald Glover — or it can be [done] at the White House, when President Obama was there.”

Of Chappelle’s brand of comedy, Common observes that he has a “courageous mind”: “He’s always been a leader in thought and culture. He says provocative things. We need people like him to come out and say things, because even if we don’t agree with him, he still brings it up and then people got to discuss it.”

When THR asked Chappelle what the secret was to cultivating such a diverse and appreciative network of friends and collaborators, he demurred: “It’s not a secret sauce. It’s just that I love these people, and I’ll try to find any excuse to be around these guys. They inspire me, they make brave, they make me humble, they make me work harder, they make me edit myself by example.”

On the red carpet, SNL co-head writer Michael Che also offered his opinion on Chappelle: “He can perform, he can write, he can do characters, he can do everything that you want out of a comedian — and that’s why I think his fan base is spread so wide. Dave is a master of all trades, and it’s amazing to watch.”

SNL castmate Kenan Thompson echoed the sentiment. “He’s a rock star. That dude is a force,” Thompson told THR. “He takes maybe something that everyone is thinking that we don’t want to say and turns it into something we can all say because it’s been presented to us in a different kind of way.”

Onstage, SNL creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels shared that for the first show after the 2016 election, he knew he had to have Chappelle host. “Whichever way the election went, I knew I needed someone to explain what had just happened," said Michaels. "He’s a truth teller and the funniest person in comedy today.” (The episode show ended up winning an Emmy.)

When Thompson, Che and SNL co-head writer Colin Jost took the stage to share their admiration, Jost offered Chappelle an unabashed superlative: “We have been there for a lot of hosts and a lot of episodes. … For the three of us, when you hosted, it was the best episode we’ve been there for. And that is saying a lot  because there are a bunch of former hosts here in the crowd tonight.”

“Dave brings people together in a way that maybe no one else can,” said Tiffany Haddish, taking the stage wearing one of Chappelle’s signature jumpsuits to talk about how he helped mentor her when she was living out of her car and trying to get started in her career.

“He still lives in the kind of town that makes people wonder, 'Why does Dave Chappelle live there?'” said fellow Ohioan John Legend of the comedian’s choice to live in Ohio rather than a more glamorous coastal city. “He lives in the so-called forgotten America.” Legend also talked about Chappelle’s celebrated jam sessions, calling him “a gifted curator who blends worlds seamlessly, the rare entertainer who can bring comedians, musicians, artists together in the most organic of ways that end up defining pop culture.”

During her tribute, Sarah Silverman pointed out to Chappelle that “it’s actually perfect that you’re getting the Mark Twain Prize, because you both love using the n-word in your masterpieces." On a more sincere note, she added, “Critical thinking is his art. His stand-up blows my mind; —it changes the way I think. And sometimes I wholeheartedly disagree with him, but that’s what I love about Dave and what I love about art.”

Bradley Cooper talked about sharing a scene with Chappelle in A Star Is Born, saying that it was “probably the best scene I’ve ever done with another actor.” Cooper, who brought his daughter along for the event, also expressed his admiration for Chappelle as a person: “I’m glad I got to meet you before I had my daughter, because you taught me how to be a better man,” adding that one quality that makes Chappelle such a rare genius is his empathy. “You treat everybody the exact same way — it’s my favorite thing about you.”

Aziz Ansari, who was on tour with Chappelle when the latter got the news of having won this year’s Mark Twain Prize, observed,  “He’s an incredible human being. This man is very deep. He treats every moment like it has the potential to be a wonderful memory.”

Echoing these sentiments, Stewart called Chappelle “the black [Anthony] Bourdain”: “Dave is a touchstone because he’s a seeker of knowledge. … He’s a man who seeks out people and experiences and knowledge — so that he can then channel that through his art and redirect that back to you as something completely different and new. And you never know what’s going to happen when he’s around.”

Throughout the evening, the emphasis was on comedy as an art of observation and connection, but, in his off-the-cuff acceptance speech, Chappelle requested that the form be taken with a grain of salt. “I know comics who are very racist — and you watch them on stage and you think, 'Oh, that motherfucker means that shit.' Don’t get mad at them, don’t hate them. We go upstairs and have a beer and sometimes I even appreciate the artistry that they paint their racist opinions with. It’s not that serious. The First Amendment is first for a reason — the Second Amendment is just in case the first one doesn’t work out.”

A taping of the Mark Twain Prize ceremony is set to be broadcast nationally Jan. 7 on PBS.