The story's been well documented elsewhere (though not always accurately). By 2004, Dave Chappelle was the biggest name on American cable TV, thanks to two ludicrously successful seasons of Chappelle's Show. His bosses at Comedy Central made him a record-breaking offer of $55 million to do two more seasons. Partway through shooting the first of them, Chappelle suddenly pulled the plug on production and walked away from the deal, saying he was unhappy with the way things were going. Comedy Central has discreetly waited a year, and then cobbled together three half-hour shows from the sketches Chappelle managed to complete before his departure. Chappelle's Show: The Lost Episodes has just aired on Comedy Central, is about to be released on region 1 DVD, and can also be seen in online streaming form (albeit in the broadcast version that's censored to, as it were, f**k).
Even though Chappelle had no input into the editing of these shows, it's hard to avoid the recurring theme of his uneasiness at his increasing fame. To all intents and purposes, these programmes are the comedy equivalent of a band's Difficult Third Album, where the main life experience they have to write about is everything arising from the success of their first two. In the first episode alone, there's a lengthy skit about Chappelle getting hassle from the public in the wake of the Comedy Central offer, followed by another one where he uses his new wealth to take hideous revenge on his enemies. Although he's obviously satirising the public perception of rich celebrities, there's an uncharacteristic mean-spiritedness to these sketches. There's a better variation on the theme in the final sketch of the series (easily the best thing in it), when Chappelle considers a series of appalling follow-up projects - his own breakfast cereal, a spin-off movie, and a fully-blinged appearance on Cribs.
These new shows don't skirt around the issue of Chappelle's departure - the links by show regulars Donnell Rawlings and Charlie Murphy can't avoid it. But when it comes to the centrepiece of this series, Pixies, things start getting seriously iffy. The sketch involves a number of tiny imaginary characters that taunt people whenever they act a little too close to their racial stereotype: for example, a pixie in blackface makeup that dances to banjo music when Chappelle is forced to eat fried chicken as an inflight meal. Chappelle's commentaries on race have always played fast and loose with the line between ironic racism and the real thing: but (so the story goes) one crew member's reaction to this particular sketch made him consider that he'd gone too far this time, and contributed towards his decision to abandon the show.
As the star, co-writer and co-producer, you'd think his opinion would count for something: but strictly speaking this isn't Chappelle's Show any more, it's Comedy Central's Show Featuring Dave Chappelle, Who Is Still Our Bitch No Matter What He Thinks. So not only do we get the sketch, but we also have one entire act of the middle show dedicated to an audience debate about whether it's funny or not. Even though a couple of interesting points are made (notably concerning the treatment of white people as the 'generic race' with no negative stereotype traits of their own), the whole thing is being sold as a discussion on 'Chappelle's most controversial sketch'. The only controversy is that Chappelle didn't want it broadcast: but they're doing it anyway, in a show with his name in the title, and including a debate whose sole purpose seems to be to argue that he was wrong.
There are a few terrific bits in The Lost Episodes, both in the main shows and the offcuts preserved on the DVD (especially a Charlie Murphy solo sketch where he stars in a sequel to his brother's Daddy Daycare): and those of us who enjoyed the first two seasons of Chappelle's Show will be unable to stop ourselves from watching them. But the motives behind the appearance of these sketches in this form leave a nasty taste in the mouth. When Murphy says it's an attempt to bring closure to a classic comedy series, I can just about believe that. But pretending it's a tribute to Chappelle, when it spends so much time slagging him off for sticking to his principles? That's rich, beeyatch.