In a ceremony held last October, Dave Chappelle was formally presented with the Mark Twain Prize For American Humor at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. Alongside family and friends, including Yasiin Bey, Common, Kenan Thompson, Jon Stewart, and Tiffany Haddish, Chappelle’s more than 30 years in comedy was honored with humorous, heartfelt speeches and live performances. Those not in attendance got small clips of the festivities. As a recipient of the prize, Chappelle now joins prestigious company, including Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, and David Letterman.
Last night (January 7), PBS aired the ceremony. In an eight-minute clip that was just released, the 46-year-old told the audience, “Standup comedy is an incredibly American genre. I don’t think any other country could produce this many comedians. And unbeknownst to many people in this audience, I don’t think there’s an opinion that exists in this country that is not represented in a comedy club by somebody. Each and every one of you has a champion in the room. We watch you guys fight, but when we’re together, we talk it out. I know comics that are very racist. And I watch ’em on stage, and everyone’s laughing, and I’m like, ‘Mmm. That mothaf*cka means that sh*t.’ [I] don’t get mad at ’em, don’t hate ’em; we go upstairs and have a beer. And sometimes, I even appreciate the artistry that they paint their racist opinions with. Man, 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. We gotta let some air outta the ball, man; the country’s getting a little tight. It doesn’t feel like it’s ever felt in my lifetime. So tonight, I am honored that my colleagues are here, in comedy and in music,” Chappelle began. The cameras showed Yasiin Bey, Chance The Rapper, Jon Stewart, Chris Tucker, and others. The guest of honor joked about rule-breaking down to his smoking a cigarette on the historic stage without permission. “What are they gonna do? Kick me out before I get the prize? Naw, ni**a, this is called leverage.”
Dave thanked the peer groups representing comedy, music, and friends from D.C. as well as his place of residence in the last decade, Ohio. He singled out comedian Tony Woods, who he credited as his O.G. Chappelle admits that early on, he mimicked the vet. “You were the first person I saw do it absolutely right. You were fearless, and you told the truth. There’s 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. ‘Cause I know you’re wrong. This is the truth, and you are obstructing it. I’m not talking about the content; I’m talking about the art form.” To lighten the moment, and perhaps prove his point, the comedian announced he was gay. “I’m gay, and I can’t wait to see what this does for my career—being gay like this.”
While thanking his mentor (and special director) Stan Lathan, Chappelle vowed to do more specials, following five Netflix standup acts that have garnered several Grammy Awards. Dave also thanked his Half Baked and Chappelle’s Show partner Neal Brennan, who was among the night’s presenters. He then highlighted his mother, Yvonne K. Chappelle Seon. “My mother used to tell me—before I ever thought about doing comedy—she said, ‘You should be a griot.’ And she filled me with every story of Black life; she was educated in African American Studies, and she would let me understand the context that I was being raised in.” Dave says that that information prepared him to be telling jokes at 14 years old, in nightclubs, “mastering an adult world.” More than that, Chappelle says his mother drove him to the clubs, waiting for him, after a full day’s work. “How many of you have ever heard your mother say, ‘The p*ssy jokes were a little too much tonight, son.’” On a more serious note, he repeats a lesson his mother taught him: “sometimes you have to be a lion so you can be the lamb you really are.” As he says those words, his mother says them too. Chappelle says, “I talk this sh*t like a lion. I’m not afraid of any of you when it comes word to word, I will gab with the best of ’em, just so I can chill and be me.”
“That’s why I love my art form. ‘Cause I understand [that] every practitioner of it, whether I agree with them or not, I know where they’re coming from. They wanna be heard; they got somethin’ to say. There’s somethin’ they noticed; they just want to be understood,” Chappelle told the audience from the stage. As Yasiin Bey and Thundercat prepared for a concert, Dave said, “Today is officially Dave Chappelle Day in Washington, D.C. The mayor declared it last night.” Mayor Muriel Bowser declared October 27 as the symbolic day. As the crowd came to its feet, Chappelle said, “In the future, on Dave Chappelle Day, I ask everyone who wishes to celebrate it, to make one incredible memory for themself and/or somebody else. Thank you very much. Goodnight.” He rested the microphone on the ground and left the stage.
Last month, Dave Chappelle appeared on stage at SNL alongside Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan, and Kenan Thompson. The event marked Murphy’s return to host Saturday Night Live for the first time in more than 35 years.
Additional Reporting by Bandini.
#BonusBeat: Neal Brennan’s honoring Dave Chappelle: