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Sunday, May 15, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

Network scrambling after Dave Chappelle's sudden departure

Los Angeles Times

Enlarge this photoAP

Dave Chappelle, photographed last year, started stand-up comedy at age 14 and went on to star in "Chappelle's Show" on Comedy Central.

HOLLYWOOD — Comedian Dave Chappelle called his bosses at the Viacom-owned cable network Comedy Central late last month with some distressing news: He suddenly had decided to quit "Chappelle's Show," the enormously popular sketch series that has made him a $50 million star and a household name among young fans of his outrageous spoofs and impersonations.

The reasons were murky, and network president Doug Herzog stayed on the line for a long time, working hard to turn his star around. Chappelle relented days later, according to two sources familiar with the situation.

But matters then unraveled entirely. Chappelle, who failed to report to work April 29, fled to South Africa and mysteriously cut off contact at least temporarily with some of his family members and closest advisers, according to sources inside Comedy Central and close to Chappelle. The magazine Entertainment Weekly reported Wednesday that he had checked into a mental-health facility in South Africa.

The network soon announced that the third-season premiere of its No. 2 show (after "South Park") would be postponed indefinitely.

"It's crushing on a lot of levels," Herzog said Friday. "There's no question about it, he was the hottest thing on the network."

Clearly, Chappelle's disappearing act comes at a bad time for Comedy Central, which has been piling up record ratings. Executives now can't say when — or if — "Chappelle's Show" will return.

Chappelle's publicist, Matt Labov, declined to comment but confirmed certain details for this article.

As recently as three years ago, Chappelle, 31, was a hard-working if somewhat obscure performer with multiple failed network sitcoms under his belt. But since "Chappelle's Show" began in 2002, his spirited goofs on such entertainers as actor Samuel L. Jackson and the late funk singer Rick James have turned into a major profit machine for Viacom and Comedy Central.

The first season of "Chappelle" has become the best-selling TV series DVD of all time, selling nearly 3 million copies, according to Viacom-owned distributor Paramount Home Entertainment. The second-season DVD will be released May 24.

The eldest of three children, Chappelle grew up in Washington, D.C., and Ohio, where his late father taught music at Antioch College and his mom was a Unitarian minister. Chappelle first tried his hand at stand-up comedy at age 14.

He took his act to New York, where his first appearance on stage at the Apollo Theater was greeted with boos. Undaunted, Chappelle moved to New York at 17 and hit the local comedy clubs. Within a few years, television and film deals followed.

Then came "Chappelle's Show." With its incendiary racial humor, the program averaged 3.1 million viewers a week by the end of its second season.

Success brought new tensions. Chappelle believed he was not compensated fairly for the DVD sales, which Comedy Central has said it addressed last summer with a deal that paid Chappelle up to $50 million for two more seasons of new episodes, plus a percentage of DVD revenue. Executives grew irritated when Chappelle gave interviews talking about his newfound wealth.

The network originally scheduled the third season to begin in February, but pushed the date back to the spring when Chappelle complained of illness and that he needed more time to write with his longtime partner, Neal Brennan. (Through his agents, Brennan declined to comment.)

When Chappelle returned to work in late winter, he seemed uneasy. One network source says he would quit suddenly in the middle of sketches, expressing dissatisfaction with the quality of the work and disappearing for hours at a time.

Even so, he and Brennan had completed taping enough sketches by late last month to fill four of 10 episodes.

In his last contact with Comedy Central's Herzog, Chappelle said he would continue working but asked the network to give him one more postponement. The network refused. Chappelle disappeared days later. "We're planning for life without Dave at least for calendar year 2005," Herzog said. "Life goes on. ... We can't put the business on hold for this."

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