Comedian Dave Chappelle will be awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor this year, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has announced.
The stand-up comic, actor, producer and director joins a prestigious group of comedians to receive the award. Among them are Carol Burnett, Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Newhart and Richard Pryor — who won the very first Twain Prize in 1998.
“Dave is one of the truly original voices in comedy — the definition of a creative artist,” Matthew Winer, director of comedy and special programming at the Kennedy Center, said to NPR. “He’s a modern day sociologist, skewering stereotypes, defying boundaries and showing us that laughter can be a way to contextualize issues that we struggle to understand.”
“Dave is the embodiment of Mark Twain’s observation that ‘against the assault of humor, nothing can stand,’ ” Deborah F. Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center, said in a prepared statement. “For three decades, Dave has challenged us to see hot-button issues from his entirely original yet relatable perspective.”
The prize will be awarded at a Kennedy Center gala on Oct. 27, 2019, and a TV special of the evening will be broadcast on PBS stations Jan. 6, 2020.
Edgy, politically incorrect and occasionally scatological, Chappelle’s career skyrocketed with three seasons of Chappelle’s Show (2003-2006), one of the most popular comedy shows on TV. Co-created with Neal Brennan, the sketches on Comedy Central spared no one.
Chappelle’s impersonations of Prince, Rick James and Lil Jon are now legendary. In a sketch that stretched the imagination and boundaries of racial satire, Chappelle played Clayton Bigsby, a blind white supremacist who doesn’t know he’s black.
It was “revolutionary,” must-see TV, wrote Rembert Browne, who was a teenager when Chappelle’s Show aired: “It was unacceptable to show up to high school the next day without knowing all the material from the previous night’s episode.”
Chappelle’s Show earned three Emmy nominations and became a bestseller on DVD. But after signing a reported $50 million deal for Seasons 3 and 4, Chappelle famously and abruptly disappeared from entertainment altogether. He spent two weeks in South Africa and then moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio, with his family.
“I felt in a lot of instances I was deliberately being put through stress because when you’re a guy who generates money, people have a vested interest in controlling you,” he told Oprah Winfrey.
Chappelle eventually returned to stand-up. He signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Netflix. Last year, two of his Netflix comedy specials — Equanimity and The Bird Revelation — won a Grammy Award (packaged together) for best comedy album. Equanimity also won an Emmy for outstanding variety special.
His latest specials address hot-button issues such as race, class, gender, President Trump and the #MeToo movement. Chappelle compared the current women’s movement to African Americans’ long struggle for equal rights, and even suggests South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a model for inspiration.
Setting aside his fondness for dirty and transgressive material, Chappelle is socially conscious to his core. His father was a professor at Antioch College. His mother taught at Howard University. For high school, Chappelle attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington.
“Dave is a hometown hero here in Washington, D.C., where he grew up,” Rutter also said. “We’re so looking forward to welcoming him back home [at the Kennedy Center].”
His appearance on Saturday Night Live, days after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, also received an Emmy. His opening monologue took jabs at the president-elect, and skewered black and white stereotypes, before turning more serious at the end, as he reflected on a BET party he’d attended at the White House during the Obama administration.
“So, in that spirit, I’m wishing Donald Trump luck,” Chappelle said. “And I’m going to give him a chance, and we, the historically disenfranchised, demand that he give us one too.” He has, however, since apologized for that remark.