A lesson from Dave Chapelle

Dave ChapelleIn August 2004 Comedy Central’s parent, Viacom, and the comedian Dave Chapelle inked an unprecedented $50 million deal (which included a share of DVD sales) to extend “The Chapelle Show” for two more years. The show had become a ratings bonanza for the network and its DVD sales were the highest of any TV show at the time. Everything looked fine until May 2005 when Chapelle stunned the world by unexpectedly quitting the show in mid-production and fleeing to South Africa where he would remain for the next two weeks, amid rumors that he had become an inmate in a mental health facility.

In the ensuing standoff, the network demanded Chapelle’s return to the production set while the comedian vowed never to return unless big changes were made to his working conditions. As a condition for his possible return, Chapelle requested that the network not air the unfinished material prepared for the show’s third season, stuff that he hated.

In the end, neither side got what it wanted: Chapelle went back to live stand-up comedy and never returned to Comedy Central; for its part, Comedy Central ignored Chapelle’s request by airing the unfinished material from the comedian’s abandoned third season around July of that year (the so-called Lost Episodes) plus an uncensored DVD of the disputed material.

Neither side was happy. For starters, this was a contract for personal service and courts normally would not force an unwilling person to render a personal service to another person for the simple reason that there is no way for the courts to make sure that one person serves another in good faith and properly. The courts are not job supervisors. So, Chapelle didn’t have to return to work. But Comedy Central could use a legal injunction to prevent Chapelle from working for a rival TV network during the time he was supposed to be working for Comedy Central, as long as it has a negative covenant in its contract with Chapelle.

At bottom, the issue here is creative differences, as Neal Brennan, the co-creator of the show, correctly observed. Chapelle simply didn’t think he had his creative space: he said he felt awful everyday he worked on the show and that he felt like some kind of prostitute. “I want to be well rounded and the industry is a place of extremes,” he said. Apparently, Comedy Central disagreed.

The big lesson here for comedians is that in an industry “of extremes,” they must look out for themselves right from the time the contract is being negotiated. The good news is, we have freedom of contract in America and in most cases folks can put in pretty much any clause they want in their contracts. Comedians must pay close attention to clauses in the agreement that pertain to creative space and format for the shows.

This is important because what is good for the networks may not be good for the comedian’s career and emotional wellbeing. For instance, Chapelle said he did not personally like the sketch-comedy format. Yet that was exactly what his contract with Comedy Central required him to do on the show. And he went along with it until the so-called “pixie sketch” on the show freaked him out when he discovered somebody laughing at him instead of laughing with him. Well, today, he’s back to doing what he loves best.

The key lesson here is that comedians should cover their bases and Lawyer Up early!

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