7 Bad Ass Comedians -- Including Dave Chappelle, Richard Pryor, George Carlin -- Who Refused to Sell Out
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Many comedians have altered their careers after stumbling into wild-party lifestyles, but what about those who’ve switched it up because of their political beliefs? It’s not all wine, sex and song out there. The following funny folks have changed their lives for progressivism -- some on purpose, some not so much -- and made us laugh in the process.
1. Dave Chappelle
In 2005, after a long stint on Comedy Central with a critically acclaimed, and critically funny show, Dave Chappelle was perceived to have gone crazy. He ditched the million-dollar "Chappelle Show" at the height of its popularity and dropped out of society, only to emerge months later on "Oprah" to admit he’d escaped to South Africa for a time before returning to his small hometown in Ohio. He didn’t lose his mind; he was fed up by the suits and their expectations, telling Oprah, "When you’re a guy who generates money, people have a vested interested in controlling you."
But it was more than that. Chappelle was worried that his brand of humor -- centered around skewering racist stereotypes with a subversive, sophisticated, line-treading light -- was getting lost on his ever-expanding audience. The final straw: while filming a skit about "the black pixie," in which he dressed up as a Jim Crow minstrel and chided himself to play into black stereotypes, a white crew member laughed just a little too hard. "When he laughed, it made me uncomfortable," Chappelle said at the time. "As a matter of fact, that was the last thing I shot before I told myself I gotta take time out after this. Because my head almost exploded."
Chappelle didn’t drop out completely. Five years later, he lives with his wife and children on a farm in Ohio, but still does the occasional show and is a fairly active and cantankerous tweeter. So why do people still think he went bonkers? And he’s not the first comedian whose progressive politics have clashed with or been overshadowed by the politricks of showbiz.
2. Richard Pryor
The original. If culture can indeed shift the political conversation, Pryor’s brilliantly funny, unfalteringly scathing send-ups on race relations -- or non-relations, as it were -- were some of the most important jokes in history. Inspired by the civil rights movement, during a stint in Vegas in 1967 Pryor had a revelation that his tame act wasn’t going to work for him anymore. Reportedly, he stepped on stage, peered out to the crowd and said "What the fuck am I doing here?" before he dropped the mic, walked off and changed his act forever.
Unfortunately, despite being one of the best comedians in American history (if not the best, as Comedy Central asserts), he’s still remembered for that one fateful day in 1980 when, caught in the throes of drug addiction, he accidentally lit himself on fire while freebasing cocaine after chugging 150-proof alcohol. Richard Pryor was no saint -- he’s only one of the myriad comedians who’ve had drug problems, and he was a horrible abuser of women -- but the way he captured his cynical reality for a nation still trying to navigate race relations was and is important and unparalleled.
Incidentally, Rain Pryor, Richard’s third child, is continuing his legacy. After a long career as an actress, she still tours off her 2005 one-woman comedy show, "Fried Chicken and Latkes," which delves into her experiences growing up black and Jewish in the 1970s.
3. George Carlin
Across the board, Carlin was one of the most progressive, fascinating, funny and smart comedians America has ever produced. He was making jokes about global warming before climate deniers even knew it was a thing, spoofed his own clan of hippies on national television, and got arrested with Lenny Bruce. Incidentally, he, too had his own bout with drug addiction; it never resulted in the same public brouhaha as Pryor’s, but apparently in the 1970s everyone with a joke in one pocket was carrying a bag of cocaine in the other.