Comedian Dave Chappelle and executive producer Peter Tolan are charging that the midseason sitcom they developed for Fox Broadcasting Co. was derailed by one explosive issue: race.
Chappelle wrote and starred in the sitcom “Dave Chappelle,” which was based on his life as a standup comedian struggling to make it in New York. Fox ordered six episodes for midseason, but Chappelle and Tolan decided to walk away from the project after a creative meeting with Fox execs a few weeks ago that left them “disgusted.”
According to Chappelle and Tolan, Fox executives believed the Touchstone TV sitcom was too black, and they suggested changing the lead female character from black to white and adding a separate new white character to broaden its appeal.
Touchstone TV declined to comment, and Fox executives would not speak for attribution, but the network did issue a statement in response to Chappelle’s and Tolan’s comments: “The Fox network respects the unique perspective and integrity of each member of its audience, and to suggest anything less is disturbing and upsetting in light of our past, present and future efforts.”
According to Chappelle, “They fly me out for a creative meeting. I’m in a room full of white people, and they proceed to tell me why we need more white people on the show, so it can have a more universal appeal.”
Chappelle continued, “This network built itself on black viewers, and what they’re saying is white people are narcissistic. They don’t want to watch black people, they want to watch themselves. It tells every black artist no matter what you do, you need whites to succeed.”
Chappelle feels Fox’s attempts to bring in white viewers by adding white characters is “perpetuating a racist insight into our business,” and his reaction to their suggestions was clearly visceral. “I felt like I was beaten up and completely degraded,” he said. “It’s disgusting, and it made me want to vomit.”
Tolan agreed with Chappelle’s interpretation of the events. The “Dave Chappelle” pilot was originally developed for ABC, but after the web passed, they retooled it for Fox and did a second round of reshoots before they heard the first rumblings about “broadening the appeal.”
“We were trying to do a realistic depiction of Dave’s life — not a black show, but a smart, funny show that happened to be black,” Tolan said. “But Fox said there needs to be more white faces. Basically, Dave Chappelle cannot appear on Fox TV unless whitey gets him in the door. It’s embarrassing, and I realized I couldn’t do it. I felt morally it was wrong.”
Fox sources said they were shocked to hear the charges because they never gave Chappelle and Tolan any ultimatums. They simply made some suggestions and, according to one Fox source, asked the pair for their thoughts on “adding a perspective, a point-of-view that allows a larger audience to appreciate it.”
Fox execs said they had other creative concerns with the project that were unrelated to race. Fox also is quick to point out that next season it will air three sitcoms with lead African-American characters and themes: “Living in Captivity,” “The PJs” and “Getting Personal.”
It’s clear, however, that Fox is moving away from sitcoms like “Martin” and “Living Single,” which had predominantly black casts, to shows with a mixed racial makeup. “Living in Captivity” and “Getting Personal” both have white lead characters.
It remains to be seen whether this integration strategy actually will work. “So far it hasn’t worked,” said Doug Aligood, senior vice president of special markets at BBDO
, which studies black and white TV viewing patterns.
According to the most recent BBDO report, none of the top 10 shows in black households are among the top 10 in white households, and only four shows in the top 20 cross over: “NFL Monday Night Football,” “The CBS Sunday Movie,” “Touched by an Angel” and “ER.” Not one of those four is a comedy, and the only sitcom in recent years with wide appeal among people of all races was “The Cosby Show.”
Aligood said it’s not surprising that Fox wants to broaden beyond the base of African-Amercian viewers that helped put the network on the map. “We tend to forget that TV is a general audience medium. Unfortunately for black performers, the biggest audience is white.”
He also said, “I don’t think it’s racist to want to bring in white characters or black characters. I was always screaming for ‘Seinfeld’ to bring in black characters.”
Chappelle not only disagrees, but he feels ratings and the viewing studies of agencies like BBDO are inaccurate. As evidence he cites the broad appeal of performers such as Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy.
“People don’t love them because they’re surrounded by white people,” he said. “Cosby only had white characters when it was feasible, and nobody noticed.”
As far as prospects for his own TV series are concerned, Chappelle feels it’s time to throw in the towel. UPN CEO Dean Valentine has extended an open offer to pick up the series, but Chappelle no longer wants to do it.
“I love Dean to death, but I’m just so disgusted with TV,” he said. “I don’t care if I ever work in TV again … Ultimately, I may just do standup.”