Comedy Central's hit laffer put on hold

Less than 24 hours after its upfront presentation to Madison Avenue, Comedy Central has yanked this month’s third-season premiere of its marquee series “Chappelle’s Show” and halted production on the skein.

Comedy Central offered no explanation for the move, instead issuing only a brief statement noting production has been suspended “until further notice. All parties are optimistic that production will resume in the near future.”

Industry insiders familiar with Comedy Central’s decisionmaking process indicate the net’s announcement was prompted by the need for star Dave Chappelle to seek treatment for unspecified personal issues.

A Comedy Central spokesman declined comment as did a spokesman for Chappelle.

Last August, cabler signed Chappelle to a deal valued at $50 million — one of the richest pacts in basic cable — to keep his red-hot “Chappelle’s Show” around through 2006. Much of that coin was to have come from advances on DVD sales of the show’s third and fourth seasons. If those seasons don’t materialize, Chappelle (and others associated with the show) stands to make much less money.

Delay in the third season comes as both a surprise — promos and commercials directing viewers to the premiere were still airing on the cabler Tuesday evening — and a major blow to Comedy Central, which was counting on a media frenzy for the return of the satirical sketch comedy.

Less buzz, fewer bucks

Cabler is still going strong with “South Park,” reruns of “Chappelle’s Show” and new animated hit “Drawn Together,” but latest batch of originals — from Wanda Sykes’ “Wanda Does It” to “The Hollow Men” — haven’t generated much in the way of ratings or buzz for the channel. With most of the advertising time for “Chappelle’s Show” already sold, timing is particularly poor for Comedy Central, which now instead stands to lose big bucks as a result of the delay.

“Chappelle” was slated to bow May 31, and sources said material for at least five of the 10 original episodes had already been shot.

Production on the third season of “Chappelle’s Show” has been troubled from the get-go. In December, Comedy Central pushed the premiere of season three to spring, from February, because Chappelle reportedly had been battling pneumonia. Separately and shortly thereafter, Chappelle’s deal to pen an autobiography with Hyperion fell apart.

Success rewarded

After the second cycle grew into a critical and popular success, Comedy Central prexy Doug Herzog agreed to reward Chappelle with a handsome contract for 26 fresh episodes. Herzog inked a similarly rich agreement with the cabler’s other headliner, Jon Stewart, who agreed to keep news satire “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” going through 2008.

Chappelle’s rich pact with the cabler also included a deal for the comedian to star in an adaptation of Rick James’ autobiography for Viacom sister company Paramount Pictures, the status of which is unknown.

Second season of “Chappelle’s,” which ran through spring 2004, averaged a robust aud of 3.1 million; a year after the last new episode aired, repeats of the half-hour continue to attract well over 1 million viewers per episode. The first season is the bestselling TV series DVD to date. In addition, show was nominated for a trio of Emmys, including outstanding comedy series.

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