Hometown hero and comedic legend Dave Chappelle returned to the District to receive the ceremonial key to the city, and to also drop off a gift to his alma mater.
Mayor Muriel Bowser presented Chappelle with the prestigious honor on Friday, Sept. 29 at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest.
“The key to the city is the highest honor an individual can receive from our nation’s capital, and I am very stingy with them,” Bowser said. “To keep the honor special it is rarely given. It symbolizes the freedom of the recipient to enter and leave the city at will as a trusted friend to D.C. residents and the city.”
Bowser said the distinction serves in recognition of Chappelle’s outstanding comedic craft, artistic merit, D.C. values and overall perseverance.
“Dave Chappelle is a third-generation Washingtonian and he is a man who has already made in his young life lasting contributions to our cultural heritage and to humanity,” she said. “He graduated from Duke in 1991 and never stopped coming back, from shoutouts to DCPS at this year’s Emmy Awards, supporting D.C. statehood and attending the unveiling of the iconic mural on Ben’s Chili Bowl. Dave loves Washington, D.C., and we love him right back.”
Chappelle’s ceremony aptly took place where it all began, in an auditorium filled to capacity with excited students who once sat where he sat.
“I’m really excited to be here and talk to you guys for a minute,” he said. “I don’t know how much you know about me, but I came to Ellington in school year ’87-’88, and like a lot of you guys I had to audition to get in. It’s a story I tell because my audition was terrible. I didn’t prepare. The make-or-break question they ask in the theater department is, ‘Why do you want to act?’ I remember I said, ‘I don’t want to act,’ then they said, ‘So why are you here?’
“I told them I want to be a comedian and somebody told me to be a good comedian I should know how to act,” he said. “I guess the teachers liked that answer.”
Starting his comedic career in the ’90s, Chappelle rose to prominence after the debut of his hit comedy sketch show “Chappelle’s Show” on Comedy Central in 2003.
The cult-like following of the program ended when Chappelle abruptly left the show before its third and final season.
Since then, he kept a low profile until most notably this year when he cut a deal with Netflix for three comedy specials reportedly at $20 million apiece.
According to Entertainment Weekly, in a letter Netflix shared with its stakeholders, Chappelle’s specials were the most watched in the company’s history.
Last month, he received his very first Emmy for guest-hosting “Saturday Night Live” this year, unexpectedly shouting out D.C. Public Schools in the process.
At the end of Friday’s ceremony, Chappelle had another surprise for DCPS.
“I appreciate the gift you gave me today, and I brought a gift for you: This is my Emmy,” he said. “This is a trophy but it represents years of hard work.
“In the course of a career you go through so many things you learn on the job, you embarrass yourself, you fall down, get up and try harder,” Chappelle said. “I quit my show and people said I’d never work again. I got up and tried harder.
“I still do my art almost every day, I still think about my art every day,” he said. “I want you guys to know that even though the odds are wildly against you, this can happen for you. If you just stay true to yourselves. This is the people’s Emmy.”
For those who follow the comedian, it came as no surprise that just weeks after winning the prestigious award, he stood in the auditorium of his alma mater with the priceless gift for the school.
“Chappelle has long advocated for DCPS and we were so proud he helped D.C. Public Schools trend all across the world,” Bowser said. “He told people what we already know.”