Comedy Central couldn't resist the easy joke, opening the aborted third season of "Chappelle's Show" Sunday with a shot of an empty stage and introduction of a star who never appears.
It's the first of three episodes compiled from sketches left behind before Dave Chappelle's now legendary freakout, walking out on a $50 million contract and one of TV's hottest shows two years ago under still mysterious circumstances.
"This isn't a designed farewell," said Neal Brennan, the show's co-creator who put them together. "There's no cliffhanger. These were just three out of what was supposed to be 10 — and the other seven never happened."
The opening sketch, besides illustrating the sharp comic touch that made the show popular, gives fodder for armchair psychologists.
Chappelle is sitting in a barber's chair, getting a trim in a place that advertises $8 haircuts. His barber says Chappelle must be raking in the money as a big-time TV star.
"Nah, man, it's cable," he replies. "I do all right, but it's nothing to write home about."
Just then, a TV in the corner airs a report of Chappelle's big payday from Comedy Central. The barber's face turns cold and his haircut has a new price — $11,000.
Chappelle also gets a prediction from a dying man: "You didn't have to do two more seasons. No matter how good the show is, they're only going to say it's not as good as last year was."
A second, darker sketch shows Chappelle exacting revenge on people who mistreated him before he was rich.
"What I worry about is that everyone is going to look at it like a `CSI' episode, examine every show and say, `Oh, that's why Dave did that,'" Brennan said. "There are no clues. The thing that people forget is, I came up with half the ideas. And it's not like I knew he was going to Africa. Does it give you a look into my psyche?"
But it's probably inevitable, said Comedy Central President Doug Herzog. He compared it to a musician who looks inward on his third album as a response to success on the first two.
There were a lot of long discussions at Comedy Central about what to do with this material, Herzog said.
"Once we saw the material, we thought it was fantastic," he said. "When you're in the comedy business, as we are, it's very hard to walk away from great material. It's so hard to find to begin with. We knew the audience wanted to see it. And I don't want to sound crass, but we had already paid for it."
As the show's opening and jokes with sidekicks Charlie Murphy and Donnell Rawlings illustrate, "Chappelle's Show" isn't afraid to talk about what happened with Chappelle. It would have been dishonest otherwise, Brennan said.
Even Chappelle has joked about it — just not on Comedy Central.
He told Conan O'Brien that his wife has given him guff for walking out on his big score. His spokeswoman did not return calls from The Associated Press.
It's never been fully explained why he left. Chappelle has denied rumors of substance abuse or psychiatric problems. He's complained of arguments about the show with Comedy Central. (Herzog said the network had "almost no access' to Chappelle during work on the third season.) Chappelle also said he had doubts about how racial elements of his show were being taken.
During an appearance on "Oprah" in February, Chappelle said that he might be amenable to returning to his show providing some arrangement could be made about providing money to charities.
Since then, he hasn't returned any of Comedy Central's phone calls, Herzog said.
Comedy Central is in the midst of its second marketing campaign to promote Chappelle's third season. After all the frustration, Herzog still says he wouldn't close the door on working with Chappelle again, calling him "arguably one of the great comedic voices of his generation, a comedic genius (and) a lovely guy, truthfully.
"If I'm in the comedy business, if Dave Chappelle calls, I'm going to listen," Herzog said. "He's got to call, though."