"Chappelle's Show" has spoiled me, probably forever. Any time I watch comedy that tackles race head-on, I can't help but compare it to Comedy Central's brilliant, short-lived sketch show, which brought us the concept of the sports-style "Racial Draft" for celebrities and explained just what it is that makes white people dance. Little on TV since has been as consistently truthful or as devastatingly funny.
But "Chappelle's Show" is dead, we have to move on, and you can't fault Comedy Central for trying again. And there is some hope for "Chocolate News," the new David Alan Grier vehicle that premieres at 10:30 tonight. Though it's billed as a faux news show, it's really an outlet for the sketch comedy Grier honed, years ago, on "In Living Color." In tonight's premiere, he also promises it will be "the only source for pure, uncircumcised realness from an Afro-American perspective."
Whether it will deliver pure funniness is, at this point, less clear. Grier opens tonight's show wearing a natty suit and a serious expression, delivering a long and slightly tired rant about the decline of hip-hop. "When did 'Fight the power,' " he rails, "become 'Wait till you see my [bleep]'?"
Later, he goofs on the idea of a token white news correspondent and does a moderately funny bit playing Maya Angelou, who recites her proposed inaugural poems for both Barack Obama and John McCain.
In the funniest sketch, Grier plays a bloated rapper named "Phat Man," hired to do public service announcements for the federal goverment's No Child Left Behind program. (A pasty white Department of Education bureaucrat admits that he'd never heard Phat Man's music, but explains that his son is a huge fan.) The government fires Phat Man after seeing his video, a raucous spoof of the fare on MTV, which involves bling, bleeps, and bootylicious girls in tiny schoolgirl skirts chanting, "Don't you leave no child behind, say whaaaat?"
The sketch that most captures the Chappelle spirit - uncomfortably-funny-but-hitting-at-some-deep-truth - proposes an "N-Word Treaty." Two groups, the N-Word Task Force and the Caucasians for the Fair Usage of the N-Word Commission, try to negotiate a list of equivalent epithets for white people, most of them involving multiple bleeps. They discover, in the end, that it's not possible.
The final punch line delivers one of those "ooh" moments that makes you glad people on TV are still willing to take risks. Credit Grier for trying, credit Comedy Central for adding another voice to the mix, and keep hoping that a show like this eventually hits its stride.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.