25 years ago: ‘Half-Baked’ almost destroys Chappelle’s career

Where you stand Half baked probably depends on where you stand on two other things: Dave Chappelles comedy stylings and stoner comedies in general. If you’re a fan of both, then Half baked is or should be a rip-roaring classic; If you’re lukewarm to either, then you’re probably tempted to write off the film as ridiculous, underproduced and full of childish gags.

It’s a shame, because if you write it off, you’re missing out on one of the most fascinating and subtly important comedies of the 1990s.

Chappelle (who also co-wrote the film) stars as Thurgood Jenkins, one of four friends in New York City who, to put it bluntly, smoke a lot of weed. Thurgood works as a janitor for a pharmaceutical company researching the medical effects of marijuana, and the action begins when he and his three buddies smoke some of the company’s specially designed stuff. One of them, Kenny (Harland Williams), then goes out to get some snacks and accidentally kills a diabetic police horse by feeding it junk food.

He is thrown in jail and leaves it to Thurgood, Brian (Jim Breuer) and Scarface (Guillermo Diaz) to raise enough money to get him out. In classic Stoner movie tradition, they come up with a terrible plan: steal a bunch of weed from Thurgood’s pharmaceutical company and sell it all over the streets of New York, where it was still illegal at the time.

This creates crazy confrontations with a variety of characters, from Thurgood’s new partner (Rachel True), to whom he has lied about his love for the green, to a famous rapper named Sir Smoke-a-Lot (also played by Chappelle) to a drug lord (Clarence Williams III). Lots of rocky hijinks ensue and in the end everything turns out OK, with Thurgood even stopping smoking dope for his partner because as much as he loves the ganja, he loves women more.

Over the years, the film has predictably become something of a cult classic, and not just because it appeals to a certain set of drunk late-night viewers or because of its celebrated cameos by everyone from Jon Stewart and Stephen Baldwin to Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson.

Both the writing and comedic set pieces are consistently strong from top to bottom, due to the collaboration between Chappell and co-writer Neal Brennan, who would go on to create and co-write Chappelle’s show in the early 2000s. In many ways, the film feels like a dry run for the show that would propel Chappelle to superstardom: It has the same edgy sense of humor and constantly pushes its bits in completely unexpected directions.

But despite its appeal, half baked – which premiered in cinemas Jan. 16, 1998 almost sunk Chappelle’s career. Before the film, the comedian was seen as on the rise in Hollywood. He had appeared in all the major stand-up comedy spots on TV, from Def Comedy Jam to The Late Show with David Letterman, and had begun to land smaller roles on the big screen in projects such as Eddie Murphy’s The cute professor and Con air. So he got together with Brennan and wrote a play script and asked his buddy Breuer to join.

Watch the trailer ‘Halfbaked’

Upon release, the film made money in theaters—$17.5 million on an $8 million budget, which seems high given the low production values—but it was panned heavily by critics who have never met a Stoner comedy that they have. love don’t hate. IN an interview with Your mother’s house Podcast, Brennan recalled that he thought the film was the end of Chappelle in Hollywood: “They literally said on CNN, ‘His career is over.'”

Chappelle’s father had died around the same time, and the stress of that, along with the reception of half baked, made the comedian consider leaving the industry altogether. He bought a farm in Ohio, and as he told James Lipton on an episode of Inside the actor’s studiorecalled thinking he was “done with show business.”

Eventually, Chappelle’s career would recover, and then some. Several years later, he would reunite with Brennan to create Chappelle’s show, which would be a sensation. And he has always had a tendency to write off Half bakedand told Lipton in the same interview that he didn’t like being remembered for it and that “the script was much better than the movie.”

But the film deserves better than to be remembered as a one-time failure. Seen now, it’s striking—beyond the degree that it seems more in keeping with Chappelle’s later success than running counter to it—how influential it is. Goofy movies about heavily stoned characters date back to Cheech & Chong‘s work in the ’70s, and the history of drunken characters doing funny things on screen stretches back to the early days of Hollywood; Charlie Chaplin played that gag many times and as well as anyone ever did.

But what Half baked helped introduce was a blatant admission that ordinary people smoked pot and did it a lot. When Thurgood and his buddies go on their sales tour, they run into all kinds of people, including teenage kids and their parents, famous music stars, and more. The insinuation is that no matter how many may want to limit it, the use of marijuana is here to stay. Within a decade of its release, when marijuana began to be legalized at the state level, the film’s prediction came true.

On top of this, the film mixes a more leisurely pace with a visual absurdity that anticipated and influenced a large variety of comedy films from the following decades. Dude, where’s my car? (2000), Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), Made pregnant (2007), Pineapple Express (2008) and a legion of lesser-remembered films of their ilk are all directly indebted to Half bakedand it helped inspire a characteristic moment of comic absurdism that characterizes films such as Anchorman (2004), 21 Jump Street (2012) and The Lego movie (2014).

So while Half baked is usually remembered as a sort of rocky side note to Chappelle’s career, it’s probably better seen as a watershed film that signaled the emergence of new trends in both comedy and culture at large. And it’s not a bad joint dinner either.

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