If Dave Chappelle's fans had been able to catch some of the episodes of his hit sketch comedy show that he made last year before he escaped the looming threat of a $50 million contract and skipped town--perhaps they wouldn't have been quite so surprised.

While the so-called Chappelle's Show: The Lost Episodes, premiering Sunday on Comedy Central, is vintage Chappelle--smart, racy, culturally incorrect, socio-politically charged and freakin' hilarious--the bits also seem to foreshadow the series' creator's next move, which was to blow that whitewashed popsicle stand while he still had his creative integrity.

Among other reasons, the Washington, D.C.-born comic has said that it was hearing a white member of the studio audience sound a little too amused by one of his racially charged jokes that led him to the conclusion that "white people own everything" and that he had compromised too much of himself in return for commercial success.

Sunday's episode is the first of three. Fellow cast members Charlie Murphy, Donnell Rawlings and others handle the introductions and transitions.

Chappelle has said that televising his abandoned episodes is "kind of a bully move" on Comedy Central's part. But we have a feeling that audiences aren't going to mind too much. They did make the first season of Chappelle's Show the best-selling TV series of all time on DVD, after all.

In any case, two of the four sketches offered on Sunday's pieced-together show, find Chappelle playing himself. Or at least his version of himself, in which he's literally under the gun of fame and fortune.

In one scene, Chappelle is getting what has been advertised as an $8 haircut in a barbershop in the Virgin Islands. Meanwhile, the barber is chatting him up about his money situation and the comedian says that his take-home is nothing special--he's on a cable show, you know. But then a television in the corner tuned to BET shows a talk-show host announcing Chappelle's mega-contract.

The price of the haircut is suddenly $11,000.

The rest of the scenes show Chappelle facing equally inflated prices everywhere he goes, with the sellers flashing a gun every time he quibbles with them. Finally, an IRS agent demanding half of Chappelle's net worth guns down the star's bodyguard, who offers these words:

"Money, the root of all evil. The IRS pulled the trigger, but your greed did this to me, Dave. You didn't have to do two more seasons, no matter how good this show is. They're only going to say it's not as good as last year was."

While this and another sketch that prominently features Spike Lee, the N-word and Kelly Clarkson's "A Moment Like This" prove that Chappelle wasn't going to be losing his edge anytime soon, something obviously wasn't clicking for him.

After pretty much disappearing from the Chappelle's Show set in May 2005, he turned up in South Africa (not in rehab or a psych facility, contrary to mucho speculation) undergoing a kind of mental detox.

He dished about his African spiritual retreat on The Oprah Winfrey Show in February (a celebrity's best bet for damage control--unless you're Tom Cruise) and later opened up in the pages of Esquire, where he explained that, before he left his show, "I felt like I was really pressured to settle for something that I didn't necessarily feel like I wanted."

What Chappelle does seem to want, however, is to keep people shaking with laughter. He got back into the standup game in November at HBO's Comedy Festival in Las Vegas and has continued to ease his way back into the limelight on his own terms (well, except for all the paparazzi and stuff).

Dave Chappelle's Block Party, the cinematic result of a celeb-studded neighborhood shindig the comedian threw and filmed in 2004, opened in March and grossed more than $11.7 million in limited release. The DVD hit stores last month, just before the uncensored second season of Chappelle's Show become available for downloading on Apple's iTunes Music Store.

A July 25 release date has been set for the Lost Episodes DVD.

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