Comedian Dave Chappelle, creator and star of the hit sketch comedy program Chappelle’s Show, has committed himself to a South African mental hospital. While “exhaustion” was cited as the official reason, sources close to the comedian say he is convinced he is Rick James.
“Twenty-hours by plane to Johannesburg,” remarked one friend, who asked to remain anonymous, “and all he kept saying was ‘I’m Rick James, bitch!’ If it had been some cracker, I’d have choked his ass before we left U.S. airspace. Instead, I cried.”
James, the R&B singer who died of drug related causes in 2004, was portrayed by Chappelle in the show’s most famous—and most quoted—sketch. One nurse at the South African facility said, on background, that Chappelle arrived with his hair braided, demanding cocaine and an audience with the Mary Jane Girls.
One Hollywood medical professional is not surprised at the news.
“I’ve seen it before,” says Dr. Howard Fine, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist. “It’s a rare disorder called Phrasus signaturous bludgeonus—or ‘catchphrase syndrome.’”
The syndrome occurs after an artist or other public personality creates a word or phrase that catches the public fancy. In Mr. Chappelle’s case, his phrase, “I’m Rick James, bitch,” could routinely be heard around watercoolers, at supermarkets, and even at parish bingo games. “The more out-of-context the phrase is taken,” explains Dr. Fine, “the greater the potential for mental catastrophe. In this case, it was a time bomb waiting to explode.”
“This destructive overuse eventually takes its toll on the artist who created the phrase. Their pride in its popularity mixes with guilt over its overexposure, causing a deadly neurological tug-of-war.”
Dr. Fine notes that Chappelle’s case bears a striking resemblance to Billy Crystal’s in the 1980s. “He almost became a vegetable after, ‘You look marvelous.’” Catchphrase syndrome is also not limited to comedians. The members of the musical group Right Said Fred spent six months in a Swiss hospital after the “I’m Too Sexy” epidemic of 1992.
While friends and doctors remain quiet about Chappelle’s condition, Dr. Fine said chances for a full recovery are good if they can isolate the patient early. “If they can keep him away from TV, the Internet, and morning radio for at least two weeks, chances are the phrase will die out in that time. In this case, it's a good thing they acted so quickly. I've seen other stars leave catchphrase syndrome unchecked, and when that happens, it's hasta la vista, brain."