By MARISA GUTHRIE
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
In a highly unusual and perplexing move, Comedy Central yesterday stopped production on its sketch comedy hit "Chappelle's Show."
The terse announcement came just three weeks before the third season of the popular series was to return to the air, ending a year-long stretch of reruns.
"Comedy Central has suspended production on the third season of 'Chappelle's Show' until further notice," officials said in a written statement released late yesterday. "All parties are optimistic that production will resume in the near future. The third season will not premiere on May 31 as originally scheduled."
A Comedy Central spokesman would not comment beyond the statement.
Chappelle's publicist was equally tight- lipped about the stunning announcement.
Fans have already endured a lengthy absence by the acerbic, politically incorrect comedian. The last original episode of the Chappelle's no-holds-barred sketch show aired May 4, 2004.
"Chappelle's Show" has been a bright spot on the Comedy Central schedule. Last year, the network renewed the show for two seasons, an unusual move in the cable world. The lucrative deal, worth a reported $50 million - a figure downplayed by Comedy Central insiders, called for 10 episodes each for seasons three and four.
That package, according to Comedy Central sources, includes large bonuses for Chappelle if his ratings rise, as well as a percentage of future DVD sales. The show averaged about 3 million viewers an episode in its first two seasons.
If Chappelle does go back to work, he stands to make plenty from those DVD sales. The first season of "Chappelle's Show" sold 2 million copies, raking in $44 million in retail sales and making the boxed set the best selling comedy title in DVD history.
Production on the third season had been underway since the beginning of the year. Tapings in front of live audiences were scheduled for today and Saturday. But no episodes are ready for air.
Separately, earlier this week, Comedy Central announced a slew of new late night programs for the coming season, including programs hosted by Adam Carolla, D.L. Hughley and "The Daily Shows'" Stephen Colbert.
Originally published on May 5, 2005