NEW YORK - Along with Jon Stewart, Dave Chappelle is Comedy Central's biggest star. Now he's gone, with some question about whether "Chappelle's Show" will ever return.
At Comedy Central, they're looking to weather the storm but not from a position of weakness: the network's ratings are higher than ever, even without new shows from Chappelle.
Comedy Central announced last week that its planned May 31 debut of the show's third season has been postponed, although it's not fully clear why. The magazine Entertainment Weekly reported that Chappelle had checked himself into a mental health facility in South Africa.
Production of the series has been stopped with a handful of skits - but no full show - completed, according to the magazine.
Media analyst Larry Gerbrandt said an original series that breaks through the clutter to become a hit is an invaluable commodity.
"Hits are so rare in this business," said Gerbrandt, who specializes in the cable television industry. "It's not fatal, but it's definitely a body blow."
Comedy Central inked a reported $50 million deal to keep "Chappelle's Show" for two more seasons, mostly on the strength of explosive DVD sales. The first season's set has sold 2.8 million copies, making it the all-time biggest-selling DVD of a TV series. The second-season DVD goes on sale May 24.
Industry experts say Comedy Central doesn't sell advertising on a show-by-show basis; advertisers buy spots for the whole network and they are rotated into different series. That means there wouldn't be an immediate financial hit from losing "Chappelle's Show" like there would be if ABC suddenly lost "Desperate Housewives."
If Chappelle doesn't return, it also doesn't necessarily mean Comedy Central is on the hook for a huge contract: part of his big-money deal is based on expected sales of future DVDs, according to industry reports.
"Chappelle's Show" is behind only "South Park" as Comedy Central's most-watched show, according to Nielsen Media Research. ("The Daily Show" ranks No. 5 in ratings for the network, although Stewart is arguably its biggest star.)
Comedy Central will fill Chappelle's empty time slot with episodes of "Reno 911" before the June 14 debut of "Stella," an original series described as a Marx Brothers-like comedy, said network spokesman Tony Fox.
A new series featuring popular comic Carlos Mencia is also expected this summer, he said.
Comedy Central executives were reluctant to talk about how Chappelle's absence will be felt, both out of the immediate concern for his health and the still-unanswered question about whether the show has a future.
The network's ratings success this year was largely fueled by an airing of the "Blue Collar Comedy Tour" movie and a roast of Jeff Foxworthy.
Aaron Cohen, director of broadcasting for the ad-buying firm Horizon Media, said Comedy Central appeared to have several strong shows in development. They include programs featuring Stephen Colbert of "The Daily Show," Adam Carolla and D.L. Hughley.
"I don't think they will lose money," Cohen said. "The only economic impact would be if the ratings of the whole network went down and if all of their development would go into the tank so they're not building anymore. I don't see that."
Gerbrandt said one of the most important roles of "Chappelle's Show" for Comedy Central is to build interest in other network programming. It's similar to how "Grey's Anatomy" has become a hit for ABC in part because it follows the successful "Desperate Housewives" in the Sunday night lineup.
"It doesn't break them financially, but it's a big setback for them from a programming strategy standpoint," he said. "Because you build on your hits."