Half-baked theories: Chappelle’s Hartford show

by Brian McKim & Traci Skene on August 30th, 2013

Dave Chappelle was “heckled” by adoring fans at a sold-out show…

… a year ago last June… in Austin, TX.

Read all about it at CultureMap.com, a website that keeps Austin weird by covering arts and culture in the Texas capital.

An excerpt:

Even before the comic caught someone recording his set, which happened about 12 minutes in and is cited as the show’s official breaking point, things felt off. I’d like to think I’m fairly unflappable when it comes to dealing with awkward sets, weird crowds, weak material or any combination of things that can go wrong onstage. Hell, I just spent a weekend at the Bonnaroo Comedy Tent, which was packed with thousands of hard-partying, inebriated kids (who, for the record, were much easier to handle than last night’s house).

But walking out of The Paramount, I was taken aback to the point where I could only repeat “I really don’t know” when my roommate asked how it went.

…last night, he seemed tired, pausing often to light cigarettes, decide whether he wanted to continue a line of thought, or gaze into the crowd. And while there were some solid bits and brilliant riffs on audience-supplied suggestions, Chappelle himself jokingly admitted he only had “about four minutes of material.”

The audience was undeniably rowdy, exceptionally so for a comedy show, and they were from the start– but they got worse when they weren’t reprimanded, when the threats of removal weren’t followed through on, and especially when their behavior was met with grins and encouragement from the comic himself. As Mass Appeal concludes, “Dave didn’t smack them around the way Joe Rogan or Bill Burr would have. He could have; he just chose not to. He was just there to collect a paycheck and ride on out of town.”

Also enlightening is the damage control done by the Paramount Theater via their Facebook page, which is quoted by the article’s author Samantha Pitchel at the end of her piece:

Hi! It’s us again. Some thoughts on last night:

We are not new to comedy and are quite familiar with the removal of that base creature known as The Heckler. We had a veritable slew of them last night and, because of it, the experience was diminished for many. That is a tragic thing.

Here’s why we didn’t run up and down our 1,200+ seat venue throwing people out: the performer was engaging and encouraging the crowd. When security was escorting a patron out that had been recording the show, Dave Chappelle said he should stay. He then chose to respond and include the audience in his show. This created a domino effect of audience “participation.” While we may not be in agreement with the choice, it was the artist’s choice to interact with the audience that we had to ultimately respect.

We apologize if you feel that we failed you, but we must react off of our performers’ cues.

As for The Heckler, we find this particular breed of audience member as disrespectful and disappointing as the next sane person and we do our best to make sure they do not ruin your experience when you attend a Paramount show. We do encourage our patrons to alert an usher or house manager if you encounter a heckler so that the situation can be handled appropriately. No matter the performer’s preference, we will always warn and then remove any patrons who are intoxicated to the point that their behavior goes beyond mindless heckling.

We hope we have shed some light on our actions and choices made last night. Thank you for your understanding.

This article is followed by exactly zero comments.

Fast-forward fifteen months and you have basically the same situation– a laid-back Chappelle fails to handle an enthusiastic crowd, the show tanks, etc.– but this time, because some jewelry designer proclaims so, in an Ebony.com review, the problem is racist white males in the audience. Something doesn’t add up. Lewis’ drivel probably would have sunk without a trace (deservedly so) had not Dave Itzkoff of the NYT linked to it and quoted from it (“Chappelle wasn’t having a meltdown. This was a Black artist shrugging the weight of White consumption, deciding when enough was enough.”). Disturbingly, hundreds of ridiculous people (many of them– Gulp!– standup comics!) are linking to it now. Lots of hand-wringing. The floor is slick with tears.

But while everyone is accepting this outrageous racist narrative, no one (not even Itzkoff of the NYT!) has bothered to see if maybe the fine citizens of Hartford are merely reacting the same way some other folks have.

We managed to “investigate” (if you call Googling for one minute and 15 seconds “investigating”) and we came up with the following enlightening information.

Here’s a review of the August 25 Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival show in Dallas, TX, on the Ticketmaster site:

Chappelle was good, but not great. Some of the material was recycled from what I saw on the internet of his pick-up shows and the unreleased episodes of the Chappelle show and some was new. He found his stride occasionally but seemed tired, distracted and depressed. He said, almost as an apology, that he was doing it for the money. He also wasn’t wearing his wedding ring, made some ominous comments about his marriage and said it was his 40th birthday.

And another from that Dallas show:

Dave Chappelle came out(the headliner on his “return to comedy”) and was vapid at best, totally off the cuff and unfunny most of the time bordering completely awkward. People started running for the parking lot before he had even finished. When he didn’t know what else to do he attempted to construct a skit with no point and certainly no humor. and then he said he was done, not even 40 minutes in. We felt disrespected since we paid good money to see Dave specifically and received a half assed attempt at comedy. I would have been OK if he just sat down and talked about how he’s been for the past 10 years but instead the half assed comedy route was taken. Perhaps he had an off night and it was just bad luck but when you’re a professional performer, you work through it, especially if anyone has paid money to see a show because you were there and the main attraction.

And here’s one from the Hartford show:

…but Chappelle obviously just didn’t want to be there. His pacing was awkward, and he lost the crowd about 15 minutes in. He didn’t even bother to try to recover, but rather blamed the crowd for being to noisy (well duh, it’s a comedy show) and then sat down on the stage puffing his American Spirit while heckling those that were heckling him while the rest of us were caught watching the bizarre spectacle unfolding before us.

He proceeded to run out the clock making irrelevant remarks about how much we sucked until he finally walked off stage. A good stand-up comic would have taken it in stride and gone through the routine, accepting both the highs and lows of the performance. I have been a fan for years, and reading the positive reviews of the other stops of the tour was making me really look forward to this show. Alas, the real Dave Chappelle was nowhere to be found tonight. What a shame. He should stick to TV. Would not recommend, especially if you’re buying the better seats.

We were present for two impromptu sets by Chappelle, back in April of 2006, when we performed at Wiley’s in Dayton. On Thursday evening of that week, Chappelle dropped in and did a set we described at the time as “controlled and rollicking.” Chappelle dropped in again on Saturday and did a set that was 90 minutes in length. (The 30 minutes or so that we watched was rambling, anecdotal, punctuated by many cigarettes and only fitfully funny. Don’t misunderstand: The audience loved that second show and were excited to see such a star performing in such an intimate venue– especially since it was unannounced. We only bring it up because it sounds eerily similar to the accounts and descriptions from June 2012 and from the past week’s Dallas and Hartford shows.)

Deep down, all comics pretty much can piece together what happened. Chappelle was off that night. For whatever reason. It’s happened to all of us. But, instead of lucking out and having the crowd cut him a break, it was a disaster. We all– each and every one of us– has had a situation where we didn’t know how we were going to get through it. We pray that we’ll get a good crowd and maybe we can bluff our way through. And, more often than not, we get lucky. And, occasionally, it’s a horror show– we just don’t have it in us to turn it around, to fend off a belligerent (or even an over-enthusiastic!) crowd. And every comic who is blaming this on racism or trying to paint the good citizens of Hartford as the direct descendants of Bull Connor should be absolutely ashamed that they reflexively went that route without first considering that maybe, just maybe, that horrific (and, we might add, fairly implausible) interpretation of the events was almost certainly dead wrong. For being standup comics, some folks just don’t seem to be able to view these incidents very critically or dispassionately. What good is all this knowledge and experience if you’re not going to use it?

Why would you want to bark out a half-baked opinion? Why would you allow yourself to sound like some incoherent know-nothing on a stool at the end of the bar? Or a jewelry designer? Racism allegations aside, there are other comics stating matter-of-factly that Chappelle is a genius and that he absolutely did nothing wrong. That’s a bit of a stretch, too, and it’s an non-analysis. All geniuses have off nights. It’s not a crime.

When we heard that the tour was to be sponsored by “Funny or Die,” we were apprehensive. Is not the entire idea that undergirds that website one that might give the consumer the idea that he has “input” into whether or not the artist’s output lives or dies? (Perhaps subliminally, the audiences feel entitled to chime in if things aren’t going the way they want it to!)

Of course, we’ve read in more than one account that the “heckling” consisted of positive sentiments (“We love you, Dave!” and “Welcome back, Dave!” stuff like that) and we’ve read NO accounts– NONE!– that any of the heckling was racist in nature. Admittedly, hecklers who “love” the performer– whose only real crime are that they’re over-enthusiastic– might be the toughest kind of heckler to deal with as the performer can’t treat them in the same satisfying way they can a real-live, malevolent heckler. But we’re not convinced at all that they were anything but benevolent and excited. The racism element seems to have one source– the thin and fevered dream-babble of a jewelry designer who happened to be present at Comcast Theatre last night.