Chappelle’s doing it wrong.

by Brian McKim & Traci Skene on September 1st, 2013

In our original posting (see below), we allowed that maybe Dave Chappelle was having an off night in Hartford (and, perhaps more importantly, we were skeptical that the “heckling” that bedeviled Chappelle was borne of any kind of racism). We’re still as certain as ever that the heckling wasn’t racist. But we’re not so sure that Chappelle was having an “off” night. We recalled a similar incident in Sacramento a few years back….

Dave Chappelle got so angry with the crowd Tuesday night at Sacramento’s Memorial Auditorium that the stand-up comic walked off the stage for nearly two minutes. Upon his return, he told the audience, “You people are stupid.”

What got the comic so riled up? According to Chappelle, it was audience members who wouldn’t “shut up and listen – like you’re supposed to.”

That was from a Sacramento Bee account of his show in April 2004.

Then we read an interview with the NYT’s Jason Zinoman. Zinoman spent several months researching a book, “Searching for Dave Chappelle,” so he knows a thing or two about the temperamental performer. Asked his reaction to the story of Chappelle’s Hartford performance, Zinoman said:

I thought: People are going to go berserk about this. And so they have (meltdown, etc). I was less surprised, because with Chappelle, what’s past is prologue. In 2011 in Miami, he got upset over filming in the audience, stopped telling jokes, checked his phone. That led to boos. The next show went smoothly. The difference is that his new tour has received a lot of attention, so this is much more high profile. But since he became famous, Chappelle has a very striking, occasionally tense relationship with his audience… Chappelle has a longer history of wariness toward his crowd.

We’re now inclined to think that Chappelle wasn’t having an “off” night in Hartford… or, if he was, he tends to have an awful lot of such nights and has had at least five such nights over the past near-decade.

Now Patton Oswalt, a standup comic we hasten to point out, has tweeted his defense of Chappelle.

Chappelle’s touring now, trying to do his usual, brilliant stuff, and the crowds are screaming, “I’m Rick James, bitch!” Idiots.

Chappelle doesn’t need Oswalt sticking up for him. Chappelle needs no defending. We suppose it could be argued that we defended him. But we didn’t so much defend him as come up with a much more plausible reason for the “meltdown.” Oswalt seems intent on blaming the audience. (At the very least he didn’t invoke the tired “racist” reasons for the audience interference.)

But we’re not so sure that Chappelle deserves to be totally resolved of responsibility in this case.

When we remembered that he displayed similar behavior in other venues dating as far back as 2004, and that he reacted to a crowd in a similar fashion in Miami in 2011 and that he had a hard time in Austin in 2012, we began to conclude that he had not figured out a way to deal with the recurring participation of the audience members who had paid good money to see what folks were touting as a comedy legend.

People threw jelly beans at the Beatles on their first (and second and probably third) American tour… and they witnessed what was, at the time, some of the worst fan crushing, heaving and injuries ever documented. Overenthusiastic fans hurled cheeseburgers at Steve Miller after his “Living In The USA” became a hit. Barenaked Ladies endured their adherents’ tossing Kraft Macaroni & Cheese at them during their tours to support the album that contained their breakthrough hit, “If I Had A Million Dollars.”

The Beatles eventually dealt with it: They quit performing live. Steve Miller eventually outlasted his overzealous followers (and perhaps took some time off from touring). Barenaked Ladies made heartfelt pleas to their people and asked them to donate those boxes of cheesy goodness to food banks. These examples may be all related to rock ‘n’ roll acts, but we are constantly told that Chappelle is one of a rare group of comedians who has achieved “rock star” status.

Why hasn’t Chappelle figured out how to deal with his most demonstrative worshipers? We’re nearly all from the same school: the school of shitty one-nighters and ghastly college gigs and unresponsive urban crowds or uptight corporate parties. We’ve all come up with ways of dealing with these speed bumps and we’ve all had to deal with this kind of thing, if only on a small scale. Why hasn’t one of the great comedy geniuses of our time figured it out as well? Don Ho had to put up with hundreds of old ladies yelling out, “Tiny Bubbles!”

The more we ponder it, the more annoying it is.

If you can’t adequately deal with the adulation and the fanaticism of your supporters– and you simply can’t forego personal appearances– then you might have to huddle with creative types and/or trusted associates and figure out a way that enables you to present your comedy in a way that is satisfactory to you and your fans. Or you should quit.

James Taylor’s breakthrough hit was “Fire And Rain,” which detailed his battle with drug addiction, depression and the death of a close friend. It went on to be named one of Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest songs of all times. Taylor knew that he was “doomed” to perform the song for the rest of his career. He dealt with that by writing “That’s Why I’m Here.”

Oh, fortune and fame’s such a curious game
Perfect strangers can call you by name
Pay good money to hear fire and rain
Again and again and again

Some are like summer coming back every year
Got your baby got your blanket got your bucket of beer
I break into a grin from ear to ear
And suddenly it’s perfectly clear

That’s why I’m here
Singin tonight, tomorrow, everyday
That’s why I’m standing here
That’s why I’m here

Song is different from the spoken word, to be sure. But we all have to deal with varying degrees of this kind of thing– internally or externally.