An Unfunny Thing Happened to Me the Other Night: Dave Chappelle Sucked


I went to go see Dave Chappelle at the Oddball Curiousity and Comedy Festival on Thursday night in Hartford at the Comcast Theater.  As you may have read in the local internet gossip column or even the local newspaper, Dave Chappelle refused to perform a majority of his set.  The reasons for this bloggers have put forward seem to be either that Dave refused to perform due to crowd noise, or alternatively he had what is known as “a celebrity meltdown.”  Both those explanations as to why Dave refused to perform are wrong.

I was there, and I really want to make clear to the seven friends I have on Twitter and Facebook that actually read my blog, the real reason things blew up on Thursday night was because Dave Chappelle showed absolute contempt for his audience.  After mulling this over for two sleepless nights (I started writing this at 5am on a Saturday), things finally became clear to me; Dave’s hatred of the audience, and presumably his fans at large, is so intense that he deliberately torpedoed his own act.  Moreover, it seems equally clear to me that Dave never intended to perform when he stepped out onto that stage.  Right away he sabotaged it.  I have never been that disgusted by a performer ever in my entire life (and I saw a lot of comedy shows when I was in college in Los Angeles).

In the interest of correcting the various uninformed responses I’ve read to this night on Twitter by other stand up comedians I follow and love, as well as addressing a ridiculous article posted in Ebony Magazine, I am going to try and give you as complete an account of what I saw happen, and why I think it did.  I’m also going to apologize in advance for making yet another marathon long post.  If you really, really want to know what happened on Thursday, please read this entire thing.

I didn’t know about the comedy show on Thursday night until the weekend before.  My friend sent me a link on Facebook to a Groupon deal that looked like it was half off tickets for a comedy fest, the headliner of which was Chappelle.  There were a lot of other acts as well.  HBO’s Flight of the Conchords did a few songs, Kristen Schaal did some stand up, and the night was MC’d by frequent Comedy Central roastmaster Jeff Ross .  I was really impressed by Hannibal Buress’ set.

I paid $60 for indoor seats, although a coworker who also went to the show got tickets the day before, awesome box seats, for $40.  Clearly the show did not sell out, otherwise there would not have been a lot of Groupon and last-minute deals out there.  The theater looked mostly empty until around 8:15 (the show started at 7).  Dave went on at 10.

The event was held at the Comcast Theater, which alternatively used to be known as the Dodge Music Center, or the Meadows.  Despite selling the naming rights every two years to a different terrible company, I think for local residents it will always be known as the Meadows.  The Meadows is a large, open walled amphitheater located less than a mile outside Hartford.  It’s a mixed arena with both indoor seats and a lot of outdoor seating.  It’s open-air, and a large part of the 30,000 person seating capacity is out on the “lawn,” cheap seats where people sit down with blankets and maybe before the corporate days coolers.  Because of the lawn seats, the Meadows has always been a preferred destination for all-day rock festivals or jam bands.  Infamously, it was also the host to a riot over a decade ago where the crowd was teargassed following a Dave Matthews Band show.  I can remember in high school half my class went to go see DMB every year for the Woodstock-esque feel those shows brought to town.  Necessarily this involved a lot of drinking and pot-smoking.  This is the real reason for the DMB riot (as opposed to the alternate theory regarding the inherently violent nature of Dave Matthew’s lyrics).  This is your day-drinking venue.

Thursday night was no exception to the norm.  I had three different seat-squatters next to me during the night, the last one was not so discreetly smoking a bowl ever two minutes.  I have a 9-5 job, so naturally that’s a little annoying.  Security guards were checking peoples tickets when they went into a section, but the rotating cast of characters sitting next to me during the night indicated a less than complete commitment to excellence.  Then again, the arena wasn’t full and this is where people usually go to smoke pot and watch the Allman Brothers Band.

Naturally, this was not a crowd that was going to provide the kind of the zen-master like silence that Dave Chappelle apparently needs to perform.  I will agree with frequent Twitterer and great comedian Patton Oswalt that heckling is bad, that most audience outbursts other than applause are unwarranted and disruptive, and that it doesn’t matter if the people interrupting you like you or hate you, as long as they are doing so they’re a bunch of assholes.  I imagine a great stand up comedian feels the same way when the audience is trying to add to their set as I do when my family tries to give me, the only one who’s a licensed to practice law, incorrect legal advice.

And Dave was absolutely heckled.  There was no way with that many people that the audience could have stayed church-mouse quiet though.  There was probably 20,000 people in the place.  There is also just something about Dave Chappelle’s voice that make people want to imitate his punch lines.  I’ve seen this ever since his show got big in 2004.  I can remember hearing an imitation of Dave’s Little Jon or Rick James impression randomly shouted out during the halls in between college classes at Cal State LA.  White, black, Hispanic, Asian; the appeal of this guys stuff is pretty broad.  But the Comcast Theater was filled with a lot more clumsy love of this performer than any kind of ill-will.  Unfortunately, I can’t say the same thing about Dave’s performance.

After a 10 minute intermission after Flight of the Conchords, a silver screen was raised in the back of the stage and intense reggae was played.  This was the big moment everyone had been waiting for.  Three hours of admittedly lackluster acts (Hannibal Buress killed though) were not enough to take the edge off everyone’s excitement.  Chappelle walked out and was met with just intense applause and a standing ovation.

The audience did not immediately quiet down.  “This guy’s been gone for eight years!!!”  I heard more than a few “we love yous.”  I also heard what I think was some references to his Rick James bit (heckling).  Hey, I’m annoyed by it too.  At no point was I unable to hear Dave over the audience though.  The excitement level of the crowd died down a little and Dave started his set.

I think part of this was due to the fact that there appeared to be a microphone set up designed to pick up the crowd noise.  Maybe if Chappelle didn’t want to hear the crowd this should have been turned off.  I just didn’t hear like anything other than background noise to me though.  I never couldn’t hear Chappelle.

Something was wrong right away though.  He didn’t seem drunk or high, but Dave looked tired when he walked out.  Not the usual manic intensity that I remember.  He mentioned how he just turned 40 and that it sucked (he had a great joke about how he even lost interest jerking off half-way through the other day).  One thing that really struck me was that Dave actually did somehow look older.  Chappelle always looked like he was in his early 20’s.  I’ve never seen him with hair, but his shaved head looked like it was balding now, rather than just being shaved like it was in his earlier days.  He’s gained maybe 30 pounds from where you probably remember him being.  This isn’t really indicative of anything other than the fact he’s actually eight years older and that’s how time works.

The rest of the material Dave did do, maybe five or ten minutes worth, centered around his high-profile hiatus from what appeared to be the pinnacle of his career.  Of course, after being gone for such a long time the obvious questions are where were you?  Why did you leave?  That must be tough after such an abrupt and high profile exit.  It’s the Paris, Texas problem.  It must be hard to come back from that.  The same shame and embarrassment of having to deal with things when you get back from running away is the same reason I don’t think I’ll ever see my friend Benson again.  It’s tragic when someone with such great gifts Atlas Shrugs their way off to Colorado or South Africa.

Dave said he traveled the world.  That he visited China and saw the Great Wall (“It truly is a Great Wall”).  He said women in a Japanese night club were all over him (“He indicated the reason may have been he was dressed up in a Hello Kitty suit”).  But as he went through some of this material, it was clear even as he delivered his punchlines something was bothering him.  The audience was laughing ( I laughed very hard for that first ten minutes or so).  He kind of dropped off at the end of that one though.  I get the impression that it was sort of like Dave was embarrassed of the joke, or upset the audience found it funny.  He then segued into a bit on celebrity meltdowns, Michael Richardson’s Laugh Factory rant into comments on the recent Paula Deen revelations.  This is maybe where he started to deviate from his set in response to something someone in the audience said.  Dave’s take on it was that he would love to hire Paula Deen to both be his personal chef and also say racist things to him and his friends.  The Paula Deen stuff I thought was part of the plan.  But somewhere in there, Dave veered off course.  After delivering a pretty racist punchline (N-word plus fried chicken), it’s almost like he was expecting the audience to laugh just so he could confirm his own bias.  At some point he straight up told everyone that they were a terrible audience.  He said this more than a dozen time.  The first time he said it everyone laughed.  Then it grew old quickly.

At first this commentary on how bad the audience was appeared to be part of the act.  It became obvious he careened off course though.  Ten minutes into his set Dave explicitly stated that he had a plane at the runway and was ready to go back to Africa.  Dave attempted to control ambient noise and randomized shout outs by holding out how great he was over the audience and trying to shame it at large.  The jokes stopped, he sat down and opened his cigarette pack.  He said: “I have a pack of cigarettes, a glass of water and a towel, I can stay here for hours.”  Ok, that one’s not as funny.  He said one girl on the balcony shouted to him “I’m in college I paid money to see this show.”  Dave’s response, “I don’t care, I didn’t get to go to college.”  Wait what?  He’s had eight years off, he could have done a PhD if he wanted.  Is he honestly upset about this?

And what he said got nastier.  Dave lamented that he could have done the third season of Chappelle’s Show and gotten the $50 million if he had just went on the air and read the phone book, but that his ego wouldn’t let him.  He said to the audience repeatedly that he was getting paid anyway, whether he told jokes or not.  He said he learned his lesson to take the money and run.  He immediately went to his trump card; I’ll never do stand up again, I’m just going to smoke a cigarette.  Ok.  Right.  Totally reasonable.

And Dave told the crowd his story about how he opened for an MS-addled Richard Pryor.  And how Richard Pryor had to cut the show off half-way through saying he couldn’t go on, and that the audience gave him a standing ovation and said “we love you” because the audience knew it was the last time they would ever see him (Pryor) again.  Dave told the story of a Damon Wayans set he saw where an audience member yelled “do homey the clown.”  Dave indicated that Damon Wayans responded by farting into the microphone, then said “homey don’t play that,” and walked off the stage.  Heroic maybe, but certainly not diplomatic.

The word is contempt.  Dave sees these rebellions by performers as preserving integrity.  I understand, you’re doing your craft and you want to be able to do it without distraction.  You don’t do jokes on command.  Even Hannibal Buress had a good one in his bit about how he responded to someone asking him to tell a joke at a bar after hearing he was a comedian.

The problem is, he could never possibly get what he wanted in the venue he was at.  The problem with all this vitriol is that when he started protesting the audience, it made what looked to me like a minor distraction into a revolt.  Dave demanded absolute attention and silence.  He had commanded it.  The response turned into booing.  There was no turning back.

Dave attempted to have the crowd police itself by saying if the person next to you was yelling, to just punch that person in the kidneys.  As pointed out in the Hartford Courant article on the performance though, this just contributed to the creation of more noise.  And it was after he was silent or drifting for fifteen minutes after he had stopped his act.

One distinct flavor I keep getting from that night was that Dave wanted to punish the audience, wanted to shame everyone.  To what end?  I really got that feeling after he looked ashamed after the Paula Deen jokes he told.  It’s almost like he wanted to catch the audience laughing at a really racist joke and then make them feel bad for it.  BUT IT WAS HIS JOKE!  Why did Chappelle’s Show have so much racial humor in it if Chappelle is disgusted by racism?  It’s a double-standard.

Another thing that I found odd was his response to something an audience member apparently said about Half-Baked.  This stoner comedy is how most people probably learned about Dave Chappelle.  Dave said he would never do another Half-Baked, and that if he did, everyone would really know he was out of money.  Alright, fine.  I’m sure Andy Kindler’s not proud of being the Disney Channel Wizards of Waverly Place, but that’s still something he did.  It’s like Dave Chappelle wants to do racist and pot jokes, and then doesn’t like being identified with them.  Its an uncomfortable self-hating dichotomy.  Maybe the way to bill it is, if you think my old stuff was good, you need to see my new stuff.

Arguably, Dave shouldn’t have been there.  Although the show was billed as an ensemble festival, it clearly would have had a significantly smaller draw if it was just the other acts (I think if Hannibal Buress ever does a show I’ll go see that one maybe).  He could clearly sell out the Bushnell like Louis CK did last year by himself and probably make more money.  There was three hours of beers on top of a venue known for country music tour and jam band parking lot tailgating.  The Bushnell by contrast is a real theater; no cheap seats, less emphasis on drinking, no rock bands.

The most obvious thing Dave could have done to keep the crowd quiet was continue his set.  Everyone was quieter because he was paralyzing them with laughter.  I think if I was in the same situation, if the sound bothered me I would have dealt with it in either one of two ways.  1.  I would have given the audience some sort of warning my expectations were different.  If he had said up front: “I demand absolute silence,” or “we’re filming this for HBO,” he could have started out on the right foot.  2.  Ten minutes in, Dave probably SHOULD have just walked off stage.  He could have gone away for a minute, and then come back to standing ovation again.  He could have made his point in a way that wasn’t so blatantly insulting to the huge mass of people that were just quietly sitting so they could see the show they paid for.  Contrast this with Louis CK at the Beacon Theater (on Netflix).  His show starts up with a warning, and at the first heckle, “sir, shut the fuck up.”  There are no more outbursts.

What bothers me the most is that this guy is a stand up master.  He knows how to control the crowd, had a lot of tools, and opted for the worst possible choice.  A performer taunting 20,000 people that he took their money and doesn’t need to perform.  Constantly stating that he didn’t need the money.  That’s messed up.  It’s condescending.  It turned from being kind of a funny commentary to a jeer.  We had a choice of correcting things or making a selfish stand.  Great job, you just lost 29900 fans asshole.

There were other clues Dave was ready to go nuclear right away.  In response to the noise, he kept stating that “you guys didn’t do this for the other acts, right?”  Truth be told, the audience didn’t.  But a lot of those acts were hours ago, and they weren’t the real draws.  Again, perhaps Ross could have come out before introducing Chappelle and told everyone that they REALLY needed to be quiet.  Likely you won’t get their perspectives however, because it would be bad for business.  They’re under contract, and they know what their obligations.  After all, contracts ARE obligations.  Both parties are expected to perform their end of the bargain in good faith.

At the end of the thirty or forty minutes Dave was out there Jeff Ross came out and sheepishly told everyone to have a good night.  A few minutes of material might have smoothed things over.  Honestly, I would like to hear what the other comedians at the festival thought of Dave’s behavior.  They won’t tell you though because they understand they’re working for a company and they’re under an obligation to do a good job and what’s best for everyone.  Dave made everyone else on this tour look bad.  I’m sure his co-comedians understand that him dropping a highly visible bomb probably hurts their prospect of the show continuing.  It’s absolutely selfish.

There is Chris Rock special from a few years back.  The catch, and the truly amazing part (other than great entertainment from a great entertainer) is that Rock is doing the special as an amalgamation of three separate performances.  It’s the same set, taped in three different locations, perfectly synced up (better than Dark Side of the Moon and Wizard of Oz).  I didn’t know about this when I first saw the special, and swore I was hallucinating.  It looked like Rock’s outfit kept changing, even though his sentenced were fluid.  Amazing.  Rock could absolutely not done that without a very disciplined audience though (actually three audiences).  To have an A+ set you need a better audience.  That is 100% certain.

I can remember being in 6th grade and my class not being able to calm down, and my teacher making everyone grab a dictionary and start copying as a punishment.  I remember this teacher being pretty cool, but that this was an arbitrary and unfair punishment when applied to all the students when a big portion of them weren’t acting up.  It was an authority exercise.  And it’s humiliating when you’re drawn into that mess because of someone else.  It also makes the disciplinarian look bad.

The reality of the situation is that Dave Chappelle did have a meltdown, but that that happened eight years ago.  He never came back from Africa.  It’s unclear what he wants, maybe the last eight years he’s been looking for a way to articulate it.  The problem I have is that this guy took my money.  Yes, conditions were less than ideal.  But ask yourself this: If Drew Brees or Tom Brady walked off the field because some fans were yelling at them, would you lose respect for them?  Dave is a hero only to himself.  His behavior wasn’t just selfish, it was contemptuous.  Dave Chappelle went out of his way to insult over 20,000 people on Thursday night.  If he doesn’t want to do stand up, he shouldn’t do stand up.

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