(Photo Credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)
Editor’s Note: The following Dispatch features language not suitable for children, the workplace, or the overly sensitive.
One night in Hartford, Connecticut, I saw something few people have actually seen, yet many claim to know how to recognize when it happens. But more on this in a little bit.
With my newly-Northern-acclimated Connecticut cousin Laurie, I drove up to Hartford to attend the Funny or Die Oddball Comedy Tour. Hartford’s Comcast Theatre (which is misspelled – “theatre” refers to the genre, while “theater” is an actual venue, but I digress) hosted the tour, featuring an outdoor freakshow, an up-and-coming comedians stage, and a duo singing songs about how big the lead singer’s breasts were. On the main stage, inside an open-air venue of 7,500 seats with a capacity of 20,000+ on the upper lawn behind the seating area, the Oddball tour featured Daily Show veterans Al Madrigal and Kristen Schaal, deadpan one-liner artist Demetri Martin, professional up-and-comer Hannibal Buress, and the previous main event, Flight of the Conchords – “previous” because Dave Chappelle joined the tour late, and as a surprise.
When the tour was announced, it seemed like a fun time, but after Chappelle signed on, Funny or Die needed more tour dates, quickly. It’s with those additional dates that Laurie and I decided to attend the Hartford, CT show, as opposed to Camden, New Jersey a week later (this coming weekend). As Hartford was closer to her, I made the trip up to CT to see one of my comedy heroes, as well as one of the more justifiable holders of the “Funniest Person on Earth” crown during Season 2 of Chappelle’s Show.
There wasn’t a single person at school the day after “Rick James” that wasn’t quoting the whole episode. You remember where you were when you saw it. Or maybe for you, it was “Prince Playing Basketball” or “The Player Haters Ball” or even “Clayton Bigsby” from the pilot. The sight of Dave Chappelle playing a blind, and black white supremacist challenged and changed comedy, choking the crowd and home audience with laughter. From “The Niggar Family” to “The Mad Real World” to “Racial Draft,” Dave Chappelle rested on the top of the hilarity world, untouched, as the undisputed king of side-splitting, controversial comedy. The country loved him, his fans adored him, and I was inspired by his laid-back attitude towards success. No less a fan was Inside the Actors’ Studio host James Lipton, who hand-picked Dave Chappelle to sit in his seat when it was time for Lipton to give us his favorite curse word.
Suffice it to say, Laurie and I bought tickets, not for the Funny or Die Oddball Tour, but for Dave Chappelle.
We arrived at Comcast Theatre to a packed crowd of well over 20,000 people anxious to see Chappelle. The Freakshow outside the theater kept asking if we were ready for Chappelle. The host of the night, “The Roastmaster General” Jeff Ross (fresh from The Comedy Central Roast of James Franco with cornrows atop his pale, sweaty head), asked if we were ready for Chappelle. The other comedians made jokes about how ready they (and we) were for Chappelle.
We were ALL ready for Chappelle.
Al Madrigal led off the night, turning the sparse crowd into his own intimate comedy club. Kristen Schaal had an off night, with jokes about being the only woman on the tour falling flat before the crowd. Hannibal Buress brought the noise, and the flashiest silver pants I’ve ever seen. Demetri Martin brought his ruthless yet effective one-liner shtick to resounding applause. At intermission, Laurie and I walked back into the main lobby for more overpriced beer. The gift stand for souvenirs featured about 20 different Flight of the Conchords T-shirts, Al Madrigal CD’s, but it was clear Chappelle arrived late to the tour, as the FOTC shirts had well-done signs promoting their brand, while the Chappelle paraphernalia was advertised on 8×11 printed paper.
So I bought a five-dollar keychain with the Chappelle’s Show logo. Five dollars. For a chain and a hook. They didn’t put bourbon in it or nothing, just the keychain.
After intermission, Flight of the Conchords took the stage, and the crowd was not only larger than before, but increasingly intoxicated. As the Australian duo performed their set, a particularly drunk young man in front of me began to make his lack of sobriety known.
I don’t follow Flight of the Conchords, I couldn’t name two of their songs, and even after listening to their set, I wasn’t sure if “Albie” is actually a song of theirs, but the gentleman in front of Laurie and me had his heart set on requesting “ALBIIIIIIIIIE” at the top of his lungs, between songs. (A quick Google search led me to “Albie,” a song by Flight of the Conchords whose full name is “Albie, The Racist Dragon.” It’s a fitting bit of research that will segue nicely into what’s about to happen.)
He screamed so hard, the joint tucked away in his ear nearly fell out.
As the collective sobriety of the Hartford crowd slowly disappeared, it was finally time for the main event. After a brief break (for people to grab more beers, for more weed aroma to circulate from the lawn above, for those in the audience needing to stand in line for 20 minutes to relieve themselves of way too much beer), it was finally time for Chappelle.
Behind a top-to-bottom gray curtain, a shining light illuminated the bald silhouette of the genius himself. And without further introduction, Dave Chappelle emerged to thunderous applause, cheers, hoots and the love of a grateful audience.
Chappelle started by greeting those at the end of the bathroom line rushing back to their seats. He greeted a few, made pleasantries. “Don’t worry, I’m here, no need to rush, we got this,” he said to the excited crowd. Someone in the front row asked about his future while people settled in, and he said, “No, you better believe it, I’m back.”
Again, to thunderous applause.
That kept going.
And turned into yelling.
And then heckling.
And calls for his previous acts. I heard at least one person yell out, “I’M RICK JAMES, BITCH!”
After shaking the first wave off, Chappelle started with his act, which included a racial joke about Paula Deen, and how he wanted to hire her as his personal chef. But the screams continued. The crowd wanted his old act. They wanted him to perform for them. They wanted him to meet their expectations. They wanted him to be what they assumed he was: A comedic icon, a voice of his generation, a shining light of illuminating comedy for all to behold and marvel, a powerful and raw legend of comedy.
But they wouldn’t quiet down. They wouldn’t respect the genius that they’d come to expect. The crowd was hell-bent on turning this legend into a YouTube act about whom they could comment anonymously, other than the headliner most had paid well over 80 dollars a pop to admire in person. They wanted him to be more than what he was.
After the Paula Deen joke, the mood changed for Chappelle. “After about three minutes, I was thinking ‘It might be me,’ but I’m sure it’s not. I’m pretty sure it’s you. I have a private jet on standby. It’ll fly me to Newark, and it’s an 8:30 to South Africa in the morning. I’ll do it again, I swear to God I’ll do it, I don’t give a fuck.”
He added, “I learned the last time. I got paid before the show.”
More thunderous applause, but the thunder rolled a bit less intensely this time.
That was when Laurie and I learned that we weren’t watching a comedy set anymore. We were seeing a guy frustrated by overblown expectations.
After a couple more attempts to start his act, and being repeatedly interrupted by the drunken crowd (and then some, as not only was there a distinct aroma in the crowd, but our friend “Albie” in front of us lit his joint, and two whole seconds later a security person walked up to him and said, “PUT THAT OUT. RIGHT NOW.”), Chappelle said, “Someone just screamed out ‘Oprah.’ Does that make any sense? To anyone?”
Someone else screams something from Half-Baked (which I swear sounded like “ON WEED!!!), to which he says, “Sir, you’re never gonna see another Half-Baked movie again. Well, you might, but if you do, make sure that I’ve run out of money.”
The heckles continued. “This shit is noisier than a fucking auction.”
They continued again. “If you love me, write a note, hold on to it until the end of the show, and give it to me then.”
And again, they continued. “I’m fucking quitting this tour tomorrow. Two more nights, and I’ve got enough to build that wing on my house. You guys fucking suck as an audience. As a group, not individually.”
It kept up, and kept up, and kept up. He asked us to Google him and look at the press he’s had. He told us stories about how he hated audiences in the past.
“A guy just said, ‘Be real! Be real!’ This is real as it gets, motherfucker, you’re a terrible audience member.”
Now the crowd doubles in noise level, with about half of the noise coming from the hecklers, and a new half yelling at the yellers to stop yelling. Chappelle even gave us options. “If you see someone yelling, punch them in the kidneys.”
The heckles continue, and Chappelle is now visibly upset. “Hey, it’s your money, motherfucker! I’m not saying another goddamned word until you’re reasonable. Oh shit, look! I got a pack of cigarettes! Oh shit, and a glass of water! And a towel, you know what that means? I can wait for hours.”
Laurie sat bewildered as our image of a legend dissipated at the whim of an increasingly unruly audience. We knew it was over when he started chatting with a lady in the front row who’d hawked her book to every comedian before her. He took the book and started reading from it as the crowd began to get up and leave. The heckles turned to boos, the boos were interrupted by frustrated customers looking for their money’s worth, and the crowd stood in shock.
As Chappelle told stories about how Damon Wayans and Richard Pryor had confronted hecklers, the crowd knew they weren’t going to see his act. With Chappelle ticking the minutes off his contractual obligation, Laurie and I sat, disappointed and angry, but at Chappelle, not the crowd. Our seats prevented us from hearing the front-row hecklers, but we could definitely hear our friend Albie, who tried to calm shut someone up by yelling, “FUCK YOU, CRACKERRRR!!!!”
The crowd kept booing. “You’re booing yourself,” Chappelle said. “You’re booing yourself. I want you to go home tonight, look in the mirror and say ‘Boo.’”
Chappelle closed his “set” with, “Alright guys. I like some of you, I hate some of you, I forgive some of you, but I don’t forgive all of you.” He walked off, and we pleaded with him to come back, but it was over. As he exited, he told the house DJ to put on Kanye West’s “New Slaves” as his exit music.
Jeff Ross ran back to the stage to close the night, asking what the crowd thought of Dave Chapp….”BOOOOOOOO”…..and Flight of the Conchor….”YAAAAAAAY,” and bid us all a good night.
The “cracker” then wanted a piece of Albie. Words were exchanged, and Albie charged at the “cracker,” who wanted nothing more than to return the insult with injury to this drunk idiot. A crowd formed, but Albie was restrained by his friends, and he walked off, yelling at all passers-by on his way out of the Comcast Theatre.
Walking out, Laurie and I tried to put into words what we’d just seen. We knew, like when I heard Yeezus for the first time, that we’d never experienced anything remotely like it, but this time, it hurt. I’d driven four hours to be in Connecticut to see Chappelle, and the crowd prevented that from happening.
Since that night, many, MANY YouTube videos surfaced of the “meltdown,” despite Chappelle saying at the beginning, “Put the phone down, man, I’m not shooting a YouTube special up here.”
Twitter exploded with news of Dave Chappelle’s “meltdown” in Hartford, CT, many shocked that Chappelle’s comeback was going so badly. Many people online made Africa jokes, including Chappelle that night, who lamented turning down $50 million to make Season 3 of Chappelle’s show. “I could have had 22 minutes on television and read the phone book for $50 million,” Chappelle said on stage.
The next day, an Ebony article from someone else at the show made the rounds, saying that Dave Chappelle was basically asked to do a “shuck and jive” for a largely White audience, and that Black people understood why he walked out (capital letters in “White” and “Black” were the author’s style). He was being asked to perform a minstrel show for a large audience, lining up with his reasons for quitting Chappelle’s show, meaning that he got uncomfortable with how hard the white people in the audience were laughing at his racial humor. That opinion has merit, but I don’t think it gets to the root of what was going on.
Chappelle pointed out that this was his first official performance schedule since quitting Chappelle’s Show. He had previously turned up for a few surprise appearances at comedy clubs, including one infamous night when he talked with the front row for 45 minutes without telling any jokes to the larger audience. The Ebony article mentioned that this wasn’t the first time he had been accused of having a “meltdown,” and that his behavior on-stage could be perfectly explained and understood.
The article was right. At first, I thought Chappelle really was having a meltdown. My initial reaction to the hecklers was that there is no stand-up comedian, alive or dead, who hasn’t had to deal with assholes in the audience trying to ruin the show for everyone else, either purposefully or not. I even posted on my Facebook after getting back from the show that he quit on his fans and had a meltdown. The reading of the front-row lady’s book (a woman named “Mack Mama,” who is both the epitome of “shameless” and needs to be Googled to be understood, I’ll let you do the honors) was a page right out of Andy Kaufman’s playbook who, after being heckled into giving a college-age audience one line of his famous “Latka” character from Taxi, pulled out a copy of The Great Gatsby and read it, cover to cover, as the crowd walked out.
It turns out that, like Kaufman, Chappelle is just a man. Imagine that. He’s a guy with a wife and kids. He’s a professional comedian, and a damn good one, but he’s also a real person, and it’s in that respect that Chappelle truly shocked me.
I was mad at Chappelle for not tuning out the hecklers and performing his act. I was upset at looking forward to this for well over a month, only to have it turn into a news story on The Huffington Post about “Dave Chappelle’s SHOCKING MELTDOWN in Hartford.” What I didn’t realize on the night of the show was what I’d just seen. I didn’t understand what it was because to act in such a way had been turned into a cliché, peddled by anonymous bullies on the internet about a perception of how to act and how to carry oneself. I didn’t understand it because popular culture provides so few examples of it, and when you see it happen, it looks like something other than what it very clearly is.
On August 29, 2013, in front of a sold-out crowd at the Comcast Theatre in Hartford, Connecticut, Dave Chappelle kept it real.
He helped make that expression famous, but like all popular things, it wasn’t long before it was turned into a cliché. It’s now something vapid people say when they worry about seeming authentic; consequently, it makes those people sound even less real. But for Dave Chappelle, reality is something he clearly strives for, otherwise he’d have taken the money and continued to please millions of fans, and he clearly didn’t want to take that route. We just happened to be on the wrong side of “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong.”
In his sit-down interview with James Lipton, Dave Chappelle said, “The worst thing to call somebody is ‘crazy.’ It’s dismissive. ‘I don’t understand this person, so they’re crazy.’ That’s bullshit, because these people are not crazy, they’re strong people. Maybe the environment is a little sick.”
Talking to Laurie after the show, we both agreed that neither one of us knew what we had just seen, but we knew that it definitely happened, we definitely saw it, and neither one of us would ever forget it. “It was,” we both kept saying. I walked out of the Comcast Theatre feeling upset I didn’t get to see Dave Chappelle tell jokes. But I never said, “I’m going to see Dave Chappelle do stand-up comedy.” I kept saying (to everyone and no one I knew) that I was going to see Dave Chappelle, and that’s exactly what happened.
The next night, I read the Funny or Die tour went to Pittsburgh, and by then, everyone had heard about what happened in Hartford. So everyone in the crowd was on alert for any potential hecklers. Apparently, Chappelle was greeted warmly, he did his full act, he broke the crowd with laughter, and his family (including his wife on her birthday) joined him on stage after his comedy clinic of a performance.
So, Mr. Chappelle, thank you.
Thank you for the privilege of your real, actual company that night in Hartford. Thank you for not rolling over, for not having to “push through” or be anything you didn’t want to be. Thank you for not breaking at the sign of a few idiots in the crowd, although we didn’t get to see your act. Thank you for being you, and for not changing who you are.
Maybe someday, I’ll get to see you perform. But it really was a privilege to see you.