It's been described as a meltdown, but it really wasn't. A meltdown is usually considered an event where someone goes unhinged, becomes emotionally unstable and makes crazy decisions. At no point during Dave Chappelle's August 29 show at the Oddball Festival in Hartford, CT was he ever anything other than in measured control of his actions. I was part of the audience at the show.
Dave Chappelle was, of course, the closer for the night. Although the show was billed as a festival, Chappelle was clearly the headliner. As a result, much of the crowd showed up midway through, missing good performers like Al Madrigal and Kristen Schaal (one of the first acts of bad decision making of the night on the part of the crowd ). Later on, the crowd sat patiently through the other large act of the night, the Flight of the Conchords, but it was clear that they were waiting for Dave.
He literally needs no introduction. During a brief intermission following the Flight of the Conchords, the stage crew puts up a giant white sheet to cover the stage. Midway through a random rap song, his shadow appears. Seconds later it drops. The crowd is yelling and on their feet. The yelling won't stop for the next half hour.
At first, Dave Chappelle seems fine with the commotion, as people were still filing into the room, and still yelling, and he promised some time to allow people to get settled. Even the two jokes that he was able to tell were some of the best bits of comedy that I've ever heard. He even promised us that they were the easy to write, warm-up jokes, and that it was only uphill from there. The crowd, though, wasn't just getting settled. At that point, they were so loud that it would have been very difficult for him to perform.
It was a mix of "We love you, Chappelle" and constant chants from famous skits from Chappelle's Show, a phenomenon that has occurred in the past that has been cited as the reason he took a break from comedy. (For the record, even if it's a reference to your favorite skit, if you're a white guy, it might not be the best idea to yell out "White Power" at a black comedian).
At first, his demeanor is like a Kindergarten teacher's (well, a Kindergarten teacher who says they can wait out the classroom with cigarettes). He sits on the edge of the stage, lights one up and waits. The crowd does not get the picture. This goes on for a few minutes. Amazingly, the crowd doesn't get it.
The crowd and Chappelle seem to turn a corner at about the same time. The "I love you Chappelle" chants turn into "Come on, Chappelle," just about when Dave decides that the crowd isn't going to be salvaged. The remaining 20 minutes is a mix of stories and lectures from Chappelle, including:
- His telling of a story about when he was 17. He was opening for Richard Pryor, in the middle of his battle with MS. Chappelle did well, though he claims that he purposely held back so to not upstage Pryor. Pryor went onstage for 20 minutes before telling the crowd that he couldn't continue due to illness. His crowd gave him a standing ovation. (One of the harsher things I heard shouted from the crowd after that was that "Richard Pryor was spinning in his grave").
- Chappelle would respond to random hecklers. One woman exclaimed: "I'm in college and I paid money for this." Chappelle responded: "So what, I never went to college and I once paid for sex."
- A woman near the front row handed Chappelle a book she had written about her time in prison, so he read random passages from that.
- He told us about a show Damon Wayans did. He told a story about how Wayan's crowd kept yelling for Homey the Clown (a sketch from In Living Color that Wayans was known for) so Wayans farted into the mic and left the stage. "I'd never seen somebody do that before," Chappelle said.
The crowd grows hostile as time goes on and as they start to first wonder, then realize, then panic, that he isn't getting back to the comedy. Some people seem outwardly angry, some exasperated. "Come on, Chappelle," some yell, as if their plea will be any different than any of the others and make him change course.
Throughout this, Chappelle's demeanor was of a father disappointed at his child, but not that disappointed, like when a child breaks a toy. The dad wishes the kid would be more careful, but overall the dad doesn't care about the object and is a little bit sad for the kid. He was clear to point out that he was only disappointed in some of us, and most of those people would even be forgiven.
Towards the end, he looks at his watch and explains that his 25 minutes will be up soon, and in three minutes he'll be on his way to the bank. From there, people begin to pour out of the stage. Finally, as soon as the timer hits 25, "New Slaves," off Kanye West's new album Yeezus starts to blare and Chappelle walks of stage. It's a perfect song choice, especially since its defiant, fuck-the-haters tone is punctuated by the boos of what seems like the entire audience. (An important note that seems to be overlooked and misreported elsewhere: it was Chappelle leaving the stage that prompted booing, not the other way around.)
The ultimate irony in all of this is that the crowd maybe got the ultimate crowd experience. A comedian who isn't going to put up with the trappings of fame and success, who once flew to Africa to escape it before (he's got a plane idling in New York for after the show, he joked at one point). Chappelle's stature might require that his stand-up takes place in semi-outdoor concert venues, but that doesn't mean he isn't going to act the same way he would towards a rude crowd in a comedy club.
A lot of comedians have to perform in front of an audience. You hear that in documentaries, in talking to them, in their interviews. Stand-up is their therapy. Dave Chappelle probably isn't one of those comics. His show in Hartford proves that he may be one of the few comedians that knows that you need him more than he needs you. Indeed, there were references, some overt, that the Funny or Die's "Oddball" comedy tour would be his last. He may or may not have been serious, but what was striking is the overall calmness in which he delivered that message. He wasn't quitting out of anger, or failure. It simply just wasn't worth putting up with us anymore. He's one of the few comedians today who has the power to strike back against the idea that a high-priced ticket gives you license to do whatever you want at a comedy show.
He promised that when asked why he quit comedy he wouldn't call Hartford out by name, but assured us that we were the reason for it.