Last week I went to see Dave Chappelle, Flight of the Conchords, and several others perform at the Comcast Theater for the Oddball Comedy Festival in Hartford, Connecticut. I’m sure you’ve heard about it. I was part of the worst crowd ever. According to one writer on Ebony.com, I, as a white audience member, “demanded a shuck and jive” of a black performer. An unreasonable expectation. You know. Like standing in front of 10,000 drunk people and expecting reverential silence.
According to Mr. Chappelle himself, Hartford, a city which is 43.4% Hispanic, 38.7% black, and 15.8% non-Hispanic white, consists entirely of “evil” and “young, white alcoholics.” I guess I don’t blame him for wanting to “pull a reverse Kramer.”
Hey, Dave. Glad you finally remembered that you’re the one with the microphone.
The problem with the “evil hecklers” argument
As New York Times comedy critic Jason Zinoman noted on Vulture:
My issue with the “evil hecklers ruined Dave Chappelle’s set” narrative is that during some shows he really courts and even feeds off of audience interplay. He riffs off comments people yell out and asks questions. I once saw him turn a show into an elaborate question and answer session, like a press conference. Some comics establish a very clear relationship with the audience that is like one at a traditional play. Some shows Chappelle does that, too; other times, like what this one looked to be, he does not or, at least, the lines seem blurred. So I am not excusing the people yelling and booing during the show. They should stop. But context matters. And this is a huge crowd late in the evening. In responding to noise, most comics plow forward, tell their jokes. When Chappelle did not, and instead started chatting with people, the dynamic shifted.
Indeed. The audience did shift. He spoke to us. Asked us questions. People answered. Suddenly it was heckling. Suddenly it was a problem.
Suddenly he was insulting the crowd at large. I’m not a stand-up comic, but I’m pretty sure insulting 10,000 people isn’t the smartest way to endear them. But hey, he’s the professional. I’m just some jerk with a blog.
What about the fans who love you?
The problem with the whole “fuck Hartford” narrative is that 10,000 people went to see Dave Chappelle, and even if you buy the “shitty white frat boys” argument, that still probably leaves 9500 people who love and support Dave.
You know what you didn’t hear? When Dave repeated what an audience member said: “You are surrounded by people who love you, Dave.” And the crowd erupted in cheers.
You could’ve taken the show back, Dave. You could’ve said thanks and told some jokes. You could’ve gotten us back on your side.
Instead, you sat in silence. And you acted shocked that a crowd full of people drinking all day couldn’t just sit quietly like a classroom full of children.
What’d you expect?
Hey, Dave. You want a captive audience? Book a small club where you can kick out every idiot recording your material.
You know what I wouldn’t do? Book yourself as a headliner on a festival tour (and when you think festival, don’t you usually think “monastery-like”?) in an open-air stadium with 10,000 people. And don’t tell people to show up at 5:30, buying $10.00 Coors Lite (come on, gross) for four and a half hours waiting for you to show up.
And then expect them all to sit in total silence while you decide if you feel like telling a joke.
I’m sorry, man, but that shit just ain’t reasonable. You’ve got the microphone. You’ve got thousands of people who wanna hear you speak. Fucking talk. I can’t hear any hecklers. I want to hear you.
Well, as long as you aren’t basically telling us we’re fucking awful. I already knew that. I could’ve saved myself 20 bucks and stayed home in my underwear.
So… what really happened?
You know what I saw, Dave? I saw a few drunk, rowdy assholes, yes. But I also saw a man who didn’t really want to be there. Who wasn’t feeling it. Who couldn’t get into a rhythm. Who turned on the crowd well before the crowd turned on him.
I saw a man who isn’t quite ready to headline a festival tour with 10 minutes of material. I get it, man. I do. Writing humor is hard. Performing it is even harder (and that’s why I don’t do it).
The last time somebody bombed that hard, it ended in radiation sickness.
I kid, Dave. I kid because I love. I saw you at UConn before any idiot ever repeated “I’m Rick James, bitch!” You killed. Fucking killed. And you were on stage for like an hour just riffing. I’ve never seen anything like it.
And I’ve never seen anything like what happened last week.
Hartford doesn’t have a microphone.
It must be nice, Dave. To get to set the narrative. To tell everybody what a shitty crowd we were. How we deserved it. How we’re a bunch of evil alcoholics (half true).
We don’t get a microphone. And let’s admit it: It’s pretty easy to shit on Hartford. I do it all the time. Except nobody listens to me. I mean, it’s bad enough that the Whalers left. We don’t really need you piling on.
And now? You could’ve taken responsibility. You could’ve admitted that it wasn’t your best night. Or at least blamed the show on a few bad apples.
Let’s face it, Dave. This isn’t the first time it’s happened. You walked off in Sacramento. You walked off in Miami to avoid the “reverse Kramer” there, too. You even were deemed a safety risk and forced an early landing on a private jet once.
Maybe it’s us. Maybe it’s Hartford and Sacramento and Miami and the pilot and we’re all a bunch of angry, racist bigots.
But maybe, just maybe… it’s a little bit you, too.