A year ago, Josh Modell described the scene when Dave Chappelle, testing the waters with a few quietly announced stand-up appearances after the seven-year layoff that followed his abandonment of Chappelle’s Show, stepped onstage at the Chicago House Of Blues:
“Signs inside and outside the House Of Blues said ‘NO HECKLING / NO RECORDING.’ The gathered audience, mostly guys, had obviously heard that Chappelle hated rowdy, disruptive crowds. But practically the minute he stepped onstage, one guy in front of me started recording, and the other started yelling. Strangely enough, some of those interactions sparked Chappelle’s best moments that night. It pains me to say that, because I plunked down my money to see Dave Chappelle be funny, not to fend off attention-seeking whelps, but it speaks to where Chappelle’s head is at that a guy who yelled, apropos of nothing, ‘Chicago blue cheese!’ started a joke that Chappelle returned to for the rest of the night. Or that another loudmouth who yelled ‘We love you people!’—meaning African-Americans, trying to be provocative—would get Chappelle started down a thoughtful road on race. He wasn’t fazed, which is a great sign.”
The signs seemed less optimistic August 29, when Chappelle walked offstage a few minutes into a show in Hartford, Connecticut, reportedly after yahoos in the audience wouldn’t shut up long enough for him to get a rhythm going. In an Ebony piece that begins with the words, “I just watched Dave Chappelle quit stand up,” Lesli-Ann Lewis commented on the turning point in that evening’s show. “Maybe it was his gratuitous use of the N-word to a mostly White audience. Maybe it was the overpriced beer that, to my amazement, everyone seemed to keep buying. Whatever it was, there was a palpable change.” The reported heckling from the audience, mostly in reference to prior performances, even included an odd reference to his 2006 Oprah interview. As Lewis explained, Chappelle finally became agitated, saying, “I’ve been up here a while now and I thought it was me, but now I’m sure it’s you. There is definitely something wrong with you,” before taking a seat on stage.
Chappelle walked away from his TV show because he no longer felt that he was in full control of his material and how some white audiences were receiving it. He wanted to take some time off, he explained in TIME in 2005, so that when he came back, he could be sure that he was “dancing and not shuffling.” According to Lewis, white knuckleheads in the Hartford audience were hell-bent on getting him to shuffle, as “white males demanded a shuck and jive… [and that] he do characters who out of the context of the show look more like more racist tropes than mockery of America’s belief in them.”
Chappelle’s decision to disappear from the stage for several years recalls a similar “meltdown” by another great black comedian—the greatest stand-up comedian of the modern era, Richard Pryor. In the 1960s, at a time when mainstream success was even more elusive for black performers than it is today, Pryor made himself a star on TV variety and talk shows and a Las Vegas fixture by courting white audiences with an act and persona nakedly modeled after Bill Cosby. Pryor’s own “meltdown” came one night in 1967 at the Aladdin Hotel, when, playing in front of a sold-out crowd, he suddenly blurted out, “What the fuck am I doing here?” and walked off the stage. He vanished into the Berkeley counterculture scene of the late ’60s, sought out political figures and writers and other artists who could help direct his journey, and gradually found his real voice. The experience must have been very different, though, from what Chappelle went through when he quit his TV show. Pryor couldn’t go on being a hollow man, doing a version of someone else’s act, because he had greater things inside him struggling to get out. Chappelle grew frustrated and fed up at a point when he had seemingly had his breakthrough, and was doing the best work of his career.
Pryor didn’t only reinvent himself that one time, though. In 1979, he released his great performance Richard Pryor: Live In Concert, in which he applied his hard-won mastery of stand-up art to a 78-minute summation of his life and his point of view. Later that year, he—like Chappelle—made a pilgrimage to Africa, and came back to the U.S. to publicly recant his use of the word “nigger.” He seemed poised to grow and expand his vision, as a man and an artist. But it didn’t take. He sank deeper and deeper into drugs, and in 1980, he lit himself on fire, in a suicide attempt that was sold to the press as a freebasing accident—a ruse that Pryor kept going in his discussion of the event in his 1982 comeback concert movie, Richard Pryor: Live On The Sunset Strip. (It’s amazing what people choose to be embarrassed about.) There’s a weird moment in that film when people in the audience are heard to yell requests for “the ‘Mudbone’ routine,” and Pryor, reluctantly (or feigning reluctance) pulls up a stool and does his Mudbone character, promising that it will be for the last time, anywhere. A year later, perhaps missing the adulation that had greeted him on his return to stand-up, Pryor shot one more concert film, Richard Pryor… Here And Now. He does Mudbone in it, too, though no one asks him to.
Pryor came out of the burn ward more popular than ever. For a moment, in the 1980s, he was the No. 1 box-office attraction in America and the subject of a Newsweek cover story; he had a deal to develop projects of his own liking through his own company, Indigo Productions. But nothing came of it, except for a string of pathetic starring vehicles and the deterioration of both his spirit and his stand-up skills, which is evident in the later concert movies. It was as if Pryor’s, well, fire went out just when he had the clout inside the industry to do great things. Commenting on “the vast outpouring of affection for him” when he was in the hospital, Pauline Kael questioned, “How does an ornery, suspicious man who brought the language and grievances of the black underclass onto the stage deal with acceptance?”
Right now, an overabundance of acceptance isn’t Dave Chappelle’s problem. Lesli-Ann Lewis and other writers who are sympathetic to his plight went out of their way, in their reports on that Hartford concert, to stress that the hell Chappelle would catch for walking off was undeserved. (Chappelle’s own exit line, as he realized what was happening, was “I’m going to have to read about this shit for months.”) No matter how sensible and reasonable his interviews and public statements were explaining his reasons for walking away from Chappelle’s Show, at a certain level, there was no way to penetrate the public reaction that he was walking away from how many millions of dollars? That attitude was connected to another, that it was easy money, millions instantly injected into his bank account. It’s not as if he would have to have done anything special to earn it. The show was already successful; he was over the hump.
Mike Myers, who may be nobody’s idea of a Kubrickian perfectionist, got similar treatment a dozen years ago, when he canceled plans for a movie based on his SNL character Dieter, on the grounds that he couldn’t get the script to work and he thought it would be terrible. This inspired a lot of commentary in the press and on the Internet. Some of it questioned Myers’ sanity, the basic thrust of which was, “But nobody ever expected it might be good! If you’re not going to do it, you have to explain why you think it won’t make a fortune!”And some of these comments came not from industry weasels, but from average-Joe ticket buyers. Just as there are plenty of low- or middle-income Americans who support lower taxes on the wealthy because they see themselves, in the words of John Steinbeck, as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” there must be people who live vicariously through their favorite entertainers, and see their rejection of a big payday as more of a slap in the face than churning out substandard work.
No doubt Chappelle is right to be wary about how his racial humor is perceived by some in the audience. Although I put a lot of faith in first-hand accounts like Lewis’ and trust her and Chappelle’s instincts, I can’t tell for sure whether the drunks who ruined the show in Hartford were racists. But I can tell they were morons. One of the big defenses for the audience members that emerged in the wake of the debacle was that they paid good money for their seats. I’m sure they did, but what kind of idiot pays good money to be within a few feet of one of the funniest people alive, so that he can hear himself yell “Rick James!”? More importantly, what kind of waste of sperm and egg thinks that the other people at the event, who also paid to get in, want to hear him yelling “Rick James!”?
Chappelle’s responsibility to his audience is to give them the best he has to give, but in the interests of allowing that to happen, he deserves the kind of audience Tig Notaro had for her famous show last year, when she talked about her cancer diagnosis, to a crowd that can be heard audibly encouraging her to keep doing what she’s doing. Instead, he’s trying to reclaim and rediscover his voice in front of crowds that are sometimes dominated by the kind of people who turned Steve Martin’s last arena gigs into celebrations of the art of shouting the comedian’s worn-out catch phrases at him. Martin, one of the most pragmatic and great comedians of his generation, solved the problem by quitting stand-up. If Chappelle hasn’t gotten to that point yet, it’s the audience’s good fortune; we’ll be the ones who benefit from him, and nobody’s going to drive a truck up to his house and try to take back the money. If Chappelle does give up on live performance because nobody can hear what he has to say over a chorus of uncomprehending voices reminding him what he said eight years ago, the failure of responsibility will not be on his side of the stage.