Dave Chappelle’s first high-profile stand-up tour in some time was, needless to say, highly anticipated. And the first week of the Funny or Die Oddball Comedy Tour seemed to go well. But in Hartford, Conn., Thursday night the comedian abandoned his act, chatting, and having a cigarette to fill up his contractually obligated timeframe of 25 minutes, then walking offstage clearly dissatisfied with the evening. (He wasn’t the only one.) So what happened?
By all accounts, Chappelle was on stage for only a few minutes before he became irritated with the crowd and asked them to be quiet. He then told a few stories to jeers, eventually informing them, “I only have three minutes left. And when my three minutes is up, my ass is gone. I’m going straight to the bank and doing night deposit.” He then walked off stage to Kanye West’s “New Slaves.”
That’s where the consensus ends. A couple of low-quality videos have surfaced on YouTube, and you can clearly hear audience members yelling at him while he tells a story about Richard Pryor. (Sample quotes heard on one video: “You suck!” and “What the fuck is going on here?”) The YouTube user who uploaded one of the videos labeled the performance a “meltdown.”
But others are defending Chappelle. On Laughspin, Dylan P. Gadino dismisses the “meltdown” label as hyperbole. “The crowd in Hartford made it impossible for Chappelle to perform his act properly,” he writes. (Gadino wasn’t in the audience, but Laughspin was at the opening show in Austin, and Chappelle did well, “because, presumably, the crowd wasn’t a bunch of fucking animals,” he writes.) One audience member who was present told Laughspin that Chappelle chatted with audience members initially, while waiting for the rest of the crowd to settle down—but as the noise continued even after he asked them to keep quiet, the comedian became irritable.
As at least one audience member has argued that there was a racial component to the audience reaction. “I'm watching Dave Chappelle quit stand up,” tweeted Lesli-Ann Lewis. “He's tired of White people treating him like he should shuck and jive.” Writing for Ebony, she expanded upon her use of that historically loaded phrase:
Being in that crowd, a sea of drunk White male faces and seeing Chappelle sit there and be jeered at made me uncomfortable. Heckling isn’t uncommon for comedians but often when a comedian as famous as Chappelle puts their foot down, it is usually respected.
While the racial makeup of the crowd was incidental, the way they treated Chappelle is not. It speaks to a long complicated history: the relationship between the White audience and the Black entertainer. This is a relationship you can easily trace to early minstrel shows, to archetypes of Blacks that still define the roles we’re offered today.
One of the reasons Chappelle abandoned his sketch comedy series at its peak of popularity was that he grew uncomfortable with the response to his racially charged humor from white audiences. During the taping of an ill-fated sketch in which he donned blackface as a “black-pixie” who prodded black people to perform as stereotypes, Chappelle noticed that one white male audience member seemed to find it a little too funny. “When he laughed, it made me uncomfortable,” he said. “As a matter of fact, that was the last thing I shot before I told myself I gotta take fucking time out after this. Because my head almost exploded.” Lewis’ reading of Thursday night’s performance seems plausible given this history.
Why was the crowd so rowdy to begin with? Splitsider reports that fans were yelling well-known catchphrases from Chappelle’s Show “right off the bat,” and that it went downhill from there. (By most accounts, there was plenty of alcohol flowing as well.) Chappelle did a riff about Damon Wayans performing stand-up to a crowd that only wanted to see him do Homey the Clown—one of his signature characters from In Living Color—an apparent analogue to his own experience onstage Thursday night.
What this means for the rest of the tour is uncertain. Chappelle himself has yet to comment. But his choice to walk off the stage to “New Slaves”—which features the lyrics “Fuck you and your corporation/ Y’all niggas can't control me/ I know that we the new slaves”—may not bode well.