a tricky balance

A Recent History of Dave Chappelle’s Many Onstage Moods

Dave Chapelle introduces Erykah Badu at The Fox Theater on February 19, 2010 in Oakland, California.
Dave Chappelle Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Last night Dave Chappelle quickly lost patience with the loud audience at the Oddball Festival’s stop in Hartford and, after a long standoff of not telling any jokes, he finally walked offstage. The idea of Chappelle as someone prone to walking away if conditions aren’t perfect has been part of his mythology ever since he quit his hit Comedy Central show in 2006. However, while the complicated, press-shy comedian is historically very demanding about audience behavior during his performances — having clubs and his openers warn the crowd that hecklers and people caught filming his show will be ousted — he can also delight in engaging the attendees. Here, as a survey of his wide-ranging, sometimes prickly, sometimes welcoming reaction to his audiences, is a timeline of reports from some of his performances over the past three years.

April 16, 2011, San Francisco

At a last-minute booking at Cobb’s Comedy Club, Chappelle’s opening act tells the crowd that “Dave would be coming up shortly, said that he would be trying out some new stuff. In the nicest way possible, he warned any A-holes who might be in attendance not to shout requests for famous bits or yell dumb crap from The Chappelle Show [sic],” according to FilmDrunk. Chappelle was loose and “hilarious” during the show, according to the report, engaging in spontaneous interplay with the audience.

At times, Dave would sit down on his stool, take a drag from his cigarette, rub his face with his palms, saying nothing, and things would get downright awkward.  But the contrast between the low-energy valleys, and the peaks, where something would spark a bit (either remembered from past shows or fleshed out in his mind en route to this one), made you really believe that Dave was actually just making this shit up as he went along.

June 18, 2012, Dallas

At a short-notice show at the House of Blues, Chappelle wows, according to the Dallas Observer. He even engagingly riffed with the crowd at the end, after a killer set.

He seems to have gotten a bit more existential in his delivery, or at least the material. The bit about the “time traveling” he does, where he went back in time to a concert he thought he had missed in ‘96, but it turns out he was just really high and was actually at the show. The joke ends with him jerking his younger self off. It was a hit. But you could also see that in a Chappelle’s Show sketch. Yes, I want the [bit about a] Lil Wayne detective show to be real too, but he almost seemed like he was testing out new material, covering a lot of “safe” joke territory: brunch, minorities, homosexuals, weed. Yes, when he asked the crowd what we did in Dallas, someone up front said “brunch.” And everyone cheered. I think we were both thankful Dallas shut the fuck up tonight and didn’t heckle or yell at him.

June 19, 2012, Austin

Just one night after the raved-about Dallas show, Chappelle does an equally last-minute, sold-out show in Austin. The very loose show doesn’t leave audiences with the same high, and who was to blame is debated afterwards; some say it was the loud crowd for ruining the show, while others point out Chappelle for indulging them as a way to pad out a rambling show short on jokes. According to Austin’s CultureMap:

[L]ast night, he seemed tired, pausing often to light cigarettes, decide whether he wanted to continue a line of thought, or gaze into the crowd. And while there were some solid bits and brilliant riffs on audience-supplied suggestions, Chappelle himself jokingly admitted he only had “about four minutes of material.”

Before Chappelle came onstage, his opener warned the crowd that heckling would not be tolerated, and “any loud audience members would be promptly removed.” However, when rowdy fans did yell out, they weren’t evicted. Instead, Chappelle indulged them with attention. According to an apologetic Facebook message posted the next day by the venue, the Paramount:

We are not new to comedy and are quite familiar with the removal of that base creature known as The Heckler. We had a veritable slew of them last night and, because of it, the experience was diminished for many. That is a tragic thing. 

Here’s why we didn’t run up and down our 1,200+ seat venue throwing people out: the performer was engaging and encouraging the crowd. When security was escorting a patron out that had been recording the show, Dave Chappelle said he should stay. He then chose to respond and include the audience in his show. This created a domino effect of audience “participation.” While we may not be in agreement with the choice, it was the artist’s choice to interact with the audience that we had to ultimately respect. 

We apologize if you feel that we failed you, but we must react off of our performers’ cues.

July 23, 2011, Miami

Chappelle performs at a charity event, and, when he spots someone in the audience filming his act, he stops telling jokes and stays onstage for 45 minutes doing very little. Some of the live tweets from an audience member:

One woman just yelled, “Can you tell a joke so we can enjoy ourselves!” He got texted four times during his show and actually checked them

I’m just not understanding what threw him off. He’s complained about folks videotaping his set, yelling out loud. I don’t get it

“This crowd is serious as hell,” he says. Dave, we’re trying to figure out what we’ve listened to for the last 25 minutes.

Chappelle says this is a “test of wills.” He keeps saying “tick tock” & he has “nothing but time.” He’s just staring at the crowd & sighing

“As shitty as the show is, I can’t wait to explain this on CNN.” Dave Chappelle complaining about a guy taping his whole show

Then Dave started talking to me, asking if I was putting this on CNN. Yes, from the stage! He’s been on stage 46 minutes & told one joke.

August 20, 2012, Toronto

A reviewer at the Toronto Star finds Chappelle loose and easy, and gamely referencing his reputation as the guy who blew up his own career:

He talked about the last time he performed in Toronto, which was very shortly after he quit, and it was all a little too fresh. Then he talked evasively about showbiz conspiracies and mental exhaustion. He was still pretty damn funny, but now his career implosion has been honed and polished into a series of jokes.

“That’s why you’re here. You heard I’m unstable and you want to see me snap,” he joked. “It’s fun to watch people fail.”

February 27, 2013, New York

In a non-infamous hall of fame evening, Chappelle and Chris Rock unexpectedly get up onstage at the end of the night at the Comedy Cellar. First Chappelle performs for 30 to 45 minutes, and then Rock joins him for an hour of riffing off each other. The evening is epic and breezy, according to a report by the Comic’s Comic:

Just as Chappelle was thanking the audience and preparing to leave, Rock hopped onstage, too, still clad in his hat and jacket.

“Aw, you lucky mother fu@&3rs.” Rock told them.

For the next hour, the two comedic icons just riffed. On the Oscars and Seth MacFarlane’s performance as host. On Kevin Hart showing up at the Cellar the other night, and his two sold-out concerts last fall at Madison Square Garden. On Prince, who’s supposed to be in the city this coming weekend. On Jay-Z and President Barack Obama, and the sights and sounds of a $20,000-per-plate Obama fund-raiser last year at Jay-Z’s 40/40 Club. On passing on the chance to open for Jay-Z during his sold-out concert run at Barclays Arena in Brooklyn. “I had no material!” Rock demurred. “Neither do I!” Chappelle countered. They joked about eating fast food. And on the prospect of calling up another famous friend for a late-late-night outing to eat spaghetti. Just because it’d be funny to Chappelle to have strangers see a group of famous men (married with children), out late together doing something completely normal and boring. Chappelle convinced Rock to text Jay-Z at around 1:30 a.m. After a lack of a reply, they called Arsenio Hall and left a voice-mail message; then later the same for Lenny Kravitz.

March 28, 2013, San Francisco

In a small room called the Chapel, Chappelle performs for two hours. There is a moment when he is bedeviled by someone shouting for the old hits, according to the New York Times:

After mocking a drunk woman who requested that he perform old characters, he struck a wearier tone. “This is a hard context to be funny in,” he said. “What’s the point?”

But for the most part, he enjoys mixing it up with the audience.

Perched on a stool, he talked to his listeners as if they were old friends, so at ease that they frequently talked back. This became a dialogue that often turned raucous, but even when the room spun out of control, the heckler earning angry responses, Mr. Chappelle looked calm, even pleased with the comedic possibilities.

“It’s like flying coach in here,” Mr. Chappelle said, in one of many knowing jokes that skewers his success.

 June 25, 2013, Knoxville

Chappelle is again flattened by hecklers shouting out TV catchphrases and trying to engage him. From the Knoxville Sentinel:

David Chappelle fell into apparent resignation before a sold-out show at the Tennessee Theatre this week.

“You win, Knoxville,” the Comedy Central legend said in the second of his two shows Tuesday night. “But I’ll be back.”

Audience members yelling from the shadows distracted the comic. People using cellphones and hecklers — those calling to Chappelle during his set — were escorted out through both shows.

“I heard it was 40 people that got kicked out,” Knoxville comic Spanky Brown, who opened for Chappelle, said Wednesday. “I didn’t feel pity for Dave, I felt embarrassed for the town.”

A History of Dave Chappelle’s Many Onstage Moods