Recently I went to the Comcast Theater in Hartford, just a mile from my apartment, to watch a stoned funny person address the audience for most of his set. People were for the most part pretty chill about the whole thing, especially for a crowd of about 15,000 people. That person was Lil' Wayne, and that concert was great. He spent most of it saying "I love you guys, I love you guys" to his very blissed-out fans. T.I. went on first, though, and goddamn it if he didn't burst both of my eardrums. I did something I've never done before: I stuffed tiny pieces of napkins into my ears to preserve the very little that is left of my hearing. I've been to my fair American share of concerts-- semi-riots at Dave Matthews Band; lying on the grass listen to Norah Jones; singing along to recently-memorized lyrics of Bob Dylan & Paul Simon & Tom Petty (I was a teen, catching up on the culture); trying not to touch the walls in dank basements in New York; screaming "DO YOU WANT TO GO OUTSIDE FOR A SECOND" in local bars on Saturday nights. Now that I'm getting to the point where I'm stuffing napkins in my ears and wondering when it's socially acceptable to sit back down, I should probably stop going to concerts, but I still enjoy blowing out my voice with a series of great whoops, especially at Bruce Springsteen. But I need to preserve my hearing.
Hearing loss isn't something you start really thinking about until you're hosting an improv comedy show at a mall in Manchester and so many people are screaming "DILDO! DILDO!" at you that you can't make out each individual sex instrument. There were about 350 people there, more than Sea Tea Improv had ever played to at the time, all drunk, all confused as to why we weren't doing stand-up. And I couldn't even really hear what they were saying. So, as the host of the show, I did the only thing I could do: I turned on them. I got really angry and accused them of having boring lives since they could only give us sexual suggestions. But, I'd asked for it-- literally I had asked them to shout out "an everyday object," so it was my job to whip them into shape so that the dumb half would shut up so that I could hear the smart half's ideas. Such is live comedy. At the end of the show one of my teammates said that I should do standup. "I don't have any jokes to tell," I said. "Stand-up is almost all crowd control," he said. Such is the stand-up community culture we have created. A huge part of a stand-up's life is measuring the audience and responding accordingly to the blips and burbles of their verbal responses. Audiences too have come to expect this, and weirdly, to love it. For a brief time I waitressed in a 200-seat comedy club in Hartford and I can assure you that nothing calmed a mean audience down like being criticized.
When performing live your senses heighten. A heavy plate being put down onto a table while you're trying to weave an expert scene sounds like a train going by. Someone whispering to another person "they are really good!" comes through like a megaphone. Everything is amplified.
So when I heard that Dave Chappelle would be doing stand-up at the Comcast Theaters in the same place where I had seen Lil' Wayne install an entire half-pipe, I was surprised. And when I further heard that he was performing alongside Flight of the Conchords, I was baffled. Understated musical parody act and a legendary stand-up comedian in a huge, shitty concert venue? I thought that it would most likely be an evening of semi-crappy, vaguely disappointing, big-box comedy that wouldn't land too well. But it might be something legendary (I imagined Chappelle maybe pouring his heart out and the entire audience nodding empathetically). I bought a ticket.
Here's what happened.
The show didn't sell well at first. There were Groupons. The kind of people who might not normally go to this kind of show bought hundreds of Groupons. There were buckets of ticket giveaways. Even more people who might not normally go got free tickets. None of the tickets had a schedule on them; all of the tickets said to show up at 5:30. By 6:00, when I was there, there were already thousands and thousands of people there, perfectly willing to either drink heavily in the parking lot or pay $11 for 24-ounce cans of beer. The wait for a beer was 0 seconds. The wait for food was half an hour. By 7:00, when the comedy started, the audience began to shuffle in, blearly and loud and already absolutely drunk. A bunch of pretty good comedians did a bunch of pretty good sets. All of them seemed on edge. The stand-ups (notably Kristen Schaal) all referred to the weird energy of the audience and fled the stage quickly after their sets. Schaal's performance ended with "I don't usually like observational comedy. And apparently neither do you."
The last part of the first act was Dmitri Martin's guitar-laden Mitch-Hedburg-style jokes. Then intermission (more drinking) and then an hour of Flight of the Conchords-- which is all music. The audience was lulled into the concert-- yes, it felt, this is what this venue is for. Music. We know how to behave. And if a few people request "Business Time," well yes, that's normal concert behavior. That's all hunky-dory. And then, they indeed played the oft-shouted-for "Business Time," and it was time for Chappelle.
There are so many conflicting interpretations of what went down during this legendary comedy moment (and yes, it's clear it will already become mythic, probably already is since people can tweet judgements a lot faster than I can write thorough blog posts) that I am just going to go as clearly as I can.
Chappelle walked out onstage, his shadow amplified through a scrim. The audience gave him a standing ovation. He stood there, in front of 15,000 people. Fifteen thousand people. He smoked a cigarette. He waited. He looked out at the audience and waited for them to quiet down. It was about at this moment, really right away, that I realized I'd been horribly wrong: no way would this show be a big-box shitty mundane thing. There was no way that Chappelle was going to be going through a shtick. Because you cannot wait for a crowd of 15,000 people who have been sitting there drinking for four hours, in a concert venue, literally following a concert, to suddenly be quiet. That is an objective fact in the confluence of our comedic, alcoholic, musical, celebrity-obsessed, frat culture.
He began his set. The jokes were funny but he couldn't seem to get a hold of the audience laughter. He wasn't lighting the dynamite to explode in the places where he wanted to; he left huge spaces in time where he was looking out into the audience or off to the side. He was listening to things I couldn't hear, either in the audience or in his own head. I believe it to be both. He was hearing things amplified that my section could not hear.
The audience began to shout "I'm Rick James, bitch!" and "We love you, Dave!" intermittently. He told a couple more jokes and still asked for everyone to be quiet. I believe the moment that the show turned (and there are so many possibilities) was when someone shouted "OPRAH!"
"Thanks for bringing up the worst experience of my life," Dave Chappelle said. He seemed sincerely upset about it.
The weird thing was, right at the beginning of the set, he talked about the infamous Kramer meltdown. He said, "as a black man, I was really sad. I'm a Seinfeld fan. .... but as a comedian, I understood. That's a bad set." And what happened after that created that same sense in me: as an audience member, it made me sad. As a comedian, I saw the bad set unfold. He had primed me for that dual reaction.
Somewhere in this Oprah period he decided to stop. He seemed weary, honestly. He asked the audience to police itself: to punch people in the kidneys if they were making noise. And that was when I realized the show was really over-- or just beginning.
Because that was a theater of 15,000 people, and so suddenly, the noise doubled. The screaming that Chappelle heard from there on out was half the audience yelling at him, and the other half of the audience yelling at the yellers, as instructed. Real boo-ing began. Around this time he pulled out a stool and sat down on it and began smoking a cigarette. The front row of seats began literally begging him to perform. A woman threw her self-published book onstage and he read a paragraph aloud from it. Real walk-outs began. He said things like "you paid for this? I'm going to take my thousands of dollars and buy sticks of bubble gum and chew each one for two seconds and spit it on the ground. That's what I'm going to do with your money."
Do not believe a soul that says Dave Chappelle walked off during his set. He did the opposite: he sat out more than his time-- time he essentially counted down, telling us all about his contract in the meantime-- on a stool, talking to the audience. He was never quiet for more than a minute or two. He just didn't do any more comedy. The microphone never dropped.
And that's all I could look at, this microphone. It was still there. He was still doing it, doing something. And all those people who paid money (or didn't) to see Dave Chappelle, he of the legendary breakdown, got exactly what they paid for. Another one. And Dave Chappelle, he of the legendary moral struggling against his audience, got exactly what he feared.
There are two narratives flying around about this show: one is that Dave Chappelle had a meltdown and failed; that he didn't try; that dealing with heckling is what standup is all about; that there were so many good fans there that he should have powered through. The other is that the Hartford audience was drunk and loud and horrible and drove him off. May I be the first one to say that both are absolutely true.
The real narrative here is that we, all together, including the comedians, have created a culture where audiences think that heckling is part of the game. We have taken an art form that is all about putting one vulnerable and intelligent person in front of a microphone, and we think that format can be expanded to an audience of thousands and still be the same. It can't.
Some will say that this audience was pretty average-- sure, for 2013, maybe. But I'm pretty sure my grandmother didn't think it was normal to scream quotes from a sketch so loudly that thousands of people could hear you.
Some will also say that Dave Chappelle looked out into his audience and saw a crowd of white bros screaming at him to perform. I suspect this is part of it and a much more detailed piece has already been written about that perspective. But I also know that I was in a pin-drop-silent, hundred-person block of white people who looked like they were about to cry with disappointment; and I could also see a front-row group of black fans literally begging Dave to perform. We cannot and should not simplify an audience to its worst members; but when it's a mass of people too far away to be individually distinguished, what else can you do? And what could Dave Chappelle do in that very moment to address that issue? And is that his responsibility? I don't think I could answer those questions. Not because I'm white. Because I'm not Dave Chappelle and I can't read his mind, even though a Jumbotron and a microphone can so easily create that illusion. The racial angle is more complicated than fifty drunk white bros in that silent, hopeful audience-- or maybe it isn't and that's exactly the point. I don't know for sure.
What do I think Chappelle should have done? Powered through his set. That's what I'd do and what I have done. Do I think it was absolutely compelling and possibly a cultural turning point that he left the door open to just fucking not doing that? Yes. Should he have known that he could not just tell a crowd that big to be quiet? Yes. Did he waste people's money? Yes. Is it is his right to do that when we worship celebrities to an insane degree? Maybe. Should we be questioning the fact that we are paying $100 to a horrible concert venue to see stand-up comedians where everyone involved is making money hand over fist and there is no way the art can be practiced to its highest form? Yes. Was the Hartford audience exceptionally bad? Yes. Are all audiences now exceptionally bad? Yes. What does an audience owe a performer? Respect. What does a performer owe an audience? Respect.
An audience is a big thing, a moving beast, an ocean of sound and emotion. I heard little bleats and mews from down in front and I saw on a Jumbotron Dave Chappelle hearing them, amplified in a way only a performer can hear, and getting sad. What was he hearing that we in Section 800, Row PP weren't? It's foolish to think that I could even guess. In my section, you could have heard a french fry hit the floor. In others, there were near-riots. Later in the night, I ran into so many different friends and coworkers who had been at the show-- all in different sections. Some said the audience was perfect; some it was the worst they'd ever seen. It was clear that just because we can sit under one massive concrete roof doesn't mean we were all in the same room. That's what comedy requires: a single room. I heard nearly nothing Dave Chappelle heard. He heard none of my hopeful silence.
All I was trying to do was desperately listen, to hear what he was hearing, to unstuff my ears, to share in that intimate moment that comedy and live theater need. But I have been to too many concerts, seen too many shows, have become a little bit too damaged to hear the impossible: the sound of the audience and performer's emotional contract breaking, so violently, that each is completely sure that the other is to blame.
Julia Pistell is the co-founder of Sea Tea Improv, a writer, the host of the podcast Literary Disco, and an employee of the Mark Twain House. She does not do stand-up for this very reason.