On Dave Chappelle, Heckling, and Performance


By Vivian Obarski

On Aug. 29, Dave Chappelle took the stage in Hartford, Conn. Thirty minutes later he walked off. Depending on who you talk to, he either melted down or had enough of hecklers derailing his performance.

In the days that followed, there were numerous post-performance analysis articles by people who were there, weren’t there and people who know Chappelle and don’t know Chappelle. Not surprisingly, the story that seems to be shaping up is a fuzzy and complicated one.

Let’s be honest — Chappelle’s always had a prickly relationship with his audience. We’re talking about a man who walked off the third season of his hit show, has wrestled with the racial implications of his humor and has battled audiences long before Hartford. He’s also a brilliant comedian who, in the right circumstances, can riff for hours when he has good chemistry with the audience.

After watching the video online, I ended up coming away with this thought — “People just need to be quiet and let a performer perform.”

Now before people start tut-tutting about the Internet and how it’s destroyed civility, I’d like to point out that heckling has existed long before online comments.Apollo Theater in Harlem’s bragging rights are based on having the toughest audiences around. Mystery Science Theater 3000’s entire premise is heckling bad movies to make them better. Hartford isn’t unique.

Heckling and comedy supposedly go hand in hand — the Chicago Tribune published a defense of hecklers saying that it makes an event memorable by being unpredictable. Needless to say,it didn’t go over well at all with comedians.

There’s been plenty of video online of comedians such as Patton Oswalt and Joe Rogan tearing down hecklers in a memorable fashion, but as Oswalt wrote, they don’t love it:

Hecklers don’t make a show memorable. They prevent a show from being a fucking show. Comedians do not love hecklers. They love doing the original material they wrote and connecting with an entire audience, not verbally sparring with one cretin while the rest of the audience whoops and screams, disconnecting from the comedian and re-wiring itself as a hate-fueled crowd-beast. And most comedians, including me, can barely remember a heckler. We go into automatic pilot shutting them down – not because we’re so brilliant and quick, it’s because we’ve dealt with hecklers so many fucking times that we can do it in our sleep.

This is also witnessed by Oswalt’s defense of Chappelle on Twitter:


The difference with Chappelle is that he felt no need to get the audience on his side (and I suspect with an audience numbering approximately 10,000, it would have taken HOURS to shut down every single heckler) or turn the mood into something else as he battled interruptions. Even though people may have been shouting out “I love you!” or referencing old material, an interjection can deflate the mood that the storyteller was trying to create. It’s like someone yelling “SHOW US YOUR TITS!” during Juliet’s death scene at the Globe Theater. (I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened when Shakespeare’s play first premiered.)

As a result, Chapelle walked offstage, prompting numerous articles as to why he did it (shout-out to Lesli-Ann Lewis’ Dave Chappelle Didn’t Melt Down and Jesse David Fox’s Why Dave Chappelle Walked Offstage Last Night for some interesting insights), what this means for his career and apparently, what this means for our civilization as a whole.

What does Hartford ultimately mean? Given that Chappelle’s had two good shows since then in Chicago and Pittsburgh, I’d say that he had a bad night with a bad crowd. It happens to the best of comedians — YouTube is littered with videos of this happening. I just hope that he continues, audiences will stop interrupting and we get the Rock/Chappelle comedy tour that’s been rumored to occur.

Comments (5)

Bill Burr during the Opie and Anthony Tour in Philly in 2006.


I remember that one (I was looking up comebacks while researching for this article) and it’s just brutal. I don’t know if I could’ve tolerated that for twelve minutes and honestly, that crowd deserved that dressing down for booing the fuck out of the other comedians. That’s just raw anger there.

I am in full support of this here. Let the man do his jokes. I find it telling that, from all reports, Hartford was full of bros yelling about Rick James, while CHicago and Pittsburgh were more mixed and excited to hear what new stuff he had.

Exactly. I was reading a lot of comments online about how Hartford was trying to show its appreciation, but I don’t think that the audience understood that comedy is also a performance similar to theater. I’m really hoping he does continue touring because I think he’s brilliant and I’m curious to see how the next phase of his life influences his comedy.

Interesting perspective, I like this blogpost and it reminds of the show “Being Mike Tyson.”

Mike was talking with some young boxers, some of whom had took a serious beating. He said, “Look, this is our job, and we always have a bad day at the office.”

This blogpost is saying something similar: Dave had a bad day at the office. The unfortunate part is that his office is public.

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