There is a prescient moment in the 2005 film “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” in which Roots drummer ?uestlove explains the state of Chappelle’s career. Chappelle had become a superstar in part for the broad roles he played in the movie “Half Baked” and on his much-copied sketch program “Chappelle’s Show” on Comedy Central. When his crowds had started heckling him with his own catch phrases, he started walking out of his own shows.
“The audience was full of these loud frat boys that just wanted him to do his character,” said ?uestlove. “Because he was telling stories, they would always interrupt his narrative.”
Chappelle left the production of “Chappelle’s Show” after it occurred to him his audience might be laughing at him and not with him, responding only to slapstick and mugging and not getting the satire. His decision was analyzed, speculated about, and sensationalized, especially after he retreated to Africa. He has been in semi-retirement since 2005, popping up to do occasional shows — including one in Boston in 2006 — or short runs, but nothing to rival his current tour.
The Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival, which comes to the Comcast Center Sept. 8, has been hailed as Chappelle’s stand-up comeback. But on Aug. 29 in Hartford, it seemed like the comeback might be cut short when Chappelle had to face a barrage of hecklers. It was like 2005, but worse. Chappelle engaged them and tried to wait them out. He told a few jokes when he could but he was obviously irritated.
In a report in the Hartford Courant, some in the crowd claimed Chappelle stopped a few minutes into his routine to read a book an audience member had given him. The audience got restless and started heckling, at which point Chappelle got angry and eventually walked off. Other reports said the crowd was more boisterous, yelling the same old catch phrases that had disgusted Chappelle enough to walk away in the first place.
Some reports have described the Hartford show as a “meltdown,” but Patton Oswalt tweeted in Chappelle’s defense: “Chappelle’s touring now, trying to do his usual, brilliant stuff, and the crowds are screaming, ‘I’m Rick James, [expletive].’ Idiots.”
With a bit of work on YouTube, it’s possible to put together about 26 minutes of Chappelle’s Hartford set, which included a hilarious riff on hiring Paula Deen to be his personal chef. There are numerous amateur videos shot from various locations in the venue. From the lawn, the crowd noise is minimal, but in a couple of videos from what seems like a dozen or so rows back, the sound is overwhelming.
Some in the crowd yelled positive words. Chappelle himself noted at one point, “There’s a lady in the front that stood up and said to me, very kindly, ‘We have people here who love you. Please talk to us.’ ” That got big cheers.
He also said, “I love you guys, too. The next person that feels like telling me they love me, write it down on a piece of paper and just hold onto it till the end of the show. At the end of the show, I’ll stand on the side of the stage and we can talk all about it.”
But get enough people yelling, and it doesn’t matter what they are saying: It’s still drowning out the comedy.
It was also clear Chappelle had more on his mind than scatological material, which he joked at one point was going to make up the bulk of his act. He mentioned at one point that he is “trapped in a billionaire’s video game,” with someone in a room twisting the controls to try to get him back to his Comedy Central show. It may be that this is never far from Chappelle’s mind when he’s performing. He can be silly onstage, but there’s often an undertow of deeper concerns.
Chappelle has had his share of hecklers, and it can be his Achilles’ heel that he sometimes tries to understand them instead of slapping them down immediately. When he played the Orpheum in April 2003, a man yelled continually until Chappelle addressed him directly. Chappelle had just done several minutes on the Iraq invasion, which had begun only weeks before. Still, the man said Chappelle wasn’t funny because he’d heard all this stuff before.
The crowd jumped in on Chappelle’s side, trying to yell the man down, but Chappelle told them to quiet down so he could hear what the man had to say. Chappelle took some money from his wallet and offered it to the man, telling him to go to Blockbuster and get something he’d like more because he was ruining the show. The police eventually removed the heckler because he wouldn’t shut up.
In Hartford, there were simply too many of them for Chappelle to address. The first dates of the Oddball Comedy tour in Austin and Houston were rough, according to reviews that described a tentative Chappelle and restless crowds. But Chappelle had a well-received set the night after Hartford in Pittsburgh, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where the venue had taken extra measures to quiet the crowd. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the Hartford show became just another target for Chappelle to joke about to an appreciative crowd two nights later in Tinley Park. A Detroit stop was also hassle-free.
Chappelle was a good comedian before “Half Baked” and “Chappelle’s Show,” but many in his crowds know him mainly from those efforts, and that’s what they think they’re going to see onstage. “Chappelle’s Show” was hilarious and groundbreaking, and Comedy Central has built shows around Carlos Mencia, Amy Schumer, Demetri Martin, and others using the same format. But that was eight years ago. Chappelle has more to give, if his audiences let him do it.