“No heckling. No texting. No tweeting. No talking. No cameras. No video or audio recording devices of any kind. Violaters will be removed from the theatre.”
So read the ominous warning on the front door of Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre on the night of Sunday, September 6th, as it played host to one of the most popular, irreverent, and controversial comics of all time. Yes, Dave Chappelle was back; and no, this was not going to be a typical night of comedy.
Chappelle’s return to Vancouver came on the heels of a well-publicized “meltdown” in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was booed offstage by a room full of “young, white alcoholics” (his own words). With such an experience fresh in the mind of the sensitive star, perhaps the restrictive rules imposed on his audiences were warranted. For me, though, it served as a warning of a different kind: tonight was Chappelle’s night – Chappelle’s show, if you’ll pardon the pun – and we were going to experience it the way he wanted us to, for better or for worse. There was no doubt who was in charge of the program.
Still though, I was undeterred. It was Dave Chappelle, after all; a man who’s groundbreaking sketch comedy show dominated the pop-culture landscape during my high school years, who’s stand-up special “Killin’ Them Softly” still ranks among the all-time classics, and who’s misses (I’m looking at you, Half Baked) were still more entertaining than the hits of most contemporary comedians. After the Hartford incident, I was certainly expecting something.
After we took our seats and enjoyed a reasonably standard, reasonably funny opening set by local comedian Graham Clarke, Chappelle’s DJ made his way to the stage and repeated the front door warnings – unnecessarily, it turned out, as security personnel wandered the aisles with high-powered flashlights during the entire set. He then proceeded to play, ostensibly to introduce the night’s headliner. With the lights still down, and no intermission announcement made, we (or anyone else in the sold-out theatre) certainly weren’t leaving our seats.
Instead, he played a short, 15 to 20 minute set – holding the audience hostage in an odd limbo. We weren’t leaving – what if Chappelle came on while we were gone? – but this wasn’t what we came here to see.
Obviously, I don’t know the motivation behind the decision to stage the show this way. But, in real terms, it served to reinforce the idea that we (the audience) had no control over the proceedings of the night. We were going to sit there and watch what was put in front of us, dammit, and we could make our own conclusions at the end of the night.
The whole thing, to this point, had the feeling of a large-scale social experiment. But, in true Chappelle fashion, it couldn’t hold a candle to the main event. After entering the theatre – finally – to a long-standing ovation, Chappelle proceeded to light up a cigarette (he chain-smoked constantly throughout his set) and begin to crack wise about the city of Vancouver, Lil’ Wayne, and the word p**sy. It was classic Chappelle stand up, and the crowd loved it – without a doubt, the first 20 minutes of his set were some of the funniest I’ve ever seen live. Now this was what we expected when we bought our tickets.
It was at that point, though, that the night took a subtle, albeit dramatic turn. Alternatively pacing, sitting on the amplifier, and lying down on the stage, Chappelle began to speak about his experience in Hartford and the toll returning to the spotlight has taken on his career.
“Now I know what a stripper feels like,” he said, and, even though some of the audience laughed, it didn’t feel like a joke.
The rest of his hour-and-a-half set resembled a therapy session for the world’s funniest man. Chappelle spoke, increasingly candidly, about his own issues, public and personal; everything from his abrupt departure from Chappelle’s Show in 2005 to his relationship with his wife. Yes, there were jokes – and laughs – speckled throughout each of these experiences, but this didn’t feel like a Louis CK-esque “my life sucks, and it’s funny” kind of set. What it did feel like was watching someone bare his soul in front of an audience – but someone who was effortlessly funny, and someone who managed to weave a joke into every story he told. We all have friends like this, but none of them are as funny as Dave Chappelle.
As he moved through his set, at times sitting on the amplifiers, lying down on the stage, or bumming lighters from the front row, the tension in the room slowly built to a palpable level. At times, it was difficult to sit through. The spate of hecklers in the crowd didn’t help matters – Chappelle would often acknowledge them with a wisecrack and a joking “security’s coming for you,” though those hoping for another meltdown left disappointed.
As a viewer, the crowd interruptions frustrated me. At the time, they simply seemed like minor annoyances – but reflectively, they were an acknowledgement that we had come to a comedy show, where hecklers are part and parcel with the ticket, and that was not what was going on onstage.
Finally, I understood the tangible value of the posters on the entrance: if you’re going to expose yourself personally to a crowd of thousands, the last thing you, or they, need, is some idiot objectifying you with Rick James chants. Chappelle’s stripper analogy suddenly made perfect sense.
After Chappelle finished his set to another standing ovation, I left the theatre uncertain about what I had watched, but certain that it would linger with me for days. I couldn’t – still haven’t – make up my mind about it in a multitude of ways: I wasn’t sure if I thought I found it funny or sad; if he was actually stripping himself down or using his own life to sell $70 tickets; if I liked the show or not. Then I realized that, once again, I had missed the point: Dave Chappelle has never been about operating in binaries. What he has been about it pushing the envelope, generating discussion, and leaving the viewer thinking about what they’d just watched.
Well, mission accomplished, Dave. Because there are only a couple of things I do know for certain about his latest venture:
- I’ll never see anything like it again.
- It made a real impact on me. I just don’t know what it was.
Feature images sourced on Google.