A week into his comeback tour, Dave Chappelle either had a "meltdown," was "booed off the stage," or was treated like a black-face minstrel by a crowd of "fucking animals" last Thursday in Hartford, Connecticut. The incident has made for a bloggery buffet of commentary on race, comedy and corporate culture, but what happened really wasn't all that dissimilar from what drove Chappelle from comedy in the first place back in 2005: heckling from audience members demanding the iconic "I'm Rick James, bitch!" one-liner.
Judging from crappy cellphone video of the show, Chappelle kept his cool throughout the inevitable jeers that followed his refusal to play the monkey, sinking into a heartfelt narrative about Richard Pryor and Damon Wayans dealing with similar situations. Without the cracked-out darkness of Katt Williams or the aimless N-bombs of Michael Richards, Chappelle managed to walk away with a reputation only further cemented in integrity and mystery -- at least in my eyes. Hopefully, he'll have a smoother path until the Oddball Comedy Tour reaches Denver on September 13.
I never learned how to swim. (And yes, I realize that is an odd transition from Dave Chappelle, but stay with me.) Growing up, my "swimming lessons" amounted to being thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool by drunken adults or hyper teenagers, and I would be expected to just get on with it. Defiantly determined to not learn how to swim, I developed a strategy of going limp, sinking to the bottom of the pool, getting my footing, then slowly walking my way up the slope of the pool to the shallow end.
If I panicked and thrashed around, I'd run out of air and have to be pulled out. So instead I'd go into a mindless state and ride it out. Just as in live comedy, once you've sunk so far all there is left to do is not fight it, accept the situation, sink to the bottom and take the unorthodox exit.
At first glance, it might appear that Bill Burr's 2006 tirade against a Philadelphia audience is the epitome of thrashing around in a panic. This tour was similar to Chappelle's, with a highly anticipated lineup that took a long time to assemble. But for whatever reason, the crowd turned ugly on comic Dom Irrera early in the night, and when Burr followed him he delivered the equivalent of a Vietcong carpet bombing on the audience, insulting their mothers, their city, really digging deep to find what would piss them off the most. The rabid audience had a mighty thirst for hate, and gave it right back to him.
Burr could've left the stage at any time. Instead, same as Chappelle, he counted down each minute aloud, defying the audience to boo him off the stage before he did his time. Outwardly turning himself into a bull in a china shop, on the inside Burr kept it together, (presumably) improvising a ten-minute monologue about why Philadelphia is a shitty place to live. He insults cheesesteaks, every home sports-team and expresses a desire to stick the Liberty Bell up Ben Franklin's ass.
"Rocky's you're fuckin' hero?" he jabs in a thick Boston accent. "The pride of your whole city is built around a guy who doesn't even exist. Joe Frazier is from here. But he's black so you can't fucking deal with him. So you built a statue after a three-foot fucking Italian, you stupid cheese-eating jackasses."
Burr could never have come up with material like this if he'd panicked or dissociated himself from the ugliness coming from the crowd. He'd accepted that this wasn't going to be a good show, and came up with an unconventional game plan. One that required a very cool head. No room for adrenaline fucking things up in the old cortex. No room for victimization.
This is ultimately why Burr's clip is hilarious, and the one of Seinfeld's Kramer at the Laugh Factory unbearably awkward. Michael Richards's performance was terrible for more reasons than just the obvious problem of a white guy repeatedly announcing the word "nigger!" (If this was the case, Louis C.K. would be a lot less popular than he is.) It was because Richards had obviously lost control of himself, and instead of allowing himself to sink to the bottom along with everyone else, essentially enduring the situation with curiosity and humor, he panicked and started vomiting out racial slurs at a heckler. He'd lost that battle long before he'd begun to fight it, and when he eventually walked off the stage, looking pale and scared, like a child who'd just burned the house down after playing with matches, all he could do was mumble, "those words, those words," then drop the mic and disappear.
Ask any improv actor and they'll tell you that you can't overthink it. Being creative in the moment while hundreds, or even thousands, of expectant eyes stare back at you requires a tremendous amount of coherence and tranquility. I'll spare you the neurology lesson, but suffice it to say that when a body gets stressed, a portion of the brain sprays a lot of bad shit onto another part of the brain -- and that part is the section that controls things like self-worth and creativity.
Shortly after Richards fell apart on the Laugh Factory stage, Dave Chappelle performed at the same venue. He mentioned that he couldn't stand before that iconic backdrop "without thinking of Kramer fucking up," then launchedinto a commentary on the incident that goes a long way toward explaining Chappelle's cool clarity in the face of such primal madness.
"It's like having tickets to see Seigfried and Roy the night that tiger bit that motherfucker's throat," he said, referring to those in the audience during Richards' set. "Because that's why we really go to the tiger show. You don't go wanting to see someone be safe with tigers, you go thinking in the back of your mind, 'this nigga might get bit. I'd like to see that for $35.' Seeing that clip made me realize that I'm about 20 percent black and 80 percent comedian. When the black side of me saw him I was hurt, but the comedian in me was like, 'Phew, nigga's havin' a bad set. Hang in there, Kramer!'"
Dave Chappelle will be joined by Flight of the Conchords, Al Madrigal, Kristen Schaal and others for the Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival on 5 p.m. Friday, September 13, at Fiddlers Green Amphitheater. Visit the festival's webpage for more information.
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For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.