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What went wrong during Dave Chappelle’s Austin appearance?

Early Tuesday morning, Austin went absolutely crazy over the last-minute announcement that Dave Chappelle — a stand-up best known for his acclaimed Comedy Central sketch series — would be doing a one-night-only show at The Paramount. And in the 24 hours since, everyone's been talking about what a disaster it was.

The 1,250-seat theater sold out immediately, and the crowd that packed in was a rag-tag band of early risers (who were able to jump on the $50+ tickets as soon as they went on sale) and those who were willing to shell out over $200 on the street pre-show.

They were there to see someone whose film and TV work they’d been big fans of, back when Half Baked was a high school stoner hit (1998) and Chappelle’s Show made “I’m Rick James, bitch!” one of the most-quoted catchphrases ever (2003).

It’s unclear how many were aware that, following a rumored mental breakdown, the comic walked off the third season set of his own show, abandoning a massive amount of money in favor of a quiet life with his wife and kids in rural Ohio. Since 2005, he’s managed to stay relatively out of the spotlight, dropping in at LA’s Laugh Factory or putting on impromptu shows like last night’s.

Though his recent work has received mixed reviews, his show in Dallas earlier this week seemed to go well, with Dallas Observer critics noting that, while “he seems to have gotten a bit more existential in his delivery, or at least the material,” he comes across as “a kind, relatable human — also, one of the naturally funniest and weirdest people” they’ve seen.

From Killin’ Them Softly, recorded in 2000:

So nobody — the audience or Chappelle himself — expected to endure 90 minutes of banter between the weary comic and the rowdy crowd, punctuated by a dozen abandoned set-ups and several stock bits about pussy and parenting.

But before we get into what ended up being the most exhausting 90 minutes of comedy I’ve ever experienced, a note: Chappelle wasn’t the only performer on the bill. Dallas’ own Paul Varghese — “handpicked” by the main act, according to the announcer — opened the show, and as we’ve come to expect from the frequent Cap. City headliner, he totally killed. This was especially awesome given the crowd’s decidedly weird vibe from the beginning. Varghese warned them — twice — that Chappelle had a strict no-tolerance policy towards hecklers, and that any loud audience members would be promptly removed.

But within seconds of Chappelle stepping onstage (after a lengthy intermission between he and Varghese), he was barraged with shouts of “We love you!” and “Keep it weird!” and every banal thing in between.

Mass Appeal aptly noted that:

The problem with Dave’s work is that it transcended his original fan base so much that when he comes to Texas, rednecks and obnoxious hipsters snatch up tickets just so that they can say they saw Dave Chappelle once in their lives. They’re not fans. They’re not respectful. They don’t care that they ruined the night for everyone else. They just wanted to be heard.

This is all true — the crowd was disrespectful, whether they meant to be or not (is it a heckle if it’s complimentary?, one could argue), and there’s been a lot of blame placed on the dozen or so particularly vocal people who eventually got so out of hand, those who had been patiently enduring eventually started to snap back “Shut up, we’re here to see Dave!” One attendee wrote an open apology on behalf of the Austin audience, saying “sorry we wasted your time” to the comic.

From For What It’s Worth, recorded in 2006:

But here’s the thing.

Former Chappelle’s Show co-star Charlie Murphy visited Hot 97 earlier this year and mentioned a recent show he’d done with the comic, noting that “Dave Chappelle gets rock star love. Not comedian love — rock star love.” He said that, “when he got onstage, the first 15 minutes he was just standing there,” because the crowd was going so crazy. The insanely effusive reaction he got last night certainly wasn’t unprecedented.

Even before the comic caught someone recording his set, which happened about 12 minutes in and is cited as the show’s official breaking point, things felt off. I’d like to think I’m fairly unflappable when it comes to dealing with awkward sets, weird crowds, weak material or any combination of things that can go wrong onstage. Hell, I just spent a weekend at the Bonnaroo Comedy Tent, which was packed with thousands of hard-partying, inebriated kids (who, for the record, were much easier to handle than last night's house).

But walking out of The Paramount, I was taken aback to the point where I could only repeat “I really don’t know” when my roommate asked how it went.

In the videos above, Chappelle’s act is delivered through a wide smile, so fast-paced the audience barely has time to get a solid laugh in; last night, he seemed tired, pausing often to light cigarettes, decide whether he wanted to continue a line of thought, or gaze into the crowd. And while there were some solid bits and brilliant riffs on audience-supplied suggestions, Chappelle himself jokingly admitted he only had “about four minutes of material.”

The audience was undeniably rowdy, exceptionally so for a comedy show, and they were from the start — but they got worse when they weren’t reprimanded, when the threats of removal weren’t followed through on, and especially when their behavior was met with grins and encouragement from the comic himself. As Mass Appeal concludes, “Dave didn’t smack them around the way Joe Rogan or Bill Burr would have. He could have; he just chose not to. He was just there to collect a paycheck and ride on out of town.”

An appearance at The Laugh Factory, 2010:

…and a recent set at the Comedy Jam, late 2011:

There’s more than one possible explanation for why last night’s show felt so intensely, exhaustingly weird, but placing the blame solely on the audience, or the venue, or Chappelle himself isn't quite fair. It was a perfect storm of a clueless crowd, a half-commited comic and a production team racing to coordinate a blockbuster show on mere hours of advance notice. 

Ultimately, Chappelle handled the situation as gracefully as possible; while it's true that he could have been more strict, his choice to go with the flow even if it didn't feel quite right is admirable, and a testament to the decades of experience that propelled him to a point where he can arrange and sell out a huge show on a whim. You might not have gotten what you expected — but it was definitely unforgettable.

Here’s what The Paramount had to say about the way the crowd was handled, via their Facebook:

Hi! It’s us again. Some thoughts on last night:

We are not new to comedy and are quite familiar with the removal of that base creature known as The Heckler. We had a veritable slew of them last night and, because of it, the experience was diminished for many. That is a tragic thing. 

Here’s why we didn’t run up and down our 1,200+ seat venue throwing people out: the performer was engaging and encouraging the crowd. When security was escorting a patron out that had been recording the show, Dave Chappelle said he should stay. He then chose to respond and include the audience in his show. This created a domino effect of audience “participation.” While we may not be in agreement with the choice, it was the artist’s choice to interact with the audience that we had to ultimately respect. 

We apologize if you feel that we failed you, but we must react off of our performers’ cues.

As for The Heckler, we find this particular breed of audience member as disrespectful and disappointing as the next sane person and we do our best to make sure they do not ruin your experience when you attend a Paramount show. We do encourage our patrons to alert an usher or house manager if you encounter a heckler so that the situation can be handled appropriately. No matter the performer’s preference, we will always warn and then remove any patrons who are intoxicated to the point that their behavior goes beyond mindless heckling.

We hope we have shed some light on our actions and choices made last night. Thank you for your understanding.

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