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Chappelle Walks Off Stage

Hartford, Conn. — It’s all over the Internet that stand-up comic Dave Chappelle left the stage during a performance Thursday night at the Funny or Die Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Tour at the Comcast Theatre in Hartford after being heckled and booed.

But several people who were there say that the crowd didn’t turn against Chappelle until he stopped telling jokes and started reading a book, smoking and rambling on a variety of subjects, and insulting the fans.

“The crowd was supportive, but once he stopped performing, they just turned,” said Joe Moriarty of Holliston, Mass.

Latanya Barrett of Bridgeport, Conn., who was at the concert intending to review it for her blog, said that “everything was just great” for the first 10 minutes of Chappelle’s show, which opened to a standing ovation.

“He was on stage for ... 25 minutes. For the first five or 10, he actually did go into his routine, telling a few jokes,” Barrett said. “It was a typical crowd, yelling out the occasional ‘I love you’ or something random. ... But every time anyone would scream anything, he would stop speaking and tell us how awful we were. ... It was just a regular crowd. ... I didn’t understand why he was doing this.”

Barrett said a woman in the front row gave Chappelle a copy of a book she wrote. This person was Mack Mama, who tweeted later that the show “was the best.”

It seems the rest of the crowd wasn’t as delighted as Mack Mama at the digression in Chappelle’s routine. Jacques Lamarre of Manchester, Conn., who is director of communications and special projects with the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, said the show sputtered when Chappelle began reading the book. “At that point, he was not giving the audience anything, even though she (Mack Mama) was having the time of her life.”

Barrett said, “He was up there sitting on a stool reading excerpts from it. It was kind of funny but weird and obviously not planned.’’

He read a little bit and smoked a cigarette and stared at the audience and kept looking at the security guards, like he expected them to get him out of there. ... Eventually he was like, ‘I don’t like most of you. I like some of you. Basically, I’m done’ and then he walked off the stage. It was the most awkward, tense situation in a crowd I’ve ever been in.”

Barrett’s comment about the security guards was echoed by Ivan Brandon of Brooklyn, who said that Chappelle said, “Security, feel free to step in any time.” Brandon said even though Chappelle did walk off the stage, he would not characterize Chappelle’s behavior as a “meltdown.” “He was very calm,” Brandon said. “It was a strange vibe with the crowd.”

Rob Maia of Waterbury, Conn. - who said a Chappelle show he attended six years ago was “one of the best performances I’ve ever seen” - sat 12 rows back. The comic was flanked by two jumbotrons. Maia said Chappelle’s eyes “looked funny, kind of glossy.”

Maia said after 10 minutes on stage, somebody shouted “Oprah!” “He took to that and made a few jokes about that and the comments were pretty funny,” Maia said. “After that he was not able to get back into his routine. I don’t know if he forgot it. He started making all these references about times when he walked. ... At that point he was bringing up the fact that he had to do only 25 minutes to get paid.

“He smoked cigarettes and said that he was going to take our money and buy bubble gum with it and then spit it out after only two chews,” Maia said. “That’s when the crowd started to get unruly.”

Hartford Courant reporter Julie Stagis was at the show and said Chappelle was greeted with shouting from the crowd, “mostly telling him they loved him and that they were glad he was back.” He started off with a few jokes, but Chappelle got angry as audience members kept shouting, and from that point “there were a lot of lulls.”

“He said something funny about how he’d hop a plane to South Africa in the morning like he did when he quit ‘Chappelle’s Show.’ Then he started lecturing the audience, insulting everybody rather than just the hecklers,” Stagis said. “It was like when your teacher says ‘I’ll wait’ and sits there, waiting for the class to be quiet.

“He picked up his pack of cigarettes and said something like ‘I have a pack of cigarettes, a glass of water, I could sit here all night.’ He told a story about opening for Richard Pryor when he was 19, and how Richard was so sick at that point that he left midset, saying he couldn’t do it anymore. He said this was like that, except he wasn’t sick. ... The heckling got bad because it was just horrible to watch.”

Moriarty said, “He started having really long pauses. It just never got going. ... It just stopped, fizzled... Then people started saying, ‘Come on, Dave, you’re better than this.’ Then the boos started.

“It was incredibly awkward and very uncomfortable but I found it riveting. It was unbelievable, I can’t believe it’s happening,” Moriarty said. “He said ‘I don’t care, I’m the one who’s going to have to read about this all day tomorrow, not you.’ He was poking fun at the situation but not telling jokes.”

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Chris Moran, design director of the Courant, also was there. Moran said Chappelle’s act got off on shaky footing from the start because of the configuration of the performances. “There was a break between the two acts, The Flight of the Conchords and Dave Chappelle. ... People left their seats,” Moran said. Moran said Chappelle came out on stage without a normal announcement. “People were walking back to their seats and it was noisy. He was addressing the people walking back to seats.”

Moran said Chappelle “seemed to have a little bit of a hair trigger for the people to keep quiet,” but never having seen him live, he thought it was part of his act. “It was a bizarre scenario. ... It just progressed. He said ‘I think there are plants out there. Did you do this for the other people, for the other acts?’ It progressively got worse.”

Lamarre said many factors went into the failure of the show. “The producers did nothing. He was out on the stage himself and it was clear it was shaping up to be a disaster but nobody came out on stage to say anything or to change anything. Who are the people driving the bus on this event?” Lamarre said.

He added that many signs were posted around the arena, “No Texting No Tweeting No Heckling.”

“When have you ever gone to a comedy show where there are signs up that say no heckling? ... You’re treating everything coming out of the audience’s mouth like a heckle. ... (Chappelle) asked the audience to basically self-censor and he said that if the person next to you is yelling, give them a kidney punch,” Lamarre said. “So the audience was yelling at itself to shut up. Of course it increased the noise.”

He said the Oddball Tour sent out a tweet for the audience to be quiet. “But how are we going to see the tweet if we’re not supposed to be tweeting?” he said.

Lamarre said that the previous comedians engaged the audience, as did the comic musical act Flight of the Conchords. “Now all of a sudden he steps on stage and there’s a wall up,” Lamarre said. “He didn’t look excited at all, or happy to be on stage or happy to see us.”

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People began walking out, Stagis said, and then Chappelle walked out. “My friend who works at Comcast said a lot of people were asking for their money back.”

Maia suggested that the structure of the event - the doors opened at 5:30, but Chappelle did not go on until around 10 p.m. - may have contributed to the crowd’s antsiness.

Moriarty said the situation may have been exacerbated by the size of the performance space. “It was loud. It’s not this intimate comedy club,” he said.

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©2013 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

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