Dave Chappelle walked off the stage during Funny or Die's Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival last night after being heckled. That much is known. After that it gets a lot more confusing.
Here are the facts: According to Bram Teitelman of The Laugh Button Chappelle, dealing with a rowdy crowd, performed for about 10 minutes and then simply stopped, deciding to spend the time requiring him to be on stage sitting on a stool, smoking, and talking. He then left the stage with the words, according to Splitsider: "All right, you guys. I like some of you. I hate some of you. I forgive some of you, but I don't forget all of you. You guys are totally ruining my chances for running for Congress or something. Thank you. Good night." You can watch some of the set here:
It's not like this is totally unexpected from Chappelle, who dramatically quit his Comedy Central show in 2005, eschewing a $50 million contract. Since last night, Nick Robins-Early and Josh Wolk have chronicled the fraught history of his interactions with crowds at shows.
As Chappelle himself predicted he would, he made headlines, but one of the more insightful responses, from Lesli-Ann Lewis at Ebony, balks at the idea that he was having a "meltdown:"
Chappelle wasn’t having a meltdown. This was a Black artist shrugging the weight of White consumption, deciding when enough was enough. This isn’t the first time Chappelle has done so and it isn’t the first time his behavior has been characterized as a meltdown.
There is a long history of asking African-Americans to endure racism silently; it’s characterized as grace, as strength. Chappelle’s Connecticut audience, made up of largely young White males, demanded a shuck and jive. Men who seemed to have missed the fine satire of the Chappelle show demanded he do characters who, out of the context of the show look more like more racist tropes, than mockery of America’s belief in them.
Aisha Harris at Slate points out that this makes sense in the context of Chappelle's history, explaining that he "abandoned his sketch comedy series at its peak of popularity was that he grew uncomfortable with the response to his racially charged humor from white audiences."
In an interview with Vulture, Jason Zinoman, the New York Times comedy critic who wrote an e-book about Chappelle, delves deeper into this context:
Recall that his stated reason for leaving Chappelle’s Show was that he didn’t like the sound of a laugh by a white member in his crew. Most comics like all laughs. In this case, Chappelle discriminates between good ones and troubling ones. Of course, he was understandably concerned that white audiences took his racial material the wrong way. But Chappelle has a longer history of wariness toward his crowd. If you look at the first sketch of the third season of his show that they aired in 2006 without his approval, there’s a scene where a fan confronts him and adoration quickly turns to anger.
He added that Chappelle has a willingness to simply disappear from the public eye; apparently, when he was young, he used to talk about famously reclusive chess player Bobby Fischer.
Did the events of last night mean, as Lewis suggests, that Chappelle has quit stand up? It's hard to tell. As Zinoman notes, incidents like these only fuels fascination with an enigmatic talent.