Why It's A Good Thing Dave Chappelle Told His Audience To Fuck Off

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So last week, Dave Chappelle told his Hartford, Connecticut audience to fuck off.
He came on stage for the Oddball Comedy Tour – whose tickets are not cheap – and decided that the audience was too loud and rowdy for him, yelling out catchphrases from his old show and (according to some reports) heckling.  And so after a couple of minutes, early in the show, he sat down and started smoking, doing his contractually-mandated thirty minutes of some definition of performance.  Then he told the audience, “I only have three minutes left. And when my three minutes is up, my ass is gone. I’m going straight to the bank and doing night deposit.”
And left.
Interestingly enough, I don’t have a problem with that.
Comedians are an extension of service culture in America, which is a thing I have severe problems with anyway.  I’ve long said in my Yelp reviews that I like my restaurant service a little al dente – which is to say I love a join like the Velvet Tango Room, which has rules for you to follow and will throw paying customers out if they show up in a white limo and start disrespecting the place.  That’s the VTR, which is upscale, but I love Old-Fashion Hot Dogs equally, with its friendly servers who don’t take shit.  You make them feel bad, you’re fucking out on your ear.
This is inexcusable behavior in a chain restaurant.  You wouldn’t find some mass-produced chain with a policy of “We have our standards, and you’d better live up to them or we don’t want you here.”
Why?
In America, if someone’s paying you, they are your master.
America’s business is founded on the idea that “the customer is always right,” which any retail associate will tell you is wretched, wretched bullshit.  The customer always has the money, it’s true.  The customer will keep you in business.  But right?  Just work the returns desk for a while and see the ridiculous things that customers try to pull, returning fully-eaten meals because “They didn’t taste good,” returning clothes they’ve obviously worn on their entire vacation and now want to return because they don’t need these shorts any more, returning dog-eared books with coffee stains.
We want our clerks servile.
And I think that’s an extension of America’s decaying slave culture.
I know America’s all supposed to be the land of the free, but you hand someone minimum wage – which, as Chris Rock reminds us, is your employer saying, “We’d pay you less, but it’s illegal” – and there’s this silent expectation that you give up all your dignity.  For that $7.25 an hour, you’ll wear this funny hat, and smile for hours on end, and if someone screams at you because their french fries had salt in it, we are going to take their side.  Because those people are paying our bosses money, and when someone pays you cash you don’t question them, you don’t make them angry, you assuage them.
Which, I think, creates monsters.  I think humans largely take their cues from other humans about what’s acceptable, which is why it’s so important to speak out when you see the subtler forms of discrimination.  Laugh at that joke, and you’ve just told someone, hey, that’s okay.  And endemic in American culture is the concept that if you pay someone, they – the workers – are actually being obnoxious if they demand you treat them with respect.
Lay down and remember who’s right: the guy with the wallet.  This cash?  That’s the respect.
Now shut up.
That’s terrible, both from a human rights aspect and an experience aspect.  The human rights aspect is terrible because it has the assumption baked in that if you pay someone a wage that is literally not enough to live on, they can still control your life: hey, we woke you up on your day off to cover for someone else and you didn’t make it?  Fuck you, fired.  Want a different schedule than what we gave you?  Fuck you, fired.
And hey, you may need to fire people if your staff is unreliable enough, but what I’m getting at is that underlying sense of they had it coming.  They knew the deal: minimum wage jobs are shitty, and for that small not-quite-livable cash you should be willing to fuck your kids over because hey, better than broke, right?
Let me be clear: That is not slavery, because hell, at least you can quit, and I’m not going to go the moron route of drawing a direct comparison between Mickey D’s and Roots.  The horrors of the slave trade are manifest, and not quite over, as there’s still bits of slavery floating about the world.  I’m pretty sure those poor bastards would be quite happy to work the Taco Bell experience.
Yet I think there’s an element of culture handed down here, because I think America has this attitude of wanting absolutely mindless drones to work for them, and a moral outrage built in of “We gave them $7.25, Christ, why are they still upset?  Don’t they know the rules?”
But even if we ignore the degrading aspects of what we want people to shell out for, there’s still a problem:
It makes for shitty experiences.
The reason mass chain experiences are invariably bland is because you can change the decor, you can shuffle the food about, but you can’t change the experience.  Because a lot of experiences are defined by what you can’t do.  The ballroom dancing experience isn’t the same if you can show up in a baseball cap and jeans.  The fine dining experience isn’t the same if you can bring in a six-pack of PBR.  Hell, the seeing baseball experience isn’t the same if you can’t cheer when your team scores – no, the crowd can’t stay silent!
We often call this “snobbery” in America, but fuck if restricting the potentials doesn’t lead to a more interesting experience.  Because yeah, maybe it’d be more convenient if you showed up to the opera in light-up deelybobbers, toting a vuvuzuela, but the atmosphere is ruined for everyone else.
If you’re trying to create a certain mood, the people who aren’t working with you to try to create that mood have gotta go.
Which means that in Service America, only the lowest of the low get thrown out.  You practically have to crap on the table before they’ll show you the door.  Everyone else, well, they’ve paid the cash, they can’t be expected to live up to a standard – the cash is the standard.  So movies become shitty because while most theaters will pay lip service to folks talking over the movie and texting on their phone, they won’t act upon that until other customers have reported the crime and made it clear that hey, it’s not the theater, it’s other cash-givers getting upset.  A place like the Alamo Drafthouse, which I’m told actively polices its customers, is rare indeed.  A place that takes money and expects the customers to act a certain way even when other customers aren’t complaining?  Holy shit, that’s insane.
Which brings us back to Dave Chappelle.
He’s a comedian, and he’s trying to make the audience feel a certain way.  To do that, the audience actually has to work with him a bit.  And if the audience is shouting  “I’M RICK JAMES, BITCH!” and interrupting his punchlines with their own stupid observations, well, that fucks with the experience a comedian is trying to provide.  Dave is actually less funny when he’s trying to deal with these morons, and if a comedian takes any pride in what s/he delivers, then s/he must be furious when these lowest common denominator folks bring it down for everyone.
Comedians hate hecklers, on the whole.  But they have to endure them, because the audience has paid, and snapping their fingers to point security at these assholes to haul them off would, somehow, make the comedians a dick.  That would be an uncomfortable inversion of power in America, the guy you paid cash to telling you how to act.  And so comedians do shitty routines that are less amusing for everyone, dealing with morons who should not be in the crowd.
Except Dave.
He’s got, as they say, “Fuck-you money,” and the willingness to utilize his power.
So when Dave said, “I’m not dealing with this, I’ll do my bare minimum” and left, as craptacular as it was to the rest of the audience, I actually cheer it on some level because Dave refused to go along with what we all expect, which is that if you get paid you have no right to have expectations of your employers.  It’s a potent statement, and in many ways one of the most insidious, because shit, it points out that even the rich and famous are actually held hostage to this goddamned paradigm.
I have other thoughts on Dave, many of which aren’t quite as complimentary; I may get to the actual performance he gave in Detroit, and the useless draconian lockdown on cell phones.  But in this, I cheer the man, because I think he did the right thing, just like the minimum-wage walkouts in major cities, just like the VTR and Old Fashion Hot Dogs alike are a subtle battling of one of the most entrenched and toxic American ideas:
You don’t get everything for your ticket price.  You just don’t.

6 Comments

  1. Mishell Baker
    Sep 3, 2013

    I think I may not be alone in wanting an entirely separate blog to explain what is so unreasonable about being denied a cell phone for a couple of hours. Using a word like “draconian” for that seems like the height of hyperbole, and it’s worth examining why the absence of instant communication with the world for the space of a performance has you so distressed. To me it seems like basic courtesy to give your attention to the guy performing.

    • TheFerrett
      Sep 3, 2013

      If you looked in your cell phone in your purse to check the time, you were ejected. You were not allowed to look at your cell phone anywhere on the premises, to the point where people were risking being ejected checking texts in the bathroom (though they weren’t that I saw). Cell phones were, effectively, dead zones throughout the entire festival – and if, like me, you sneak pocket-peeks at your cell phone to check the time, and do so as reflexively as checking a watch, you got hauled out by security.
      Why? Because Dave Chappelle was quite embarrassed by the cell video of his performance. Even the security guards were apologizing. And there were promotions at the concert dependent on Tweeting certain hash tags during the show, which obviously didn’t go as well.

    • Hel M.
      Sep 5, 2013

      Like Ferrett said, many people use cell phones as pocket watches nowadays, and don’t wear watches. I got my first cell phone in about 2001, and I think I’ve worn a watch maybe half a dozen days since. It would take me a good 20 minutes to even find a watch, at least.
      Not to mention those of us who use our phones for things like time to take meds reminders. Mine go off even if my phone is silent. At one point, when my phone kept shutting itself off, I had an app installed that would turn my phone on 5 minutes before my meds alarm. So from what Ferrett’s saying, if my phone had gone off and I’d pulled it out to silence it, I’d have been kicked out.
      There’s lots of reasons to grab your phone at any given point that aren’t “fuck you I’m gonna be rude” but are actually “Reasonable people would agree this is actually more important”.
      It’s one thing to kick out people who are disrupting others with their phone use. But just for checking the time, cos someone took a vid at another show? That’s bullshit, ESPECIALLY if it wasn’t announced ahead of time.

  2. ewinbee
    Sep 3, 2013

    I think there are also dregs of something else going on here… the concept of the performing minstrel or the pre-modern opera performer… the notion that all performing artists somehow demean themselves by their choice of profession, and they deserve about as much respect as prostitutes.
    Our culture has a MASSIVE sense of entitlement when it comes to our performing artists. Because we pay them and applaud them, it’s assumed that treating them worse than we would treat dogs is perfectly legitimate. And any popular performing artist who speaks up against this (not to mention, gasp shock horror, some artist who has actually made a lot of money) is not just criticized, but openly mocked as a spoiled child.
    “We tell you that we love you. Therefore you don’t have the right to refuse us anything we ask.” Where have I heard that before. Obviously not every fan behaves this way, but all it takes is for the cultural majority to consider it acceptable for a few to act this way. And we clearly do.
    Nobody who hasn’t been there can possibly understand how it feels to be abused and encroached upon by thousands of people. It’s the cost of fame in this country, and most of us who have no fucking clue will happily assume on the behalf of the famous that it must be worth it.
    In Dave’s case, not only was he abused, but it interfered with him sharing his art. When that happens, there is absolutely no point for an artist to attempt to remain popular. Sharing their art was the whole point to begin with.

  3. Thekla Richter
    Sep 6, 2013

    Your comments about comedians as an extension of service culture reminded me of this amazing speech in which a comedian talks about having to be funny every night to keep a roof over his family’s heads while his son was dying. Warning in case you couldn’t already guess – this video is super sad: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qdBJ1X33rXM

  4. Ann
    Sep 10, 2013

    This reminds me of a rule of thumb when dating or meeting new friends. How they treat waiters, clerks, and so on is a good indication of their character. No matter how nice someone is to me, if they under tip, bark at the cashier, sneer at the bellhop, whatever, they’re not someone I would enjoy having a friendship or relationship with. I think now I will add how they act at performances to the list, too. I think if someone I was with heckled a performer, I would want the ground to swallow me up.

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