By now, Dave Chappelle’s walking off the stage during a performance in Hartford, CT last week has been one of the most discussed celebrity meltdowns of the year. As a fan of the gifted and troubled comedian, I think it would be prudent to suggest that everyone shut up about it.
Chappelle, who was heckled off stage, has a complicated relationship with the heat of the spotlight. In 2005, he decided to run off to South Africa, leaving behind a successful stand up career and a hit Comedy Central show. He found refuge over the next few years in Ohio, where he managed to fly below the radar.
A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a full-page story about Chappelle’s return to the stage. Though he had done several smaller sets every so often, this time, he was back in earnest. It took him eight years to feel comfortable enough to make a national resurgence.
The problem with heckling Chappelle only a few sets into his new career is that we run the risk of chasing him away. (We haven’t really matured as an audience in the near-decade he was gone). He may well be volatile, but he is certainly one of the most brilliant living comics. His 2004 Showtime special For What It’s Worth, in this writer’s opinion, is outstandingly funny — one of the great comedy shows of the past 10 years — and still relevant today.
Let’s start with not circulating those videos of his recent meltdown and giving him time to figure things out. When he’s on a solid footing, Chappelle’s a sturdy performer: he once did a 6-hour set at the Laugh Factory.
It won’t be the first time a big-time comic has been given a re-do, Richard Pryor’s Live on the Sunset Strip—the immortal genius routine that makes it impossible to laugh at anything for a week after seeing it—was filmed on the show’s re-do night. It was going to be Pryor’s first show after his recovery from drugs and from his burn accident, and he stuttered, forgot material, and bombed far worse than Chappelle did last week. But Pryor rallied and gave his audience the show that still airs on TV more than 30 years later.
On his interview with James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio, Chappelle explained his decision to leave for Africa with a proverb from his father: “Name your price at the beginning. If it ever gets more expensive than the price you named—get out of there.” Last week on stage, the price was made too high for him. We shouldn’t let that happen again.