Last Wednesday night, Savannah was treated to a rare visit by superstar standup comic Dave Chappelle.
Unfortunately for Chappelle — a consummate professional and one of the most savvy and insightfully caustic comedians working today — he was treated to a shocking display of rudeness, insensitivity and narcissism on the part of the assembled crowd. One can only imagine he has already added Savannah to his mental list of cities never to return to again.
The show itself was a complete sellout, and a sizable minority of the audience seemed completely oblivious to the fact that they ruined the show for everyone else around them — not to mention the artist they purportedly respected enough to shell out $47 to see — which only makes the whole ugly mess even more shameful.
Approximately 2,500 Chappelle fans filled the Johnny Mercer Theater by a few minutes after 7 p.m. to the bass-heavy strains of old-school hip-hop emanating from an otherwise silent live DJ near the back of the theater’s stage.
Having been one of the first 10 people in line at the Civic Center Box Office when tickets went on sale, I was thrilled at having scored myself and some friends seats in the orchestra pit approximately five feet from the lip of the stage. Logic would dictate these would be the best seats in the house.
However, the first hint our experience might not be pleasant came when I saw there were no speakers aimed toward the pit. In other words, the intro music and, ultimately, Chappelle’s own microphone were directed past us, toward the back of the theater. Sure enough, when he took the stage, it was infuriatingly apparent that those of us who’d made a special effort to grab good seats couldn’t hear jack shit.
All we got was a cacophonous, echoey slap-back off the walls of this room which suffers from notoriously poor acoustics to begin with. Within the first 20 minutes of his routine, my friends and I could actually make out about 15 percent of what he was saying. The rest of it sounded like a Greyhound Bus Terminal announcer.
There was no excuse for this. The soundman in question is a veteran Savannah-based engineer who’s likely worked countless times in that room over the years, and the entire situation could have been easily remedied with a simple array of four small speakers placed at regular intervals across the foot of the stage.
I can’t stress enough how disappointing and frustrating it was to be mere feet from the performer, and literally have to strain to guess what he was saying. Jokes made no sense, his famous rapid-fire delivery became a jumbled and incoherent mess, and one had to hope he looked your way so you could try to read his lips.
Luckily, I found two unoccupied seats about 15 rows back and my companion and I moved to where we could actually hear most of his act, but these difficulties paled in comparison to the endless — and I do mean endless — barrage of random screaming, heckling, and full-on conversations an unbelievable number of people in the mostly-white, mostly college-age crowd somehow thought were appropriate.
I’ve been to shows before where I was agog at the boorish and self-absorbed antics of Savannah crowds, but most everyone seems to agree this one takes the cake. Who pays $50 to show up someplace and relentlessly interrupt a show?
What would make anyone think that a professional entertainer appreciates drunk and/or idiotic folks in the crowd hollering nonsensical sounds, suggestions, threats, and/or the performer’s own catchphrases at them while they’re in the middle of telling a story or making a serious point?
It’s true that Chappelle’s conversational manner and moments of bemused self-reflection do conspire to make his fans feel they’re in a relaxed bull session with an unusually witty (and famous) friend. But so what? Who treats a friend like that?
To his credit, Chappelle did his best to roll with the punches, as when he repeatedly referred to the seemingly unconcerned “security guards” (who did virtually nothing to stop people from walking right up to the stage and trying to hand him drinks —and business cards for their “neighborhood bar”— or ask for autographs IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SHOW) by calling one ineffectual guard “Andy Griffith” and attempting to whistle that TV show’s theme.
But much more telling were two comments he directed square at the audience. At one point — after pleading with people to stop interrupting him — he said in a dejected tone, “I think some of you motherfuckers would’ve been better off staying at home watching one of my DVDs.”
The second went by awfully fast, and I assume most of the braying jackasses didn’t even catch it: “Make all the noise you want,” he said with a resigned chuckle. “I got paid before the show.”
Jim Reed is music editor of Connect Savannah. To comment e-mail us at