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Chappelle on Broadway

On Thursday morning I woke up to read my NY Times and started with the Arts section when I saw a large picture of Dave Chappelle and what I assumed was a review of his current 2 week stint on Broadway. The article was by NY Times comedy writer Jason Zinoman and from the headline I decided I did not want to read it. The vibe I got from the headline and first paragraph was that Chappelle was retreading old ground and punching down.  Also I did not want a spoiler for a performance that I had paid an exorbitant amount to attend (doggystyle seating – my girlfriend was sitting in the aisle seat in front of me).  My basic assumption was the Zinoman was just following the current, Nanette-infused sensibility of what should be comedy, what is good comedy and how 18 different progressive buzzwords should be dictating what stand up comedians perform.  Having enjoyed Chappelle’s recent Netflix efforts and defending that material against accusations of transphobia I just assumed this was more of the same. Well… (*Malcolm Gladwell podcast intro voice*) it turns out… maybe Zinoman had a point (still haven’t read it though).

The show did not start until about 8:25 (8:00pm show) when DJ Trauma (Chappelle’s road DJ, a concept I hate as I type it) began playing his own songs before Chappelle’s opener, Wil Sylvince did a 20-25 minute set.  Then DJ Trauma began a medley of hip hop to get us all pumped up for Chappelle.  He did something that I found hilarious – you know how bands will stop singing so the audience fills in (Steve Harvey, I believe, mocked this in The Kings of Comedy)?  Well DJ Trauma decided to stop playing the records so we would fill in – so I guess in 2019 DJs are tired of doing all the work of playing a song on their MacBook.  And then, finally, the man came out.

Chappelle started his set insulting the New York Times, which despite having had two relatives work for the NYT in the past, I laughed at because I assumed he was going to stick it to another progressive (where I lie politically on most things, but not nearly as much within the art of stand up) writer who wants to dictate to a master what is and isn’t OK.  I am going to try and not spoil any jokes, but the vibe I got from Chappelle’s set was of a guy who was a little angrier than normal and felt it was his job to be Louis CK’s proxy or defender. What I mean by that is his topics included trans people, the use of the word fa**ot and school shootings – he was almost going through a checklist of what got CK in trouble after one of his first post-hiatus performances.  And I will admit I was never a huge fan of CK, but I actually laughed at his material that the comedy police decided was now “hack” and “disgusting.”  Now, for most of Chappelle’s set it was A level material on some very touchy subjects. Exactly the type of hilarious tight rope walk a lot of people like me want to see in stand up comedy (his dismissiveness of white opioid addicts, his discussion of getting a gun, his school shooter material, his insulting of the women’s soccer team and many other things were legitimately great comedy and well within what should be allowed for comedians to joke about and risk failing while attempting).  But during some of the material, for the first time in my watching Chappelle for decades, I felt like he was veering into Edge-Lord, “Hey Man I’m a fucking comic – this is what we do bro” kind of “own the libs” peacocking. The appeal for me of Chappelle has always been the laid-back genius of what he does and how he does it. This was absent during the bits of the show that were the weakest.

Now there is a chance he was still working on material, but based on the price of the tickets and the high profile of the residency I have to imagine it is close to a finished product.  And I must say – two sections of the show actually made me cringe both because of the laziness of the material and the reaction of the crowd.

One bit was about the word fa**ot.  He said that Comedy Central did not want him to do a sketch centered on the word. He then asked Comedy Central why he was allowed to say ni**er all day on air, but not fa**ot.  The woman’s answer at standards and practices was that he isn’t gay. Chappelle’s answer to that was “But I’m not a ni**er either.” And the crowd, full of a cross section of people who apparently want the freedom to call people fa**ots, cheered like he had just said something profound and brave. He then said that a lesson he (and now Kevin Hart – the other comedian he seemed intent on defending through word and deed) learned is that you cannot make fun of LGBTQ people because “they” run Hollywood.  I don’t say this lightly; this moment sucked. First off, the analogy that Chappelle made to defend himself was so lazy and wrong it doesn’t work.  Clearly the implication was “you are black, so you can say the N word, but you are straight so you can’t throw around the F word” and he turned it around in a stupid way but that still got Church “mmmhmms” from the Black members of the audience and “whoops” from the NY Post reading White people in the crowd.  Then there was the direct claim that a group running Hollywood was stifling only slurs against themselves.  And then there was the whooping of the crowd at it.  I don’t care if you think this is hyperbole or snowflake shit, but I’ve basically defended everything in comedy that isn’t Kramer’s N word rant and unlike Zinoman, have been a comedian for 16 years, but this felt like being at some Trump rally for a few minutes.  Unlike a lot of the great comedy Chappelle shared last night, this did not feel like pushing the envelope to prove a point about comedy and speech. This felt like a white person asking to say the N word (which tellingly a white person did after the show during a Q&A which was resoundingly booed by white and black alike).  Except in the case of Chappelle, it was a black man demanding the right to use a slur of a group he doesn’t belong too and then claiming some racism/adjacent white privilege for why he wasn’t allowed to. And the crowd loved it.

The second bit that bothered me was probably the worst joke in the whole show, just on a comedic level.  I thought his trans jokes on Netflix were funny.  Problematic, but funny and at the end of the day that is my metric for a comedy special. But he starting basically retreading the CK bit (if I identify as a woman, why can’t I identify as an Asian person – CK did it as a tree or something) that got CK into some heat recently. One of the reasons why I think Chappelle was trying to avenge CK in some way with this hour. And the crowd was loving it (he had other LGBTQ jokes that were much more skillful and funny).  And then he just started doing an Asian person impersonation that felt like a 1950s stereotype and the crowd ate it up (having worked plenty of black rooms on the road and in DC when I started I do know that for some reason doing basically racist impressions of Asians still seem to kill in a lot of those rooms).  Now – maybe he was just doing this to stick his finger in the eye of political correctness.  This one felt so simple and offensive that that might actually have been what he was doing.  But it was beneath most open micers, let alone a legend.

The rest of the show was great, Chappelle is an all time great, but for the first time I felt like I could see the beginning of the end of Chappelle as an artist at the peak of his powers.  At least for me.  Our country has shown there is a deep thirst for offensive commentary and someone who will stop sensitivity and political correctness from being used as dual cudgels to hammer people into a future they haven’t signed on for.  And maybe I am wrong – Chappelle clearly has lots to say and a lot of talent with which to say it.  But he stopped doing Chappelle Show because he felt like he was giving white people too much license to laugh AT black people.  But has middle age, millions and the current climate shifted him into a guy who now finds it OK to rally the MAGA folk and his loyal fans into a group that dismisses all political correctness and other marginalized groups?  It wasn’t OK for white people to laugh at ni**ers in 2004, but we can all come together and laugh at these politically correct fa**ots in 2019?  My credentials and past writings speak for themselves so I don’t need to heed anyone who thinks this is some soft, PC bullshit blog.  In those two bits Chappelle was being lazy and worst of all unfunny – maybe to prove a point, but the point to his audience, based on their reaction was not “we need more honesty!” It was “yeah I should be able to say fa**ot!”  And I am not against using any language in comedy. I have laughed at entertainers’ usage of the fa**ot in some movies and comedy, but the point of  that usage was not to defend the usage of the word.

I don’t normally dissect comedy like this or treat it like a term paper, but I am only doing this because it felt so stark. If I had just listened to a Chappelle album with last night’s set I might have just said “Great album, but tracks 4 and 6 sucked,” but being in a theater with thousands of people applauding not the humor, but the perceived truth of those words, was a lot more uncomfortable than I expected to be at a Chappelle stand up show.

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Broadway Is The New Airline

Over the 4th of July weekend I went to see Ain’t Too Proud, the 12 time Tony nominated Broadway musical about The Temptations, featuring the music of the Four Tops (spoiler – I’m just kidding – it features the music of The Temptations).  The show is outstanding.  Close to as entertaining as Hamilton (though a big difference is the music of Hamilton is original and when you start your musical with a foundation of one of the greatest groups of all time it’s a considerable head start on the way to great show), I was blown away by the depth of talent in the show and gave it an actually earned standing ovation.  If Jersey Boys, a beast in its own right and sort of the forefather of the Ain’t Too Proud, is Larry Bird then Ain’t Too Proud is Lebron James.  But this post is not about the show, but about the theater.

Aint Too Proud (by the way, apologies if you thought it was a musical about TLC) has its home at the Imperial Theater on West 45th street.  It is one of the many old theaters that seats hobbits comfortably, jockeys tightly and everyone else like processed deli meats.  At least that is what I thought. By way of background I go to about 4-5 Broadway shows  a year and as a theater snob I tend to go for the classics – Harry Potter, SpongeBob, King Kong, Pretty Women, etc. and am always buying aisle seats because in anything but the newest theaters the aisle is the only way for me to sit while allowing for the possibility that I will be able to produce children in the future.  So I purchased two orchestra seats for me and my girlfriend, but when I walked to our seat I noticed something – a child would not be able to fit (FYI I was 5’2″ when I was 8 years old so my idea of children’s size may be skewed).  I saw a man who could not be any bigger than 5’8″ with barely any leg room. Then I saw a 6’2″ man walk into our row and he basically looked like me on a middle seat on a flight where I could only afford Delta’s “Go fu*k yourself” class of seat. He was wedged in and could not place his feet flat.  So here is me trying to sit in my seat (photo credit: girlfriend):

“I am big; it’s the theaters that got small.” – Cauvin Boulevard

When I realized that I could not fit in the seat (width would have been tight, but I take responsibility for my cookie and brownie habit. I literally could not fit in my seat without doggystyling the elderly woman in front of me, which would be awkward with my girlfriend right there (#TheaterThreesome).  So we approached our usher and told her “we got it, we got it bad,” which she (and many of you probably) did not get. She then called her manager, also a woman (and you tell me we don’t need a men’s rights movement???) who offered to take me to one of the boxes on the second level. It was awesome. Plenty of leg room and to many of the riff raff in the mezzanine they probably assumed the giant was probably a VIP (Very Impressive Pituitary). It was a partially obstructed view, but that’s a small price to look cool and have blood circulating to your lower body.

Ain’t too proud to demand seats I can fit into

But then I noticed something before the show started – the premium seats were extra roomy (the new invention since Jersey Boys where center orchestra seats close go for a ton of money). So not only is the view great, but you have lots of extra leg room – leg room that I am pretty sure did not exist 10-15 years ago.  But since these antebellum theaters have not been updated that means the leg room had to come from somewhere and then I realized: the $120 seats (not exactly a small amount) were getting fu*ked to accommodate the elite of the elite (WHERE IS AOC TO LOBBY FOR THE NEEDS OF THE MERELY SUCCESSFUL AGAINST THE CORRUPT ELITES PLUNDERING THEATER REAL ESTATE???). Here is an aerial shot of the offending seats:

First off you shouldn’t wear shorts to Broadway. Second – that dude was about 6’2″ and was able to late-night-guest his legs – that is an outrage (please see photo of me in orchestra above)

Basically Broadway is becoming an airline.  I remember when Southwest used to let me pre-board because I was very tall. They did this so I could get an Emergency Exit row. But then Southwest, which has no business having a “business class” – anyone with a business is on a real airline, and it’s sort of a snobby poke at all the working stiffs who built you up (THIS IS WHY TRUMP WILL WIN IN 2020!) – decided to seell off early access for their flights.  Meanwhile, my other preferred airline, Delta, had introduced Comfort Plus, which sounds like my favorite branch of soft core porn, and for a while it was a Godsend.  Tons of extra leg room, free snacks and movies – all for a $100 extra.  But as those seats became more popular they started adding rows of Comfort Plus. And all of a sudden my soft core porn turned into an airline cuck film because I was being fu*ked out of leg room.  After a few years Delta had tripled the amount of Comfort Plus, but since the airplanes (like the theaters) were not getting any bigger or giving up on revenue the extra room had to be squeezed out of existing coach seats AND the room in comfort plus seats. So by my last flight to LA a couple of years ago (career not flame emojis FYI) I had just enough room to not touch the seat in front of me, but had lost a noticeable amount of room.

So congrats Broadway – you are now operating with the same ethical standards and concern for your customers as an airline.  Seriously can someone reach out to Attorney General Tish James to see if there is any limit to how much a theater can shrink seat size?  But from here on out I will be buying the smallest seat possible for Broadway shows and then demanding a box.  But the show was outstanding so cheers to you Ain’t Too Proud with a $45 bottle of Ain’t Too Proud water (I don’t know how much it cost, gf got it for me at intermission so we could keep up appearances that as an A-lister I could not mingle with the common folk at intermission).

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Spider Man – Broadway Style

Last night I saw a preview performance of Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark – the $65 million dollar musical that from all reports seems destined to join Cutthroat Island, Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of MySpace and the money I have asked my friends to invest in bringer shows over the last 8 years as one of the biggest financial flops of all time.  There are many reasons why it may flop:

  1. Bad publicity – the delays, the high cost, the early accidents are all spelling doom.
  2. The nerds – the so-called purists (a/k/a comic book reading freaks who would be virgins, but for the hormones of ugly girls) who will not see this because Spider Man does not belong on Broadway (really – an awkward teen with a muscular physique who likes wearing tights does not belong on Broadway?).
  3. Judgmental theatergoers who do not believe Spider Man is worthy of Broadway (really – an awkward teen with a muscular physique who likes wearing tights does not belong on Broadway?)

Well, there is a big reason why it can succeed – the first half of the play is fantastic (or fabulous/fierce in Broadway speak).  Here is my breakdown of last night’s Broadway event.

So I arrived with my girlfriend for the preview performance (regular engagement tickets will be $140 which J-L the unhappy lawyer could afford, but J-L the unhappy comedian cannot) we were greeted to a speech before the show.   It was explained to us beforehand by one of the show’s producers that because of the scope of the play, previews could not be done in Europe to prep the play because there are no stages that can handle the show besides the Foxwoods Theater in NYC.  That is why there have been errors and delays that normally would not occur in New York.  This reminded me of my flight to Chicago a couple of weeks ago where the JetBlue pilot actually gave us the “this flight is going to suck badly” speech before one of the bumpiest flights of my life.  But I survived that flight and I assumed that unless Spider Man or the Green Goblin fell on me from 40 feet above me I would survive the show as well.

The first act was terrific – amazing, injury/mistake free stunts, terrific sets (seriously the best I have ever seen) and mostly good songs  (written by Bono and The Edge of U2).  So despite being crammed into a seat next to an unusually aggressive old man who wanted to fight me for an arm rest, me and the lady were really enjoying the show. If the musical had stopped then (which given the plot of the show, it actually could have) I would guarantee good reviews and huge success.  Then the second half occurred.

The second half is pretty boring, full of so-so solos, about a tenth of the stunts and excitement of the first act, and a plot that had it been a season finale of a television show or an M. Night Shayamalan film, Twitter would be going crazy with comments like “cop-out!”,  “Bullsh*it!”, etc.  Now the problem for the show is that they are obviously going to want to attract families in big numbers, but if me and my girlfriend were bored and physically uncomfortable in the second act, how is some 8 year old obese turd with ADD going to sit patiently while some Spider Lady moans on about some ancient curse?

So overall I would grade the play a B+.  An A for the first act and a C- for the second act (but the first act weighted more because it is longer and the set work is outstanding throughout).  But for anyone who is worried about whether Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark is true to the spirit and culture of Broadway, rest assured – this photo was taken backstage:

Spider Man - Broadway style