In A-side/B-side, two Milwaukee Record writers tackle various city issues in an informal, crosstalk style. Insults are hurled, feelings are hurt, and everyone learns something in the end. Maybe.
Matt Wild: It’s been a week since Dave Chappelle set up shop in Milwaukee for a three-night, six-show stint at the Pabst. Other than the thrill of seeing Chappelle up close and personal, the biggest story to come out of those shows was the strongly worded list of rules (from both the Pabst and Chappelle) that attendees were expected to follow. No talking, no texting, no heckling, and no yelling stupid shit from Chappelle’s Show, lest the occasionally testy comedian walk off stage. Those sorts of things should be common knowledge at all shows (especially comedy shows), but Chappelle’s star-power and Milwaukee’s reputation for boisterous crowds seemed to necessitate making them explicit.
But were these rules too much? And should they be explicitly enforced at every Milwaukee show? I’m of two minds on the subject. On one hand, there were zero disturbances at the Chappelle show I checked out last week (the very first one on Monday night), making for an all-around enjoyable and hilarious night. On the other hand, when I took my seat and pulled out my phone a full 30 minutes before showtime, I was instantly warned to please put that away, sir. On one hand, the rules seemed to give Chappelle a license to relax, and not worry about some bozo yelling out “Rick James!” On the other hand, the calls from Chappelle’s pre-show DJ to “GET UP OFF YOUR SEATS AND PARTY, MILWAUKEE! THIS AIN’T YOUR NORMAL COMEDY SHOW!” were somewhat undercut moments later when he told us we’d be kicked out for talking or looking at our phones during the show.
So what do you think, Tyler? I know you were out of town for the Chappelle shows, but I’m sure you have plenty of “drunk assholes yelling stupid shit at comedy shows” stories. Would similar rules have helped in those cases? What about crowd behavior at smaller club shows? Is it time to hang “NO CELL PHONES” signs next to the “NO WEAPONS” signs? Or should we all just relax?
Tyler Maas: As specific as the declaration is, I can say with relative certainty that I’ve reviewed more comedy shows than anyone in Milwaukee over the past five years. In my experiences, I consider the vast majority of the audiences—whether in a 1,300-capacity theater, cozy comedy club, or tucked away theater space in the basement of a dying downtown mall—to be quiet, courteous, and attentive on the whole. That said, almost every show features a small pocket of idiots with a mission to involve themselves in the show, demand they hear that jokes they love from two specials ago (set timing or transitions be damned), and—worst yet—remind the performer that, yes, Milwaukee makes beer and Wisconsinites like beer and beer is an intoxicant. These people are audible audience outliers within an otherwise well-behaved crowd who can usually be snuffed out with a quick comment, like when Tim Heidecker screamed, “Kill yourself! You should kill yourself!” at an early-set Awesome Show! interrupter, or clean comic Brian Regan taking a guy to task for offering an alternate punchline to a new joke (“Now let’s go back and fix some of the previous ones!”)
Sometimes, though, the exceptions rule and the inmates are given the keys to the asylum, no matter how vigilant theater ushers, comedy club security, and onlookers unafraid to issue a “shut the fuck up!” try to be. I never thought I would feel sorry for Nick Swardson until a young woman who needed to ask him to take a “selfie” with her interrupted him mid-joke. “This is a weird time. I’m…I’m on a stage.” For a performer of Swardson’s scale, that altogether rocky September outing was a tough night, but he can accept it. Yet, as you mentioned, Chappelle has a track record of bailing on unsavory shows. He doesn’t need the money, and frankly (no little-guy syndrome, just a fact), he doesn’t need to come to Milwaukee. Name a city anywhere near our population with a theater and three consecutive nights free and the same thing would happen there. I absolutely commend any enhanced policy and the stringent enforcement of it. Is asking you to shut off your phone 30 minutes early harsh and unnecessary? Absolutely. But it set a tone that continued for three nights. If through six shows, the only complaint was about having to log off Snapchat half an hour early, that’s a great sign.
Honestly, I hope these policies continue—especially at comedy shows—though I suspect the enforcement (especially in terms of phones) will become a little more lenient. Last night’s Bob Odenkirk show had similar warnings posted on the entryways, handed out in flyer form, and stressed a tad less strictly (“Have phones off before the show begins’) than Chappelle. We’ve discussed the annoyance of taking photos or recording at concerts before. However, when it comes to theater-caliber comedy acts, recording portions of the show is downright detrimental to the comic. Unlike when a band comes to town in support of a record that’s just been released, most comedians of this echelon use what gets the most laughs at theater shows to help refine, workshop, and fine-tune bits that might wind up on albums or hour-long specials. Oftentimes, the set isn’t done yet—which injects some spontaneity into the night, and the possibility of seeing a comic do a joke in a way that may never be done again…and it should stay that way. A shaky YouTube video of Kumail Nanjiani riffing at Turner is akin to an un-mastered “leaked” demo from a band that’s between albums. Nobody leaves the experience happy or looking good.
The state of Milwaukee comedy is healthy, both with a renaissance of local stand-up and in terms of the national acts places like Pabst, Shank Hall, and even The Underground Collaborative are bringing to town. Now it’s time for Milwaukee as a whole to learn to be a comedy audience. It’s not just for the sake of the performer, but also for fellow audience members who fork over good money to see the talent, not your out-of-focus Jim Gaffigan “Hot Pockets” routine being recorded through the screen of a Samsung Galaxy. These rules are a good start to help speed the process up.
Matt, I’ve gone on and on about comedy, but it’s possible these guidelines will be applied to music, too. Do you feel this medium could benefit from rules like the ones put into place for Chappelle—not just at the Pabst/Turner/Riverside, but everywhere? Have you ever run into a band or musician with the magnitude to change rules? And did it take anything away from your show experience? I personally haven’t.
Matt: The first name that comes to mind is Jack White. Before he took the stage at The Rave this past summer, a stagehand came out beforehand and asked everyone to keep their phones in their pockets, and to simply enjoy the direct, communal experience of seeing a beloved musician perform live. Not only would this be better for the crowd, it would be better for White, who had recently lamented the lack of applause at shows because—surprise!—people were too busy dicking around on their phones. The “no-phones” rule wasn’t as drastic as the Chappelle warnings (and it was only coming from White, not The Rave), but, incredibly, it worked: there were people snapping shitty pictures and taking shitty videos here and there, but for the most part, White’s wishes were heeded. It was a great show. (And hot.)
With that being said, I’m not sure it takes a special, top-tier artist like White or Chappelle to alter our bad show-going habits. It seems that all it takes is a friendly reminder before the show—and that goes for big-name acts and club-level locals. I remember an Aziz Ansari show where the comedian set aside a minute or so in the beginning of his set for audience pictures. “Let’s just get this out of the way now,” was the message, and a funny one at that. Ansari is hardly a superstar, but most everyone in the audience obliged. I also seem to remember a Jon Mueller set at Cactus Club where the crowd was politely asked to put away their phones. Again, it worked, and all it took was a gentle reminder.
Of course, some artists don’t give a shit if people are recording the entire show on their phones. Hell, some artists may prefer it. But for those acts that loathe cell phones (or heckling, talking, etc.), a simple request at the top of the show may be all that’s needed. What do you think, Tyler? Should artists take more initiative in curbing bad audience behavior, or should it be up to the venues?
Tyler: Call it wishful thinking, but I think it should be up to people in attendance to realize they each play a small role in a collective, multi-component experience that’s larger than the performer, larger than the venue, and (most importantly) larger than themselves. Yes, maybe you paid upwards of $80 to see Dave Chappelle perform and you deserve the right to enjoy his performance. But the moment your version of enjoying the show—whether by recording, photographing, or just being a fuckface in general—infringes on another paying patron’s experience, you should lose your right to be part of it. If a low-quality live video is so important to you, there are plenty to be found online that aren’t from Milwaukee. We’re better than that. Or at least we will be.