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Monday, September 2, 2013

Dave Chappelle and Breach of Contract

ChappelleComedian Dave Chappelle (pictured) is edgy, and people like that about his comedy.  His edge is what makes his comedy sophisticated, challenging and -- when it really works -- thrilling.  But edgy comedy can easily go awry.  Audiences might miss the fact that Mr. Chappelle often plays upon racial stereotypes rather than simply indulging or reenacting them. Edgy comedy makes demands of its audience, and sometimes the audience is not up to the challenge.  That is what appears to have happened last week in Hartford, Connecticut.  The other theory is that Mr. Chappelle had "a meltdown" in the face of a loud audience that wanted Mr. Chappelle's routine to be more interactive than he intended.  Aisha Harris has a balanced report on Slate, including some YouTube videos that might help people judge for themselves which version is accurate.  

Apparently, Mr. Chappelle was so disturbed, distracted, annoyed, and frustrated by an audience that would not stop shouting at him -- even though the shouts started as encouragement -- that he decided not to perform.  However, people speculate that he felt contractually obligated to remain on the stage for a full 25 minutes, and so he read aloud from a book, smoked a cigarette and variously occupied himself in ways that people have concluded were not his act until the time expired.  

The event raises interesting contractual questions whether one believes that Mr. Chappelle himself or Mr. Chappelles audience was to blame for what transpired.  Some of those questions run as follows:

  • Regardless of Mr. Chappelle's reasons, did he in fact abide by his contract simply by remaining on stage for 25 minutes?
  • Is there any argument that could be made that what happend in Hartford was a performance?  Could anyone have claimed breach of contract upon witnessing the premiere of John Cage's 4'33?
  • If heckling actually motivated a comedian (any comedian) to leave the stage early, would that be a breach of contract?
  • But if the shouting at Mr. Chappelle's show was actually intended to be encouraging or simply cries of affection for the comedian, does that change the analysis in the previous question? [The Beatles stopped touring because all that could be heard at their concerts were the screams of their teenaged fans, so if they stopped touring in the middle of a concert, would they be justified?]
  • Is there a remedy for individual ticket-holders in such a case, and against whom is their remedy?  They were not in privity with Mr. Chappelle, so they might sue the concert organizers who in turn could attempt to recover from Mr. Chappelle.
  • But if in fact the dynamic at the show in Hartford replayed the dynamic that motivated Mr. Chappelle to end his television show, is that a legitimate defense?  Can an African American comedian defend himself against a breach of contract suit on the ground that too many audience members were laughing at his jokes for the wrong reasons?

[JT]

 

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