he weekend before last, my curator friend worried there had been a burglary at his Bloomsbury Museum of Comedy, but nothing was taken. Perhaps some obsessed comedy fan had wanted to caress the stuffed bear from Steptoe and Son with Matthew Corbett’s Sooty puppet while dressed in Freddie Starr’s yellow teddy boy jacket?
Aware of the impossibility of working out new stuff in front of similarly obsessed fans, especially in the digital surveillance era, the American comedian David Chappelle seals his audience’s phones in locked bags. I confiscate any I see from the stage and stick them into my anus. But if there were ever more than one a night it would be a squeeze, even for someone with my medical history.
Earlier this month, on the very evening I ended six months of shows at the Leicester Square theatre, the late slot was occupied for a night by the same David Chappelle, ranked by Rolling Stone as the ninth best standup of all time. He was running in new jokes for one of his $20m Netflix specials at low-key London locations.
Critics wonder if David Chappelle’s non-PC positions remain subversive in the Trump age. His supporters say the comedy stage is a free speech space and should not be stifled by political correctness gone mad and evidence. Meanwhile, punters laugh at jokes, their involuntary chortles a disputed ideological no man’s land, lions led by donkeys.
A Herculean effort saw me bring my two-hour set down bang on its official 9pm end. Self-indulgent improvisations can spread it by 30 minutes when there’s no second show but I wanted to give the staff time to prepare for the 10pm David Chappelle curtain.
Pacing around backstage, I gleaned that two rotisserie chickens had been requested, and that David Chappelle’s dressing room lights were to be covered with a soothing red gel. I just have some tea bags in my dressing room, which is lit normally. Sometimes I get myself a falafel. To be fair, in America David Chappelle is too famous to wander Hollywood Boulevard choosing his own rotisserie chickens, the ensuing riot scattering tender breast all over the Walk of Fame.
Nevertheless, I wondered if it was worth warning David Chappelle about all those rotisserie chickens. When I was young and naive like him, the tours I did off the back of my 90s TV shows all lost money, their slender margins swallowed in apparently complimentary backstage prawn sandwiches and supermarket lager, eventually charged back to me by promoters. A heavy rotisserie chicken habit could soon devour the change from $20m.
At his 10pm start time David Chappelle wasn’t in the building. At around 10.40 the patient £69 ticket-holders were pacified with short sets from a British celebrity and a nervous American. As 11pm approached I saw David Chappelle enter the building from the back of the auditorium. Some time after he had taken the stage an audience member asked him why he was so late. He said the previous act had overrun and he had been waiting in the dressing room, but he hadn’t even been in the theatre.
What? Did he mean me? I thought I had blasted through my set. Was I being paranoid or had I been thrown under the bus by a liar? I stood up to heckle and moved towards the stage to remonstrate with him, but the comedian I was with jerked me back by my jumper, and so I went into the foyer and began sounding off. Perhaps the fact that the comedy stage was a safe space meant it shouldn’t matter whether I had really overrun or not, the important thing was that David Chappelle was allowed to say I had. One of David Chapelle’s people got on a walkie-talkie to call security.
Twenty-five years or so ago I became friends with an old drunken poet, whom I still admire enormously, and who was probably about the age then that I am now. Just as he was about to embarrass himself, he would know instinctively it was time to leave the party. Now I was that same liability, so I split.
I had been wrongly blamed for delays in the venue before. On 6 December a TV satirist tweeted that his 50-minute late start was caused by me overrunning, which I had, but by six minutes. But Nick Clegg, one of the satirist’s guests, insists on having his two rotisserie pigeons garrotted and cooked to order on site, and yellow Lib Dem gels put into the dressing room lights, difficult demands to meet in a 15-minute turnaround between shows.
Perhaps David Chappelle was constructing a cast iron alibi, maintaining he was backstage when in fact he was out in London committing comedy crimes?
Two months later in an Ohio mansion, David Chappelle invites the world’s richest comedians – Michael McIntyre, Jim Carey and Mrs Brown – to a private soiree in his crimson-gelled den.
“Lady and gentlemen,” David Chappelle begins, a crystal flute of bread sauce in one hand, a rotisserie chicken in the other, “I have invited you here because you are the world’s wealthiest comedians. But I have used my cunning to amass sacred comedic artefacts that will never be yours, no matter how rich you become.”
David Chappelle pulls a golden rope and curtains part to reveal, mounted on red velvet podiums, the stuffed bear from Steptoe and Son, Freddie Starr’s yellow teddy boy jacket, and Matthew Corbett’s Sooty puppet.
“Feck me!” exclaims Mrs Brown, while an ayahuasca-addled Carey gurgles, “Two bears, but such different sizes. And a jacket named after a bear? What can this mean?” “Then the originals in the Museum of Comedy are…” blubbers McIntyre, agog. “Fakes,” concludes Chapelle, “that I knitted myself and installed when I broke in, using the supposed overrun of the previous act as my alibi. More rotisserie chicken, Mrs Brown?”
Source: The guardian