Share this article

print logo

Comedians to their audience: Put down that phone

Dave Chappelle is bringing his comedy – his world-class, cutting-edge, A-list-celeb-quality material – to Buffalo this weekend.

That’s cool.

Chappelle’s Sunday shows at Shea’s Performing Arts Center came as a surprise. The “pop-up” gigs, as they’re called, were announced only earlier this week. The initial show sold out fast; a second show was added. Comedians like Chappelle typically do these last-second shows when they’re working on material for a comedy special or album. Which means if you go, you get a sneak peek at material in development.

Also cool.

But Chappelle’s shows come with a warning label. It’s not about the comedic content, and it’s certainly not a joke. It goes like this: “This is a strict NO CELLPHONES ALLOWED show. Please leave your phones in your cars or at home.”

Those instructions, which are attached to every web page where you can buy tickets, aren’t unique to Chappelle. When Kevin Hart played Buffalo one year ago, signs in the doorways of First Niagara Center warned fans that cellphone usage during the show was prohibited. Don’t text, tweet, talk, shoot pictures or use a recording device, the signs said, adding, “If you violate these rules you will be escorted out of the venue.”

When George Lopez played the Seneca Events Center in Niagara Falls a couple of summers ago, digital signs warned fans not to live tweet the show. And when Amy Schumer headlined First Niagara Center earlier this month, fans were thrown out for ignoring warnings and using their phones.

It’s a trend among comedians, who have grown tired of seeing their material posted online, tweeted or recorded out of context. Plus, in the words of Andrew Dice Clay, many comedians think “all those stupid lights in the audience” are just plain rude.

So they’re taking back control.

“It’s sort of like a new millennium version of heckling – the idea of bringing out your iPhone and filming an act, or even just texting during a show,” said Kliph Nesteroff, a former stand-up comic who was recently named curator of the National Comedy Center, which is under construction in Jamestown. “It really can ruin a joke or ruin a show if it’s a distraction.”

And it is, in multiple ways, and not just because phone lights may annoy others in the audience. Unlike, say, music – where bands will record an album and then play the songs onstage – comedians work out their material in live shows.

That’s true of big names like Chappelle, and it’s true of comedians still on the rise, like Jamie Lissow, who is playing Helium Comedy Club in Buffalo this weekend. He’s working on material for an hour-long DVD and revises his jokes after each show. (Lissow actually carries a recorder onstage for that purpose.)

If somebody recorded and posted his material from Helium, he said, they’d be pre-empting his work – and it would be a lesser version.

“You want final edit on your comedy,” he said.

So it’s an intellectual property concern, for sure, but the cellphone extends further. Traditionally, comedians have considered live shows to be sacred ground, a place where they can perform relatively unfiltered, using and testing raw material.

The ability to instantly post video clips online violates that sanctity.

“When I perform, there are no holds on stage and there never was,” Andrew Dice Clay said in an email interview. Clay has long been regarded as one of pop culture’s raunchiest comedians. “So if someone uploads a couple of minutes from my show – there is no context. It makes my (stuff) seem a lot worse. So if someone wants to be politically correct, that’s their problem, not mine.”

Clay has another problem with the phones, too. It’s “annoying to see all those stupid lights in the audience,” he said. “Just enjoy the show.”

Chappelle has a solution for all of it. That warning attached to his ticket sales also contains the following: “Anyone who brings a cellphone will be required to place it in a lockable pouch. Everyone is subject to a pat down. Anyone caught with a cellphone inside the venue will be immediately ejected.”

If you walk into Chappelle’s show with a phone, you’ll be handed a pouch that resembles an envelope made of form-fitting fabric.

You’ll be required to put your phone inside the pouch which, through a high-tech system designed by the San Francisco-based tech company Yondr, will automatically lock when you enter the theater. So your phone will be with you, but inaccessible.

If you need to use the phone, you can exit the theater and enter the lobby, where the pouch will open.

Chappelle started using Yondr’s phone-locking pouches in December 2015.

“Dave has been really, really supportive of us,” said Graham Dugoni, the founder of Yondr, which also works with musicians. “He was the first artist to really understand what we’re doing in the broader scheme. If you haven’t been to a phone-free show, where there are 3,000 people and nobody on their phones, you feel the difference. You don’t know what you’re missing until you’ve been there.”

Lissow, standing in the Helium lobby on Thursday evening, was mulling the different approaches to handling the cellphone problem. He prefers the Schumer approach: Eject people who record or shoot pictures during the show.

As the dad of three young kids, though, he wonders what it would be like for parents to not be able to slip a look at their phone to see if the babysitter texted with an emergency.

“The dad in me is like, ‘If I couldn’t check my phone, I have to get up and go check it, isn’t that distracting?’ ” he said.

Clay, who’s currently on tour (but isn’t visiting Buffalo), has a different solution for convincing fans to pocket their phones – for most of the show. At the end of the evening, he lets them pull the phones out and record his dirty nursery rhymes.

“I know that they want to brag to all their little friends they saw one of the greatest shows ever,” he said, “so let them do the nursery rhymes ’cause they are going to do it anyway.”