Dave Chappelle and John Mayer’s Controlled Danger shows are a necessary reminder of the inextricable link between free speech and art

Poster from the Controlled Danger performance on April 28 at the Fillmore in San Francisco (my photo)

Just because you’re offended, doesn’t make you right.

Midway through John Mayer and Dave Chappelle’s Controlled Danger show at the Fillmore in San Francisco late last month, I noticed a familiar feeling of cringe creeping in.

Maybe you recognize it: something is said, let’s say at a comedy show, that veers off the rails of decorum, crash-landing into the muck made up of (GASP!) thought-related filth.

Am I even allowed to laugh at this? you wonder, shooting sheepish glances to those around you. According to Ricky Gervais, and any comedian worth his or her salt, the answer is yes. More like, Duh.

Just because you’re offended, doesn’t make you right.

So much of the backlash over “untoward comedy” seen in recent months and years stems from a simple starting point: it has become OK—in some instances, commendable even—to condemn something because you find it offensive.

This is not to say that I don’t empathize with that particular reaction. Like most gut reactions, it’s hard to get over. It’s no great feat to laugh at a joke, often uproariously, when it has no bearing upon your past existence. Many who cheer and applaud the first amendment when it suits their own ends are the same ones who lambast any thought or claim that goes against said agenda. Or launch a campaign against a comedian when a joke cuts too close to the bone. We interpret the Constitution, and wish it to be enforced, according to a set of subjective ideals.

Just because you’re offended…

It’s a hard way of looking at the world, but it’s necessary. We need a set of objective ideals, set in legal stone, to protect us. To quote the Joker of “Dark Knight” iteration, we’re only as good as the world allows us to be—and we’d do well to remember it.

So this brings me back to the Chappelle/Mayer show. I enjoyed reading through some of the reactions by those in attendance on social media…after the show had ended. As is swiftly becoming a habit among comedians, and some musicians, the Controlled Danger performance enlisted Yondr to provide attendees with bags in which they’d place their phone before the show. The bag would seal, to be unlocked by a Yondr employee after the end. (In case of emergency, of course, the phone can be unlocked, and the audience member steps outside to make a call.)

The brilliance of this ploy struck me most fervently as Mayer, who performed a brief musical set and then accompanied Chappelle for the latter half of the latter’s standup performance, fumbled for the right words. You could notice the catch in his vocal delivery, as he wondered whether what he was going to say next might be taken the wrong way. And then blasted by some opportunistic audience member onto social media.

And that was the point: with the Yondr safety net, so to speak, Mayer felt he could work out what he was saying, and trust the audience’s good faith to not jump down his throat if it came out a bit wrong. Not that it did. But I was struck by this process, and how it will enhance live shows down the line if we keep with the Yondr way.

Gervais has said he will utilize Yondr, or some such service, as he tries out new material. He wants to play new jokes in a live audience setting, and he doesn’t want the jokes going onto YouTube.

It’s a brilliant strategy, and it follows along the line of something Smashing Pumpkins lead singer Billy Corgan said: fans are looking for ways in which they can enter relationships with their favorite artists. Streaming something, or watching it online, isn’t doing it. Now, you can be involved in something revolutionary. Helping an artist realize his or her best performance, by loosing the shackles social media has set upon us. That we are crippled by the backlash we fear might come if something is interpreted a wrong way, or if it is willfully manipulated to force a specific reaction. Say, you know, get the most clicks possible. Polarization is profitable.

And you notice how good you feel when you have some time between the event and putting some thoughts down about it. Certainly better than firing off a tweet in real time.

Because even if a comedian says some pretty uncouth stuff, lewd jokes and the like, the intent is never expressly to harm. They are grasping at truth, and the point of a joke might not be to offend someone who sees a painful memory reignited, but rather to call attention, through a laugh (universal sign of truth) to a lesson that can be learned about a topic.

Wondrous what we can do without a phone, eh?

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

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