Why Does Dave Chappelle Get to Smoke on Stage?

The answer is not "Because he wants to."
Why Does Dave Chappelle Get to Smoke on Stage?

If you’re one of the 28.3 million Americans who still smoke cigarettes, you know the drill at your local comedy club. If you get the urge to light up a heater before, during or after a set, your only option is to sneak outside and smoke in a nearby alleyway. It’s illegal to light up inside, for Pete’s sake! But if that’s the case -- if no one is allowed to drag on a Marlboro at your local Chuckle Shack or Giggle Hut -- why is it that comic Dave Chappelle is always smoking during his sets? Whether he’s hosting Saturday Night Live or recording his latest Netflix special, Chappelle is smoking. The only time he can’t smoke in the club, it seems, is when he goes to the strip club.

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Why does Chappelle smoke on stage? That part is easy. He likes to smoke! It relaxes him, he’s said. He even smoked without fear when he accepted the Mark Twain Prize at the Kennedy Center. "I want everyone in America right now to look at me. Look at me smoking indoors," he boasted during the ceremony. "I didn't ask anybody. What are they gonna do? Kick me out before I get the prize?" 

But the question isn’t why Chappelle smokes -- the real puzzle is why is Chappelle allowed to smoke during other shows when the stakes aren’t so high? The answer is the same reason actors can puff away during a Noel Coward or Sam Shephard theatrical production -- the cigarette (or pipe or cigar) is considered a prop and therefore the practice is allowed. At least that’s what Chappelle told James Lipton on an edition of Inside the Actors Studio and the fawning host bought it, hook, line and sinker. 

Was Chappelle right? Well, he gets away with it -- most of the time anyway. In Canada, at least, that “it’s a prop!” defense doesn’t always fly. In 2012, the Winter Garden, a theater in Toronto, got a call from the public health department after Chappelle smoked like a chimney throughout his three-show stint. The call was to remind the theater about the provincial Smoke-Free Ontario Act, which says “that all performers must be in compliance with the (no tobacco use) legislation,” according to city spokeswoman Kris Scheuer. “There are no exemptions.”

In the United States, however, the rules are more free-wheeling. Your community’s specific guidelines might vary, but Chappelle appears to be on the money -- people on stage get more license than the people watching them. A concertgoer in Springfield, Missouri, wrote into the local paper to complain about the lead singer of Blues Traveler smoking during a show: “I thought Springfield was a ‘nonsmoking community.’"

But Springfield’s ordinance, like many local laws around America, has a specific exception. Smoking is A-OK "on a stage, provided the person(s) who is smoking does so while performing on stage as part of a theatrical production."

In other words, you’re good to go, Dave Chappelle, so long as you’re on the comedy club stage. At the strip club, you're going to have to get up on the risers and dance if you want to keep your “prop.”  

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