How Dave Chappelle is creating a "No-Phone Zone" for his Chicago shows

Dave Chappelle Announces Fall U.S. Tour
Dave Chappelle Announces Fall U.S. Tour

Poll any group of Hollywood comedians and you'll hear the recurring gripes about smartphones and their dreaded byproduct, smartphone video: The glowing devices distract during performances; their well-honed material plummets in street value once posted to YouTube; and, in the case of more provocative comics, it renders them the target of an angry Twitter mob.

Now, Dave Chappelle is taking matters into his own hands: The revered funnyman has entered into a deal with San Francisco-based Yondr to use that company's smartphone-locking pouches at a series of live shows this week in Chicago.

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Attendees at any of Chappelle's 13 sold-out Thalia Hall performances will be greeted by staffers handing out gray smartphone sleeves, available in three sizes. They are then instructed to place their phones inside the sleeves and fasten them, at which point they are welcome to carry them inside the venue.

As soon as they enter the "no-phone zone," however, the pouches will have locked shut via wireless signal, preventing anyone from firing off so much as a winking emoji. Need to make a call or send an email? No problem. Simply leave the designated zone (and head, say, to the lobby bar) and the pouches can now magically be unlocked.

If the experiment works, it could mark a bold new era in standup comedy - one in which comedians can breathe a little bit easier knowing their bluest material won't wind up online before last call. And the service, which is already being employed by various schools around the country, can easily extend to other sensitive entertainment events - say, that upcoming preview screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Hannibal Buress was the first comedian to try Yondr. After video went viral of a 2014 performance in which he repeatedly called Bill Cosby a rapist, resulting in death threats, Buress decided to use the technology at a show last June. That led executives from Live Nation, producers of the current Chappelle tour, to consult with him about Yondr. He told them he was happy with the results.

"It's a huge thing for Chappelle, like all comedians: how to make the show phone-free," says Yondr founder Graham Dugoni, 29, (pictured left) who adds that "the deal came together pretty quickly."

His company may stand in stark contrast to most tech startups, but in many ways, Yondr is the ultimate disrupter, existing to render app-filled iPhones and the like completely useless. (Not surprisingly, Yondr has received a chilly welcome from some of its Silicon Valley contemporaries, Dugoni says.)

The service, which makes its money by leasing out its equipment, is currently able to accommodate up to a 12,000-seat arena. That means it's not quite ready to tackle 17,000-seat L.A. venues like Staples Center or The Forum. Thalia Hall, which holds a maximum 800 people, is on the lower end of what Yondr can handle. But Chappelle is by far the biggest name yet to align himself with the company (besides Buress, they've previously worked with Zhu, an electronic artist). The deal could mark an entree to higher-profile performers and bigger events.

The timing is good, as more and more artists insist on phone-free shows. Venues can do what they've always done, and withdraw phones entirely. But, Dugoni argues, that method - which was deployed by the band Mumford and Sons during its recent tour - is extremely inefficient, often leading to long check-in and retrieval lines and even the possibility of theft or property damage. It also leads to more phone smugglers, requiring increased staff to police them.

"People just don't want to give up possession of their phone," Dugoni says. "It's like an extra arm."

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