It was a joke about a mother, cocaine and Walmart that upset the man.
He had sat with a woman at Chicago’s Laugh Factory that winter and roared enthusiastically in response to a joke about drugs when, after being pinned over his relationship with the woman, he said she was his mother.
So when Joe Kilgallon, the next comedian, took the mic, a joke came to his mind.
“That’s healthy – cocaine with your mother on a Monday,” Mr Kilgallon recalled jokingly. “This is where you get real Walmart vibes.”
The man jumped out of his chair, cursed and ran straight for the stage, club officials and Mr Kilgallon recalled. A security guard grabbed the man before he could climb onto the stage and forced him out of the club through an emergency exit.
It ended up being nothing more than a minor confrontation, of the kind comedians have endured for years, since making fun of people and mistaking them for heckling is part of the job description. But a couple of high-profile physical attacks on comedians — Will Smith slapping Chris Rock onstage at the Oscars in March, and a man attacking Dave Chappelle while he was performing at the Hollywood Bowl last week — have set some comics on fire asking if the stage is becoming less secure and has prompted some clubs and venues to take steps to improve their safety at comedy shows.
Officials at the Laugh Factory say they have added cameras and metal detectors and increased the number of security guards at some of their locations as a result of the recent unrest. They made a few additions — “This isn’t a UFC match!” “We don’t care about your political affiliation!” — to the standard two-drink minimum monologue that people hear when they come to the door. Atlanta’s Uptown Comedy Corner last weekend hired an off-duty police officer to bolster their security, brought one of their guards closer to the stage and began using metal detector rods to check patrons and their bags at the door. And the Hollywood Bowl said it took its own “extra security measures” after the attack on Mr Chappelle.
“When a comedian comes on stage, what’s their only goal?” asked Judy Gold, comedian and author of Yes, I Can Say That: When They Come for the Comedians, We Are All in Trouble. “To make you laugh. That’s it.”
“If you take the comedian’s intent out of the formula and decide, ‘I’m going to take this joke as I perceive it, rather than how the comedian intended,'” she said, “and then say, ‘I got ‘me.’ don’t like this joke, i want that person canceled or silenced or spanked.
In interviews, comedy club owners and comedians themselves expressed varying degrees of concern over recent events. While some spoke of a worrying spike in audience outbursts leading up to the Oscars, others warned against mixing up what happened to Mr. Rock and Mr. Chappelle and drawing overly broad conclusions.
Trevor Noah addressed the situation with comedy last week, as he cautiously walked onto the stage of his Comedy Central program, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, under the watchful eye of a man in a black windbreaker that said “Security” shone on it mumbling into a Secret Service earphone as Mr. Noah opened the show.
Noam Dworman, the owner of Comedy Cellar in New York, said he viewed the confrontation between Smith and Rock as a very specific “one-off” altercation in which Mr. Smith appeared to be trying to embarrass Mr. Rock more than him physically to hurt. Seeing a viewer address Mr Chappelle is concerning, he said, but could be part of a broader trend.
“It just seems like violence is creeping up on us,” Mr Dworman said, citing recent riots and protests that have turned violent. “We have a lot of people who equate words with violence. And the logical extension of equating words with violence is to say that it is reasonable to respond to words with violence.”
Some comedians brushed aside concerns about their personal safety, noting that for the most part they aren’t big names like Mr. Rock and Mr. Chappelle. Several made it clear that they had no intention of softening their material. But some feared that societal forces, including the acrimonious debates of the Trump years and the hardships many have faced during the pandemic, may have made people increasingly nervous — and less willing to take a joke.
Jamie Masada, the owner of the Laugh Factory, said he’s advised his comedians to take into account that some viewers have stayed in their homes for much of the past two years during a grueling pandemic. Mr Kilgallon said he believed that after spending so much time alone, “people don’t know how to behave in public” – be it comedy clubs, bars or sporting events.
Comedy clubs have long employed bouncers and security guards to deal with the occasional guest who has become overwhelmed or heckles a bit too much. And long before Mr. Smith took the stage at the Academy Awards to smack Mr. Rock in retaliation for a joke about his wife, there were isolated instances of people confronting comedians during their sets, or in some cases physically assaulting them .
After the Oscar gossip, some comics warned about it potential for imitators. Not only was Mr. Smith not removed from the Dolby Theater after meeting Mr. Rock, but he received a standing ovation shortly thereafter when he was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actor. (He was later disqualified from the Oscars for 10 years.)
“These people gave him a standing ovation and no punishment,” Ms Gold said of Mr Smith. “We’ve all said there will be copycat attacks. And there was.”
The attack on Mr. Chappelle was more sinister. A man with a gun attacked Mr. Chappelle onstage at the Hollywood Bowl where he was performing as part of Netflix Is a Joke: The Festival. The Los Angeles City Attorney charged Isaiah Lee, 23, with four counts related to the attack, including assault and possession of a weapon with intent to attack; Mr. Lee has pleaded not guilty.
The Los Angeles Police Department has not released any information about Mr. Lee’s motive for attacking Mr. Chappelle, whose comedy has sparked controversy in the past. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Mr Chappelle discussed the encounter later that week at another comedy show in Los Angeles. Mr Chappelle told the audience that he spoke to Mr Lee after the incident and said that Mr Lee said he did it to raise awareness of the plight of his grandmother, who was driven from their neighborhood by gentrification was. The journal reports.
“More than the incident itself, it’s the reaction of people who say this is an ongoing or repetitive thing,” said Angelo Sykes, co-owner of Uptown Comedy Corner, which stepped up its security following the attack on Mr. Chappelle. “When you hear these things, you say, ‘Okay, we can’t take that risk. We have to be on the safe side.’”
In phone interviews last week, several comedians in Los Angeles said the attacks were a topic of conversation between comics after the shows. Ms Gold described some of her fellow comedians as “tired and weary” and said others were “freaked out”.
Comedy, she noted, is often a work in progress. “We don’t know where the line is until we bring our material upstairs,” she said. “The audience informs us.”
Tehran Von Ghasri, a Los Angeles-based comedian, was among those who said an increasing proportion of “oversensitive” viewers seemed to come to shows and either invited confrontation or “looked offended” — or both.
Mr Kilgallon said social media was also to blame. He has found that when a controversial topic is discussed or a tense moment arises, listeners are now quick to pull out their phones. But he said the basics of the comedy stayed the same.
“For the past five years people have come up to me after a show and said, ‘It must be hard doing comedy these days – everyone’s so sensitive,'” said Mr. Kilgallon. “And I say, ‘No, it’s not.’ I perform in the bluest parts of the country and some of the reddest parts of the country. If you’re funny – no matter what the joke is, people laugh.”