4 Occupational Hazards Stand-Up Comics Deal With
Stand-up comedy is a very fun job. The only thing more exhilarating than making an audience laugh is getting paid to do it. However, comics do occasionally find themselves in some pretty dangerous situations. Statistically, the risk of these encounters is probably below average compared to all other professions, but what these situations might lack in frequency, they make up for in craziness.
Audience Members Wanting To Kick Our Ass After The Show
Having a member of the audience want to confront the comic afterwards can happen from time to time. No matter how careful we are in what we say, no matter how well we think we can read a room, there's always the possibility that someone will get bent out of shape enough to want to get in our faces about it after the show.
There are two ways to look at the situation. The first is, that angry customer could arguably be emblematic of that "cancel culture" we hear so much about lately. That person could have just been looking for any excuse to be offended. That certainly is a possibility. The far more likely explanation is that the customer's ears worked just fine. That's just the risk of being "edgy"-- eventually you're gonna encounter someone who felt the cut went too deep. Just because they're offended doesn't mean they're right, but it doesn't mean you win by default, either.
Having the confrontation actually turn physical can be rare, depending on the comic's disposition to escalate it. A lot of times either security steps in, or the people the confronter came with are able to convince them to walk it off and go home. But every once and awhile, there will be that one audience member waiting for you in the parking lot.
My scariest experience with an angry audience member was entirely my fault. I made it personal, my actions were 100% intentional, and I have no regrets about it ... other than the fact that I didn't bring my camcorder with me that night to get it on tape.
The backstory was that a couple years prior to this incident, I got involved with a woman who did everything in her power to ruin my life. She damn near succeeded at it, too. (If you're interested in the details, I talked about it at a show for the Story Club Tulsa podcast last year, which you can find here.) This fateful night, I was emceeing open mic night at my home club, and before the show one of my comic buddies came running up to inform me that she was there. The woman who had tried so hard to make my life a living hell ... was in the audience. I had been sitting in the lobby of the club this whole time, so I don't know how she had managed to sneak past me.
She was there with a group of friends I didn't recognize, and she had that definitely-back-on-my-meds-and-on-my-best-behavior look on her face, so I debated whether or not to just let it go. On one hand, I had an opportunity to be the bigger person, to show that I have risen above what had happened. On the other hand, I felt like Charlie Bucket after finding Wonka's golden ticket. When am I ever gonna get another opportunity like this? Right before I took the stage to do my set, my buddy asked me, "Are you gonna do that material about her?"
I made my decision. I went for it, and it was absolutely glorious. It was a tight five minutes of jokes all about her and what she did to me, and I did it with the passion of an opera singer. I never once mentioned her by name or pointed her out, and I gave no indication she was in the room other than shooting a little smirk towards her table after every punchline. My friends in the back were laughing their asses off. The audience ate it up. Her table? Crickets.
According to her server, she had stormed out about three minutes in. After the show, she was waiting for me in the parking lot, pacing back and forth, ready for a fight. I never went out there. I had already said everything I needed to say to her from that stage, and every word was true. If she had a problem with it, she could take it up with a mirror. I just sat at the bar with the other comics and talked about the show. Occasionally, one of us would peek out the lobby windows to see if she was still out there. After about an hour, she was gone, so I headed home.
In all my life, I had never been so nervous trying to start my car. I knew what that woman was capable of, and I wouldn't have put it past her to be able to rig my car with explosives on such short notice. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I did notice a car driving behind me with its lights off. They followed me for a couple miles, keeping their distance. Wherever I turned, they turned. If I slowed down, so did they. Finally, I ran a yellow light at the last second and they got stuck at the red light. When I could no longer see them in my rear view, I pulled into the parking lot of a strip mall and sped around to the back of the building. I spent the next 45 minutes parked behind a Little Caesars dumpster, wondering which of my friends would let me stay at their place for the night. (Still though, it was a damn good night overall if you ask me.)
Audience Members Wanting To Kick Our Ass During The Show
People waiting to confront comics after the show is one thing, but there are some audience members whose violent impulses can't wait until the show is done. People do try to rush the stage at comedy shows, and the only line of defense we have as comics are the unsung heroes of the comedy business: the door guys.
For the first six years I did comedy, I also worked the door at my home club. I can tell you from firsthand experience, it is the most thankless job in the comedy business. The job description basically goes like this: there are 100 people in that showroom, at least one of them is gonna be a problem, and your job is to make sure that problem doesn't ruin the fun of the other 99. Oh, and you have to do all this in the dark while being as quiet as possible. The job can be pretty monotonous most of the time, but when you encounter a problem, it's like Road House on mute.
As a comic, I've never had an angry audience member try to rush the stage at me ... knock on wood. As a door guy, I've had to stop a few. One time, we had a white guy at open mic use the n-word, hard R included, and that went over just as well as you'd expect it to. I had to hold one audience member back while the manager escorted that guy off the stage and out of the club.
Our club would occasionally bring in an R-rated comedy hypnotist, and one night this guy was not happy that his wife volunteered to be hypnotized. When the hypnotist started making each of the volunteers fake an orgasm on stage, I barely got to the stage in time to stop the husband from beating the hypnotist senseless. I got him and his wife out of there, and the guy kept calling the club the rest of the night to leave us increasingly colorful, threatening voicemails. Thankfully, he gave us his name on each of those voicemails, so that was helpful information to pass along to the police.
The point is, if you enjoy a show at a comedy club: applaud the comics, tip your servers well, and offer the door guy a hug. They probably need one.
Other Comics Wanting To Kick Our Asses
By and large, comedians are greatly supportive of one another. We will compliment one another when we have a good set, we give each other suggestions on how to make our material better, and we like just hanging out together, even if it's not at a show. But stand-up can also be very clique-y and competitive, and a lot of times comics will manufacture a blood feud over the most insignificant conflict. The world of comedy can often be a lot like high school, only with better weed.
Beefs between comics can range from a simple refusal to work together to the need for emergency restraining orders, and oftentimes it can be perversely entertaining to watch from the sidelines. It's honestly surprising there hasn't been a reality show about it by now, and Last Comic Standing doesn't count. If NBC had really wanted ratings gold, they should've started a Tuesday night open mic in the back of a Midwest dive bar, and offer free drinks to any comic who brings another comic's ex to see the show.
Spend enough time in any local comedy scene, and you'll find the same examples of irredeemable asshattery. There's the comic/promoter who sucks at both comedy and promoting. There's the unsolicited dick pic guy and the guy who creeps on every female comic. There's the guy who constantly preaches about his comedy being some higher artform, yet he walks half the audience every time with his same five bits about almost crapping his pants. Not five versions of the same joke about almost crapping his pants, but five completely different true stories about almost crapping his pants (high art, indeed). You'll find people like this in every comedy scene in America. For a while, my local scene had one guy who was all of them rolled into one person.
Most comedy beefs aren't just petty, elitist snobbery, though. These feuds are generally sparked as a reaction to one person's behavior that has become too toxic to continue to ignore. And if there's one group of people you don't want on your bad side, it's comics who know how to craft a good insult. Have you seen how brutal comics can be to each other on Roast Battle? That's how we are when we respect each other. You can only imagine how mean we can get when we don't ... and how terrifying it can be when the guy you've been trashing starts posting pictures of his knife collection on Instagram.
Getting Our Asses Kicked By The Stage Itself
You wouldn't think being a comedian would lend itself to physical injuries, right? How much damage could you possibly take when your job is standing on stage talking into a microphone? Answer: quite a bit, actually.
I have a scar on my shin from slipping on stage mid-set in Pittsburgh. I sprained my ankle running to the stage in Dayton, OH. I took a tumble on some backstage steps in Tulsa and now my right elbow pops every time I extend it. Oh, and then there's this:
Yup, that's me taking a fifty-pound speaker to the head back in 2017. I was emceeing that show, and I was introducing the first comic, a great comic out of Long Beach named Greg Roque. As Greg was maneuvering his wheelchair through the stage doors, something got knocked loose on whatever was holding up the marquee above the stage. The front end of the marquee went down, the back end of it went up, which lifted the speaker off its mount, and sent it straight towards my prefrontal cortex.
It looks a lot worse than it really was. It looks like it nailed me in the back of the head, but it actually hit me in the front, right behind my hairline. The speaker was tumbling, so it didn't hit my head so much as it rolled over it really hard. My saving grace was taking that extra step forward in a vain attempt to "catch" the marquee. Had I not done that, my widow would never have allowed the video to be released. Still, though ... it rang my bell pretty good.
Luckily for me, there were three nurses and an EMT in the audience, and they swarmed me immediately after this clip ended. They checked me for all the signs of a concussion while the owner of the club ran to get me an ice pack. They determined that I didn't need to go to the hospital if I didn't want to. Aside from the walnut-sized welt on my head and the adrenaline pumping through my veins, I felt perfectly fine.
Here's the crazy part: I finished hosting the show. We took a 45-minute intermission so they could secure the marquee with a stepladder, they put the speaker on a barstool, ran some caution tape around the crime scene, and all of the comics performed on the side of the stage that didn't look like London after the Blitz. Between introducing the comics, I kept an ice pack on my head and sat next to the nurses so they could monitor my condition. Why did I go through with this? Because I'm a goddamn professional, that's why.
I got a standing ovation at the end of the show, and after I got off stage, I had at least 15 people offer to buy me a drink. I told each of them I appreciated their offer, but seeing as I was still at risk for a subdural hematoma, I was pretty sure I didn't need any blood thinners in my system at the time.
After posting the video on YouTube, I did get a few emails from lawyers asking me if I wanted to sue the club, and I deleted them all right away. The club's owner is a wonderful person, it was a freak accident, it was nobody's fault, and I suffered no long-term damage ... other than a recurring nightmare where I'm being chased down by a wall of Marshall amps.
But honestly, I'm thankful it happened to me ... for three reasons: 1.) I have a crazy story I can tell for the rest of my life, 2.) Any time I have a bad set, I can remind myself that it's still way better than taking a fifty-pound speaker to the brainpan, and 3.) if it had happened one second sooner that speaker probably would've killed me, but if it had happened ten seconds later, it would've landed on a guy in a wheelchair. I think this situation played out the best way it possibly could.
Top image: Ollyy, Fer Gregory/Shutterstock