You Can't Love Heckling And Hate Will Smith
Whether you were watching live, or just happen to have access to either a group chat or the World Wide Web in general, at this point, you are probably aware that Will Smith gave Chris Rock the baby powder on live television last night at the Oscars. As is its wont, Twitter immediately got to work on its chief export: Takes. One of the most popular variations was one which seemed to be some sort of grand eulogy for the era of respecting comedians’ safety. Which, as someone who actually regularly performs stand-up comedy, and is not nearly famous enough to restrict my performances to theaters, or even venues with an actual stage, honestly makes me chuckle.
People are reacting as if Will Smith’s approach and subsequent slap tore some sort of magical, ancient barrier between seat and stage that has protected comedians from audience aggression for millennia. Meanwhile, people seem to still #*$&ing love hecklers. If you’re gonna crack your pearls with the world’s hardest clutch about what happened at the Oscars, can we at least finally bury the idea that heckling is “part of comedy”?
I’ve never been physically struck while performing comedy (though I have seen it happen multiple times, so we can bury the idea that it doesn’t happen) but I would estimate at least 25% of the shows I do or attend in New York City have vocal hecklers that disrupt the entire show. Just two weeks ago, I watched two audience members walk in, sit in the direct front row, and then talk to the first comic for 10 solid minutes, including inexplicably calling his mom gay. The only thing that was at all surprising about that interaction to me or the other comics was that the venue actually asked them to leave (shout out Sultan Room in Bushwick.) When I walked outside a couple minutes later, they were still yelling at the person working at the door, asking what they did wrong.
I’m not saying that heckling is completely equal to an open-hand slap, though even that is lighter than the closed-fist punch, form tackle, and thrown pint glass that I’ve ALL seen before. What I’m saying is that forms of aggression from the crowd to the comedian has been weirdly applauded forever. Connected to that, in any exchange of a heckler, the threat of physical escalation is VERY much a possibility and on the mind of the comedian. Anywhere outside of Carnegie Hall, it’s not only something you are prepared for, but are grimly aware of.
I don’t know about other comedians, but I’d line up for an open-hand slap every January if it meant no one would heckle for the rest of the year.