2022 Was the Year Hecklers Declared War on Comedy
So this is where we are in 2022, with comedy clubs plastering warnings across their front windows: “Don’t heckle the comics or we’ll toss you out on your two-drink-minimum behinds. You’re here to watch a show, Mr. and Mrs. Paying Customer, so shut your yappers and damn well enjoy it.”
Curiously, not everyone believes that heckle bans are a good thing. Comedy critic Brian Logan reminds us that needling a comic used to be not only acceptable but expected. “Heckling was once a stand-up’s rite of passage, the thing that set comedy apart from the snootier art forms,” he reminisces. “Theatre and opera had cachet and small, well-heeled audiences. No one took comedy seriously — but it was the art of the people, and the people were expected to get involved.”
But can you blame comedy clubs for putting the clamp on comic/consumer confrontations? A heckle used to be a rude, sometimes even funny comment shouted by an intoxicated patron, most often shut down by a more clever comic well-versed in the art of skewering unruly fools. These days, it seems, we can’t have those nice things anymore. It’s not like anyone needs a reminder, but let’s review the disgusting, often violent ways hecklers took it up a notch in 2022, the year in which just about everything found a way to get uglier.
Is there anything left to say about this? We’re still confounded by exactly what happened, especially since this was the Fresh Prince’s initial reaction to Chris Rock’s G.I. Jane 2 gag.
There he is immediately after the joke, chuckling along with Lupita Nyong’o. Cut back to Rock, which must be the offscreen moment when Smith got a load of the look on his wife’s face. There are a lot of ways to kill a career, but this one was original. Forget the slap — okay, we’ll never forget the slap — but Oscar presenters make their living by spouting celebrity jokes. It’s what they do. So Smith would have made Oscar history if all he did on live television was shout, “Keep my wife’s name out your f***ing mouth!” As we know, that’s not all he did.
It wasn’t all bad for Rock. Ticket prices shot up for his concert tour in the immediate aftermath, and we expect Rock to mine this for all it’s worth when he stars in Netflix’s first-ever live comedy special early next year. But Smith’s slap hurt more than Rock’s eardrum. It appeared to embolden audience members all year long.
I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson
The same week that Will Smith bum-rushed the stage in Hollywood, Mike Tyson was enjoying himself at a comedy club just across town. An idiot disrupted the stand-up act and, not content to simply ruin the show, turned his attention to Tyson who was sitting near the stage. The former heavyweight champ told the man to move along, who responded by challenging Tyson to a fight. Security stepped in, but as the man was being led out of the club, he managed to pull out a gun, cock it and point it at Tyson.
And here’s how you know Tyson is different from you or me. While everyone around him panicked, Iron Mike stayed in his seat and motioned for the man to approach him. He calmly talked to the armed dude for a couple of minutes before the two hugged it out. (Serious question: How come everyone uses their phones to film stuff like this instead of calling 911?)
Dave Chappelle Almost Gets Canceled Permanently
Barely a month past The Slap, we nearly got The Stab.
That was one hell of a flying tackle, although word has it the attacker got it much worse backstage once Chappelle’s security team dragged him behind the curtains. Ominously, the assailant was later to be found packing a fake gun that had an actual knife hidden inside it. (All the big comedy shows we go to involve walking through metal detectors — how did this guy get a gun/knife combo through the door?) An incident that became comedy routine fodder could have been deadly.
Chappelle being Chappelle had to return to the stage to make a trans joke out of the whole thing, before bringing out Chris Rock to deliver the knockout line: “Will, was that you?”
I’ll Have What She’s Having
Arial Elias was just another working comic, slinging jokes in a New Jersey club when a drunken woman started shouting out questions about who Elias voted for in November. Elias handled the heckler like a pro, engaging in friendly banter designed to shut her up so the show could continue. When that didn’t work, Elias countered the “you voted for Biden!” taunts with one of her own: “I could tell by the fact that you’re still talking when nobody wants you to that you voted for Trump.” Huge roar of laughter and applause, usually the sign that the comic has won and it’s time for more jokes. Usually.
But in this case, the heckler’s boyfriend decided to escalate the tussle by whizzing a can of beer at Elias’ head. Like Chappelle’s incident, it could have been a harrowing moment. Since the guy had a lousy aim and missed, though, Elias turned the moment into a punchline, picking up the can and chugging the drink like a champ.
That moment of calm in crisis turned out great for Elias’ career, prompting shout-outs from Patton Oswalt and Jim Gaffigan and earning her a national debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live! But geez, what if the can had been hurled a few inches to the left? A career jolt would have been replaced by a trip to the emergency room.
That’s what happened to multiple other comics this year. Sampson McCormick went back and forth with a female heckler in a Redding, California club, “just roasted her a little bit,” when a burly man rushed the stage and slugged the comic in the jaw. In England, comedian Simon Cain was out of commission for two months after he confronted a heckler who subsequently broke the comic’s leg. Curtis Shaw Flagg, president of Chicago’s Laugh Factory, told the New York Post that it keeps getting worse: “Not long ago, we had a patron stand up in the middle of a performance and say, ‘I will be outside waiting for you, I’m going to kill you.’”
Cain, for one, thinks incidents like the Will Smith/Chris Rock kerfuffle emboldened audience members to rush the stage if they hear jokes that offend. Understandably, many of Cain’s stand-up brethren are alarmed by such incidents, calling for tighter security and more civility.
We’re all for it. But let’s also pay attention to those comics who have decided to make a name for themselves by broadcasting their audience brawls. The latest craze in comedy social media is heckler confrontations, where caustic comics can earn points, views and followers by owning those obnoxious audience members. Heckler videos are now a “mega-popular genre on TikTok,” earning otherwise anonymous comedians millions of views.
Of course, all that “popularity” has a shadow side — the hecklers get internet famous as well. If they needed an incentive to act up at a comedy show, how about basking in the spotlight on everyone’s For You page tomorrow? The more outrageous the audience behavior, the better the chances of breaking through the clutter and going viral. A simple “you suck!” isn’t going to get it done. Do we really want to see what an attention-hungry fan will do next?
Let’s hope 2022 was the height of heckler confrontation, a weird confluence of toxic events combining celebrity-enabled bad behavior and online comics unintentionally fanning the flames. We’re making a New Year’s comedy resolution for a more peaceful 2023 — but we’ve got security guys packing at the door just in case.