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Perhaps the biggest recurring theme in comedy over the last several years has been stand-ups lamenting that performing is no longer a creative safe space — that some fans are policing edgy content, ever-ready to tweet about a performer who makes a joke that crosses perceived lines. Many have taken to confiscating phones before a performance, perhaps convinced the biggest threat they faced were clandestine Galaxys and iPhones.
But the stage is increasingly seeming like an unsafe space in a far more literal sense.
The world was shocked as Will Smith assaulted Chris Rock onstage at the Oscars in March. In another breach of stage security — albeit not a comedian being attacked during their performance — actress Olivia Wilde was confronted at CinemaCon in Las Vegas last month by a process server issuing custody papers from Jason Sudeikis (who says he was unaware the documents would be served in such a fashion). And then Tuesday, Dave Chappelle was assaulted by an armed man who rushed the stage during his Hollywood Bowl set at the Netflix Is a Joke comedy festival.
After the Oscars, several comics voiced concern that Smith’s actions could result in additional stage attacks. “Now we all have to worry about who wants to be the next Will Smith in comedy clubs and theaters,” Kathy Griffin opined.
The worry seemed like it might be unwarranted — the Oscars incident looked like such a shocking outlier. But now with the Chappelle assault, there’s rising concern about the safety of live performers.
“First reaction was: ‘Here we go again.’ Second reaction was, ‘Nobody’s safe,'” says Curtis Shaw Flagg, president of The Laugh Factory Chicago, who had previously seen an uptick of unruly customer behavior during the pandemic (and even had some stage-charging attempts at his club). “We are leaving comedians completely exposed. We’re allowing them to exercise their creative speech onstage, but we aren’t taking the requisite steps to make sure that they’re protected. The security team are to blame for not taking adequate measures to make sure [attackers] didn’t even get to [the comics]. That’s their one job, and it seems like there’s been a complete failure to do that.”
The Comedy Cellar owner Noam Dworman didn’t think the Oscars incident would inspire additional stage attacks on comedians, but now he’s not so sure.
“What happened to Dave is actually much more worrisome [than Smith striking Rock], and extends beyond comedy,” Dworman says via text. “This wasn’t a spontaneous reaction to a perceived slight — as bad as that was. It was premeditated and dangerous, and it seems part of a general violent trend creeping up in many segments of American life. I’m very, very happy he’s OK. At the Cellar, we always have security, but, of course, we’ll be on the lookout.”
Netflix issued the following statement: “We care deeply about the safety of creators and we strongly defend the right of stand-up comedians to perform on stage without fear of violence.” A source at the streamer notes that security is handled by venues and said Netflix is “actively discussing the security protocols for future events.”
YouTube Theater, the venue hosting the upcoming Netflix Is a Joke shows, released a statement saying, “YouTube Theater has robust venue security at all our events and is dedicated to providing a safe, comfortable, and enjoyable entertainment experience. We follow a clear bag policy and require all guests to walk through magnetometers prior to entering the venue.”
A rep for Chappelle also released a statement saying he “refuses to allow last night’s incident to overshadow the magic of this historic moment.” After the fallout from his 2021 special The Closer, which many criticized as transphobic and which prompted protests from the streamer’s employees, the comedian made the seemingly prophetic comment: “You said you want a safe working environment at Netflix. Well, it seems like I’m the only one who can’t go to the office anymore.”
In the wake of the assault on Chappelle, comedians expressed concern that more could follow, with some speculating that Smith’s actions at the Oscars may have inspired the attack (23-year-old Isaiah Lee was arrested for Chappelle’s assault, but no motive has yet been reported).
Doug Williams tweeted, “Comedians are now going to have to be like gangsta rappers and have their own personal security guards, problem is, not all can afford that.”
Howie Mandel told E! News that the Oscars incident may have “opened the floodgates.” “We’re already, as comedians, being attacked as far as being canceled for something that you don’t like, something that you find offensive, something that you think is too soon,” Mandel says. “You saw what happened at the Academy Awards, and I thought violence triggers violence. I think this is the beginning of the end for comedy.”
And conservative comic Nick Di Paolo, who says he was punched onstage in 2018, similarly says, “After the Will Smith thing put the seed in some nuts’ heads, it’s a copycat thing now. It’s like any other crime. My fellow comedians, protect yourselves.”
Flagg points out several steps that can be taken to boost safety, and notes he’s spoken to others in the comedy space who are likewise taking such measures.
First, as odd as it might seem, audiences may need reminding before a show that comedy is not meant to be taken literally or personally (“[Attackers feel] generally, ‘I don’t like that joke, I feel offended, so now I’m going to escalate the situation and combat something verbal with something physical. There needs to be better communication before the ticket’s purchased,” he says). After that, the issue becomes logistical — making certain no weapons make it into the venue, having adequate security on hand, and creating space or obstacles (such as an elevated stage) between the fans and talent.
“It’s not really fair to comics as professionals — you have to give them the opportunity to try and fail,” Flagg says. “Not every joke’s gonna work, someone’s probably not gonna like one, but the whole point is to have a good time. The reaction they want is smiling, laughter, happiness. They’re not setting out to start a fight, or even an argument. I think somehow that’s gotten lost in translation.”
May 5, 10:12 a.m. Updated with comments from Howie Mandel.
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