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 secretly hidden Galaxys and iPhones.
But the stage is increasingly seeming like an unsafe space in a far more literal sense.
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The world was shocked as Will Smith assaulted Chris Rock on stage at the Oscars in March. In another breach of stage security – albeit not a comedian attacked during their performance – actress Olivia Wilde was confronted at CinemaCon in Las Vegas by a process server issuing divorce papers from her husband, 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 previous seen an uptick of unruly customer behavior during the pandemic (and even had some stage charge attempts at his club). “We are leaving comedians completely exposed. We’re allowing them to exercise their creative speech on stage, 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 okay. At the Cellar, we always have security, but, of course, we’ll be on the lookout.”
For its part, Netflix would not publicly commit to increasing security at its ongoing stand-up events but instead issued the following statement: “We deeply care about the safety of creators and we strongly defend the right of stand-up comedians to perform on stage without fear of violence.”
Chappelle also released a statement saying that 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 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.”
Comics were almost entirely silent on Twitter in the wake of the incident, perhaps not wanting to appear to speak for Chappelle, who is revered by many in the industry. But conservative comic Nick Di Paolo, who says he was punched on stage in 2018, addressed the matter on his Wednesday podcast.
“After the Will Smith thing put the seed in some nut’s heads, it’s a copycat thing now,” said Di Paolo (the suspect’s motive has not yet been reported). “It’s like any other crime… My fellow comedians, protect yourselves.”
Flagg points out several steps 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 might 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 tickets 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 a 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.”
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