Whenever comedians step up to a microphone, they are taking a risk.
Sometimes the audience will laugh at their material or other times they may groan or give off a deafening silence. However, these days that risk has grown more intense.
After doing standup for 33 years, comedian Kevin Downey Jr. of Hicksville worries that Chris Rock being slapped onstage by actor Will Smith for making a joke about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith's haircut during the Academy Awards in March might have a ripple effect.
“Now audience members across the country are going to think it’s OK to hit a comic if they say something they don’t like,” says Downey, Jr., 56. “The fact that nothing happened to him [Smith] was even more egregious. That’s like saying, ‘Yeah, go ahead!’”
"Local artists have a right to be concerned,'' says Kara S. Alaimo, an associate professor in the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University who teaches public relations.
Venues should be taking the security of their artists very seriously.
— Kara S. Alaimo, Hofstra University associate professor
“Unfortunately, what research tells us is that witnessing violence in the media can make people more likely to commit acts of violence themselves,” she says. “Venues should be taking the security of their artists very seriously and re-evaluate the measures they have in place to protect performers across the country right now.”
A month after the Rock-Smith incident, when comedian Dave Chappelle got tackled by a man in the crowd at the Hollywood Bowl, it was clear a line had been crossed.
“I couldn’t believe it and I knew it was going to be an issue going forward,” says comic Jessica Collazo, 35, of Hicksville. “Cancel culture is already out of control, now we have physical attacks to deal with?”
"If you put a bunch of people in a room with alcohol and people on a stage freely speaking their opinion, you might ruffle some feathers."
— Comedian Sean Brown
Photo credit: Howard Simmons
Still, incidents of violence aimed at comedians haven’t stopped those on Long Island from going for the laughs — no matter what — in an atmosphere charged by pressures from politics to the pandemic.
“The No. 1 rule in comedy is if you’re going to tell a joke that’s controversial, it better be funny!” says comedian Sean Brown, 31, of Uniondale. But he warns, “If you put a bunch of people in a room with alcohol and people on a stage freely speaking their opinion, you might ruffle some feathers.”
Much of the public violence that occurs due to pent-up societal frustration is amped up via social media.
“When an event happens in real life these days, people record it on their phones and share it widely on social media," says Hofstra's Alaimo. "That act of violence is not contained to the room in which it happened. Millions of people can see it.
“What we saw at the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack were incredible acts of violence against government institutions that not all of our politicians vociferously condemned," she adds. "It puts this seed in people’s heads that this is somehow an appropriate response to your grievances and, of course, it’s not.”
Securing the room
"Years ago there was never security and sometimes there was chaos... Today, I can’t run an establishment without it."
— Comedy club owner James Dolce
Photo credit: Howard Simmons
James Dolce, owner of three comedy clubs — Governor’s in Levittown, The Brokerage in Bellmore and McGuire’s in Bohemia, is aware of the situation and has taken action.
“There’s always security at every one of my places,” says Dolce. “For certain comics who are more controversial, I’ll even increase security. Years ago there was never security and sometimes there was chaos. In the past, we had problems between audience members arguing over something the comedian said. It makes everyone in the room feel uncomfortable. That’s why you need security. Today, I can’t run an establishment without it.”
Dolce tends to hire off-duty or retired police officers as part of his security team.
“Police officers know how to handle someone who is belligerent,” he says. “They start at the door seeing everyone who comes in. When there’s a comic onstage, they walk the room throughout the show. I want everyone to see them because if they are thinking about saying something or want to rush the stage, they’ll think twice because they’ll see the security guy right there.”
At the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts, security personnel checks bags at the door, uses a wand on attendees as they enter and surveys the crowd during each performance.
I never think of our audience as a threat but of course we can never gauge what people think or may do.
— Michele Rizzo-Berg, executive director of Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts
“I never think of our audience as a threat but of course we can never gauge what people think or may do,” says executive director Michele Rizzo-Berg.
The Suffolk Theater in Riverhead places security guards at posts throughout its venue, especially by the stairway leading to the stage.
“Once the heckling becomes a hindrance to the performance or the patrons around them, a security guard will ask the patron to stop,” says executive director Gary Hygom. “If they don’t, they will be escorted out of the building. We have very little tolerance for people who ruin the experience for either other theatergoers or our performers.”
Regardless of current protective measures, confrontations with comedians are not new. Even before the Rock and Chappelle incidents, many Long Island comedians dealt with assaults from audience members.
Perhaps one of the biggest victims has been George Gallo of Medford. Due to his outspoken nature and tendency to incorporate the crowd in his material, the 53-year-old comic often finds himself in hot water.
Most of the time I try to talk people down... I feel like I’m a psychologist up there.
— Comedian George Gallo
“I have a little bit of a history of saying what I want to say,” Gallo admits. “Most of the time I try to talk people down by saying, ‘I don’t know what happened to you in your life that you are so upset you have to hit me over it. Was it really worth it?’ Sometimes I feel like I’m a psychologist up there.”
When performing at O’Reilly’s in Oakdale in 2012, Gallo was once slapped for imitating how a woman in the audience laughed.
“The woman came on stage and smacked me in the face then said, ‘I did it!’ I retorted with ‘Did you get that out of your system?’ ” he recalls. “It was the perfect example of someone wanting to stand out and cross the line with a performer.”
In 1993 at Konkoma Komedy in Lake Ronkonkoma, Gallo was pushed onto a table by two men because he was doing a play on the old children’s playground song, “Miss Mary Mack” and one guy was offended because Mary was his aunt’s name.
“I continued my set from behind the table,” says Gallo. “The room was laughing at the way I bounced back by saying, ‘Stand-up comedy from Beirut will now continue!’ ”
A dangerous game
Comedian Mike Keegan, 38, of East Meadow will never forget the night at Coasters in East Meadow when he made an Irish joke and an audience member from Ireland yelled out, “I’ll be waiting for ya, after the show!” and then followed up on his threat.
“We went outside and were yelling back and forth. Friends got in between us before it got physical,” says Keegan. “I made an innocent joke about Irish people and I’m Irish myself, but the guy was really offended. By the end of the night, we were having a couple of drinks together.”
In 1979, when Jackie “The Joke Man” Martling, 74, of Bayville, was starting his comedy career he was hired to perform at a bachelor party for 15 guys at the Billy Who? in West Paterson, New Jersey. A man thought one of The Joke Man’s punchlines was taking aim at him and went on the attack.
“This big guy pushed the other men out of the way, grabbed me by my shirt, bent me over backward and cocked his fist towards my face,” says Martling. “I said, ‘What are you doing? I’m a comedian making jokes! I wasn’t talking about you!’ Then he backed off and I thought, ‘This is going to be a rough-and-tumble life!’ ”
Even family-friendly comedian Joey Kola, 60, of Bellmore, says he was chased by a drunk woman with a butter knife when he was hired to perform at a dinner-dance in Queens 15 years ago.
“Luckily I had a cordless mic so I started running around. Everyone thought it was part of the act. I yelled on the mic, ‘Will you get her out of here?’ says Kola. “They wound up tackling her. The DJ and his guys picked her up and brought her out of the room. It really brought the party to a halt.”
When asked why he thinks these incidents occur, Kola says, “People who do this could be mentally unstable, drunk, high or out to prove something. This stuff has been happening since the days of artists performing at the amphitheaters in Greece. You never know who is in the audience and how they are going to react.”
"Often people forget they are in public and sometimes think they are in their living room... But that’s part of an intimate comedy setting.”
— Comedian Peter Bales
Photo credit: Bruce Gilbert
Due the nature of stand-up comedy, the audience can sometimes be part of the dialogue. However, there’s a fine line when it comes to participation. At what point does it become heckling?
“A funny exchange can sometimes make for a better show. But, if it’s continuous then that’s an interruption. You can’t have a show where someone is constantly interrupting the act. In that sense, the person should be removed,” says Brown, who has been doing standup for four years. “But, everyone gets heckled because that’s part of comedy. It’s something you have to deal with. It helps you build that confidence to know how to respond in those situations.”
Veteran comedian Peter Bales, 67, of East Northport notes that sometimes a verbal outburst can be innocent.
“Often people forget they are in public and sometimes think they are in their living room, then they’ll shout out, ‘That happened to me!’ or ‘My cousin is just like that!’ ” says Bales. “But that’s part of an intimate comedy setting.”
But, will comedians start altering their material to avoid confrontation? Local standups vehemently say they refuse to edit themselves.
“No one is changing their act,” declares comedian Michele Fox of Melville. “The Chappelle attack seems to be more of an isolated incident from someone who is looking for publicity so he rushed the stage. The guy had his moment. But, I don’t see this as a problem on a local level.”
Downey Jr. adds, “If we start conforming to just what the crowd wants to hear, then it’s over — MOB RULES!”
“Comics say what they want to say and how they want to say it. I don’t know a single comic who will remove a joke from their act for fear of being attacked,” says Bales. “People have to understand that if you are going to a comedy club you might hear some things you’re not going to like. But, if you don’t like them, don’t laugh. The real question is … What are you doing in a comedy club in the first place if you can’t handle it?”