Comedian Jay Washington has a strategy for dealing with hecklers. The pro wrestler turned stand-up comic gives them two chances — first by telling them to be quiet, and then by warning them that they can either enjoy the show or be the show. If they still don’t stop, he starts going through the alphabet, insulting them with each letter.
Washington recalls a specific show at a bar in California when he started to go through the ABCs on a guy. “Alabaster toned ass dude, Budweiser built boy, car jack neck having…,” he began.
He was barely into the EFGs when the heckler rushed the stage. Washington, however, was ready. He took him down, threw him in a hammerlock with one arm, and kept talking into the mic with the other. Looking out into the laughing crowd, he realized they thought it was a part of his act because of how well prepared he was for it. But knowing when to see a spear coming wasn’t something he learned as a wrestler. Just as Chris Rock calmly received a slap in the face from Will Smith after a joke he made at the expense of his wife at the 2022 Oscars, before proceeding to list out the Best Documentary nominees on live television, threats from audience members is something many comedians have learned to see coming.
“There have always been people running up on comics,” Washington tells me. “Is it right all the time? Nah. You just gotta expect it and know how to handle it, unfortunately.”
Similarly, Brian Morton, president of operations at New York Comedy Club, has had to call the cops on crowd members for getting aggressive and violent. He even recalls some extreme circumstances, like when an entire group stormed the stage. “It was like for 15 minutes of this comedian’s set, I was trying to get them out of the show room,” he tells me.
Of course, comedy clubs and venues with headliners like Rock tend to have tighter security. But for working comics like Washington, the possibility of getting slapped comes with the territory. To find out what these experiences are like, I spoke to a few comedians about the attacks they’ve suffered, and how they’ve responded.
The Comedian Who Had a Chair Thrown at Him
When visual artist and stand-up Brett Gilbert told a rowdy woman to shut up, she called him an asshole, and she and her husband left the show — or at least so Gilbert thought. When an audience member yelled, “I think she was mad,” Gilbert responded with, “I think she was drunk.” From the exit, her husband emerged screaming, “What did you say about my wife?” and hurled a chair at Gilbert.
“It hit my hand as I blocked it from my head, and cut my hand open,” Gilbert says. The husband continued to chase Gilbert around the venue, knocking over tables, before another comic jumped on his back and ripped his sweater off. “Later, he was literally crying to police, quoting jokes from my act he found offensive to justify his violence. I found out after that it was their honeymoon,” Gilbert recalls. “Great memories for them I’m sure.”
The Comedian Who Had a Knife Pulled on Him
At Shayz Lounge, a now-closed bar in Brooklyn, comedian Nathan Rand patiently waited to do his set as he watched the comedians before him try and fail to silence a man who had been loud and distracting the entire night. When he finally got called up, he went for a more aggressive approach by insulting him. “It’s always a short guy — are you this loud to keep people from stepping on you?” Rand fired off, along with quipps like, “Congratulations, we know you exist… and now we all wish you didn’t.”
As much as the crowd ate it up, the heckler wasn’t amused. Instead, he pulled a knife out of his pocket and yelled, “We’ll see who’s funny outside.” Thankfully, he was more wasted than violent, and the bar staff was able to remove him without incident. But Rand was still rattled, and his fellow comedians were kind enough to walk him to the train, just in case. That said, “It didn’t stop me from being vicious to people who try to ruin shows.”
The Comedian Who Was Too Fun and Flirty
Madelein Smith loves roasting men in between her written material — something that usually goes over well. But one night, she joked “that this guy’s girlfriend was hot and that she liked me better.” They were laughing along with the crowd during the set, but after the show, “he grabbed me when I was walking out and shoved me against the wall,” she says, before calling her a homophobic slur.
Luckily, the altercation didn’t escalate from there, but it continues to be something that isn’t easy to forget. Nonetheless, she hasn’t let it stop her from dunking on men and hitting on their girlfriends on stage.
The Comedian With the Mistaken Identity
Comedian Michael Clayton knows he looks like a lot of other comedians. He’s a white guy with a beard who almost exclusively performs in jeans and a hoodie. But Clayton never expected this would get him slapped with a stranger’s open palm for something racist another comedian said. Unfortunately, about 30 minutes after he got off stage at an open mic in South Carolina, he got slapped by an audience member for a joke. “It was a deeply offensive joke, only it wasn’t my joke,” Clayton tells me. After his assailant’s friends pointed this out, she responded by saying, “Oh, well, sorry, I guess.”
Clayton was taken aback by the slap, but once he recovered, he had empathy for the woman and felt she had a right to be upset. But he’d also like to be able to make people laugh without the risk of getting hit in the face. “This is why violence over a joke is never the right move in my opinion,” Clayton says. “It brings chaos into a situation where discussion and understanding is so paramount.”
The Comedian Who Took a Drink in the Face
Comedian Jill Kimmel had just used the expression “a cure for cancer” during a set, when a woman who was only half listening assumed she was making fun of people with cancer. “She threw a glass at me, dug her nails in my face and had my hair in a headlock,” Kimmel recalls.
More turmoil ensued from there as the headliner, comedian Flip Schultz, jumped on stage along with the sound guy, and together, they pulled the woman off of Kimmel. The woman was thrown out of the club and the police were called, but they didn’t bother to come out to the venue. So Kimmel filed a report on the phone, but when she followed up later, “they told me that the case had been closed the next day because they didn’t know who the woman was.” “I was like, ‘We have it on video, and we have the license plate and phone number of the other person she was there with,’” Kimmel tells me. But somehow, they told her it still wasn’t enough to press charges.
Kimmel never got closure on the attack, but she does have something to say to anyone who might want to justify that kind of reaction to a joke: “You can fuck right off.”