On Saturday, March 29th, Power Hour — a drinking-themed stand-up comedy show typically hosted at The Creek & The Cave in Queens — transitioned to Zoom because of the coronavirus, only to encounter a new type of heckler: the Zoom bomber.
Zoom bombing, of course, is a quickly developing form of cyber harassment where hackers crash video conferences on Zoom and flood them with porn, violent imagery and hate speech. (It’s become such a problem that the FBI had to issue a warning about it.) Predictably, Zoom bombers have hijacked town halls, AA meetings and church services, but when it happens to comedians, they’re conditioned to fight back. “I don’t think they realized that comics don’t respond to strange situations the way most people do,” comedian Amy Shanker, host and producer of Power Hour, tells me. “We were all looking for the joke.”
Shanker, a former high school teacher, tried to police the digital room, but it was impossible. For every Zoom bomber she booted, three more took their place. And so, in the face of such an onslaught of obscenity, comedians tried to roast their hecklers into submission. For instance, stand-up Kendall Farrell noticed that by the time it was his turn to tell jokes about being a gay man, one of the trolls had used so many homophobic slurs on others, he had nothing left to do but call him but ugly. “He’d already called several people fags and seemed disappointed when he saw me and realized he shouldn’t have wasted that so early,” Farrell tells me. “But I pounced on it and said, ‘Bet you wished you’d saved some for now, huh? You gotta space it out through the day. You can’t eat all your dessert at once.’”
Meanwhile, as more graphic porn popped up, comedian Ian Fidance yelled, “Show us more dicks, daddy!” And fellow comic and newlywed Casey James Salengo, simultaneously apologized to his wife’s family who was also in the online crowd, and tried to make light of people screaming the N-word: “Hey, you stole my bit!”
“It was truly insane, but it would’ve been more insane to clutch your pearls and just take it,” Fidance says. His logic reflects a broader policy among comedians about how to deal with hecklers. Heckling was originally a part of Vaudeville, when trolling was written into the script for entertainment purposes. The more contemporary iteration is a loud, drunk person at a comedy club who thinks that by mouthing off they’re helping the show. For comedians, defeating a heckler is a matter of maintaining the upper hand until they’re shamed into shutting the fuck up or are removed by security.
By far the best example of this was Bernie Mac’s 1992 performance on HBO’s Def Comedy Jam, the then unknown comedian’s first TV set in front of a notoriously difficult crowd. Following another comic who was booed off stage, Mac was already getting heckled as he took the stage, so he grabbed the microphone and said defiantly, “I ain’t scared of you motherfuckers.” The crowd exploded with laughter and cheers, giving Mac enough traction to get to his material. Whenever the audience got disruptive again, he’d repeat that he wasn’t scared.
The famous phrase went on to become the mantra of any comedian who refuses to roll over and die during a rough show. But if Mac had to perform on Zoom, his hecklers wouldn’t have faces, he wouldn’t have a stage and the worst corners of the internet would have the same access to a microphone as him. In other words, it’s undeniably a worse gig than having a crowd shake their keys at you, a vintage heckling practice.
“With live comedy, you’re in much more control. You have a microphone, so when something pops off, everyone looks to you to fix it,” Fidance explains. But with Zoom, it’s a free-for-all. “There’s an added feeling of helplessness because when it happens it’s harder to shut it down,” he continues.
Comedian Jess Salomon felt this helplessness first hand when a Passover-themed comedy show was immediately Zoom bombed by Holocaust deniers and Hitler apologists. “I haven’t heard that much hate speech since I was a war crimes attorney,” Salomon says. In a comedy club she would’ve geared up for a battle, but all of the disembodied voices screaming slurs into her ear were too much. “I mean, you can’t even make fun of the guy’s shirt.”
As the host tried to kick them out, one bomber commented, “Good luck, we’ve shared this with over 700 people.” They eventually had to restart the show, this time with a protected password, a new strategy many Zoom comedy shows have been using. Charging a donation of $2 to $5 also has helped to ensure that audience members actually want to be there, along with using Zoom’s waiting room feature, which functions as a virtual staging area to screen audience members. After all, every good comedy show needs a bouncer.
All of the comedians I interview have performed on Zoom comedy shows since their bombings and agree that show producers appear to have the issue under control. But like with any other group that gets Zoom bombed while trying to connect, digital heckling is another painful reminder that the world we’re living in isn’t normal, and won’t be for a long time. Comedians can film sketches, post tweets and create all kinds of coronavirus content, but they cannot recreate the true stand-up experience at the moment — heckling included.
Still, Fidance insists that he has to at least try to combat Zoom boomers the same way he would hecklers at a live show. It both keeps him sharp and doesn’t give the bombers what they want, a strategy he recommends for any Zoom gathering that’s been infiltrated — a la when a recent Zoom AA meeting he attended was bombarded with images of dicks. Instead of getting flustered, everyone decided to cheer loudly. “The Zoom bomber left because they didn’t get what they wanted,” Fidance laughs.