There’s an interesting article in the Rolling Stone on how the election of Donald Trump has somehow changed stand-up comedy.
The Trump voters—who during the campaign seemed quiet, almost a little embarrassed about admitting they were voting for Trump are now emboldened in post-election. They have no problem booing comedians, heckling them or threatening them now that their guy is going to be the president.
Some comedians, like Wanda Sykes, was booed when she called Trump an “orangutang,” and Amy Schumer had 200 people walk out of her show when she condescendingly questioned a Trump supporter after inviting her on the stage– I don’t know it was either that or the fact that the joke she used wasn’t hers… (did I say that out loud?)
It’s a bit of a quagmire considering that we’ve always been able to make fun of presidents and politicians, but this time it seems different. This was definitely the most hotly contested election in modern history.
Not to mention the republican candidate inciting violence against opposing voices by saying things like, “I wish somebody would punch them in the face.”
You would expect this kind of grandstanding and saber rattling from the North Korean president, Kim Jung Un, but not the future leader of the free world.
This kind of brazen talk, emboldened his supporters and gave them the green light to be aggressive so it’s no surprise that comedians are now more vulnerable than ever.
A comedian wants to stay edgy and current. Trump keeps making these missteps; either Tweeting about the Chinese or breaking 40 years of U.S. protocol and taking a phone call from the president of Taiwan… misspelling the word unprecedented (he spelled it “unpresidented”), a comedian might think that’s ripe for a joke.
But the political current might open a comedian up to heckles and some of them might get aggressive.
It seems some of these people think Trump’s election means they can openly use the “N-word, or grab a woman in the crotch” but if you dare call the president-elect something as obscene as “that guy from ‘The Apprentice’” and some heckler may likely yell “get off the stage!”
The Rolling Stone article implied that comedians need to change their game. I don’t necessarily agree. I think there has always been a way to talk about politics and religion.
One way is to not only make it funny, but make it funny with unassailable truths. Pick on both sides and understand (this is crucial), your audience.
George Carlin said, “While their mouths are open for laughter, insert some food for thought.”
All comedians and comedy writers should understand the simple M-A-P formula. The best ones already do. M-A-P simply means Material-Audience-Performer. The material should be right for the audience and right for the performer.
There’s a time to go hard and a time to tone down and there’s a time to realize when you’re a guest in someone else’s house.
I was working in Idaho—a pretty conservative state. The previous week, a comedian from L.A. was there doing anti-gun material. He was heckled and he said something like, “I come all the here from L.A. and you disrespect me?”
Are you kidding me? You are in their house. It is YOU who needs to respect them!
There wound up being a fight and the comedian got his ass kicked. I came to town the following week and mentioned the incident.
I said, “you see I think you can do anti-gun material, it just depends on how you say it.”
And a guy yelled out, “Yeah? Go ahead and try!”
I said, “You see, some comedians might look at that as some kind of rude outburst. I see it as us opening up a conversation. And why shouldn’t we? We both disagree on an issue thats important to both of us… my argument is that we spend more money regulating pornography, than we do regulating handguns and I don’t know about you, but I know of very few innocent victims who have been picked off by a misfired pecker.”
This got them laughing, because it was rather innocuous, but true. Now keep in mind, this was the same club that beat up the comedian the week before. But I’m not making it about I’m right—you’re wrong. I’m just making an observation.
See, I think my job as a comedian is to think of a heckler as my best friend. Most of the time hecklers heckle because they want to be included in the conversation. They also want to be heard.
During that time there was an incident where Federal agents had come to Idaho looking for a fringe militia group. It was a big deal in Idaho.
So I then said, “I mean, I’m not saying take away the guns. We need the guns here in Idaho, so we can hunt the Feds.”
This got them laughing.
And I said, “See. We can disagree on shit, but it doesn’t mean we can’t have a drink together laugh about. How boring would life be if we all agreed on everything? First of all there would be no makeup sex…”
As a personal aside, I think this election thing is like an NFL playoff game. The winners are basking in the glory of their teams win and they’re gloating. Eventually it will settle down.
That being said, there are going to be situations where hecklers are just being aggressive assholes. Like in the Rolling Stone article, comedian Feraz Ozel, who was raised Muslim was doing his set and someone yelled out, “Homeland Security is right outside!”
I suggested to one of my students (who might look like an intimidating terrorist to an ignorant audience member—despite the fact that his family is from India), that he prepare himself with heckle responses.
Prepare yourself. Which means sitting down and writing material to respond to potential heckles, starting with the one above, “Homeland Security is right outside.”
How would you respond to that?
I might respond by saying something like, “Yeah? You know what’s inside, Jethro? The Constitution.”
Or I might follow it with something like, “Trump said he was draining the swamp… he should of told us he was sending the scum to comedy clubs.”
Using the roast joke method to write material can give you some responses that you can keep in your arsenal. They should be smart and they should be tight.
Try to stick to the facts. Use Trump quotes or facts about Trump. Innuendo and opinion will just leave you open to more attacks.
I also think it is going to be crucial to comedians and club owners to remove patrons who are unruly. An outburst here and there is just the nature of the beast, but a patron spouting hate or getting aggressive should be dealt with promptly. And here’s why…
If a club deals with unruly patrons by removing them promptly, it has the short term impact on making the show enjoyable for everyone. But it has a long-term positive impact of making people feel like a comedy club is a safe place for entertainment.
Club owners must consider that for every 10-20 people in attendance there are 2-3 people who have never been to a comedy club. And if they don’t feel safe because the unruly patron was not dealt with, then they will most likely never come back again.
That’s not only bad for comedy, it’s bad for business.
But as a comedian, I think the point is that when you’re in a room that is going to lean conservative, then you’ve got to skew your material so you can still make your point, but you make your point while people are laughing. It’s not selling out. It’s making an adjustment (like you might doing network TV or a corporate), because you’re a professional.
Like George Carlin said, while their mouths are open for laughter, insert some food for thought.
I don’t have all the answers, I would love to hear your thoughts on this new world we work in!