Friday, July 27, 2012

Daniel Tosh and the Limits of Dealing with Hecklers

Putting up this weekend's Comedist post early. Been thinking about the Daniel Tosh situation and thought I'd add my two cents:

Controversy engulfs comedian Daniel Tosh supposedly for telling a rape joke. The moral limits of comedy and whether there can be funny jokes about horrible events like rape have been thoughtfully and passionately debated by commentators and comics, but the conversation misses the point. It was not Tosh’s rape jokes that are at issue. He was making rape jokes when an audience member called out that such jokes are never funny and it was Tosh’s comeback to the heckler, that it would be funny if she herself were raped, that is at issue. Of course, it would not be funny for anyone to be raped and one cannot fault the woman who spoke out against treating rape casually, but an interesting question is how far a comedian can go in dealing with a heckler. Like Michael Richards, who likewise found himself the center of negative attention for using racial slurs in addressing hecklers, Tosh stepped over the murky line that comes with the tough neighborhood that is stand-up comedy.

Comedians are unique amongst performing artists in having to arm themselves against their own audience. Yo Yo Ma never fears that someone will suddenly carry a cello into the spotlight and try to upstage him by playing the piece louder. Comics, on the other hand, have to do their jobs while defending the turf on which they do it.

My first heckler was a harmless drunk enjoying the show so much she thought she ought to become part of it. She wasn’t malicious, but was keeping me from doing what I had come to do – trying out new jokes, reworking old bits, honing my delivery. I needed to establish the flow of my set and she was keeping me from using my few short minutes of stage time as I needed. So, fancying myself quicker and cleverer, I tried to silence her with a cute response to one of her slurred offerings. It didn’t work. I had only succeeded in establishing a relationship between us and this meant that now she felt comfortable further embedding herself in my set.

A better approach generates negative attention from fellow audience members who are generally also annoyed by the disturbance. The sense of isolation sometimes ends it, but not always. If a comedian is doing shock material or adopting a persona that causes discomfort, the heckler may engender sympathy and turn the audience against the performer. This is where Tosh found himself.

So a different tack is to go nuclear, to bring down a verbal smack so big that there is no response. Performers justify this by appeal to their own vulnerability. Command is usually accompanied by control, but not for stand-ups. With mic in hand we have command, but the audience is in control – that sense of being exposed is what makes being a comic truly terrifying. When a comedian is heckled, it is the strong attacking the weak and the comedian is tempted to throw his strongest punch to try to fight back from this vulnerable position.

We usually give the little guy a degree of latitude in facing down a bully. Comedians are at the mercy of their audience, mercy that is betrayed by hecklers. But that does not mean that the comics are not also wielding the social power of the groups from which they come. When that power has traditionally been used to oppress others, using it to protect yourself from hecklers makes you a party to the historical abuse. Appeals to self-defense, that it is only a joke, or that they don’t really believe it fall flat. The nuclear option blows away the artifice of the stage and brings the real world into the club, inverting the power relation so that the comedian is transformed into the bully.

The problem is not that Tosh and Richards were offensive. As Steve Martin told us, comedy is not pretty. Comedians are offensive, saying things on stage the rest of us don’t and shouldn’t. That is where the power of comedy – constructive and destructive – resides and it must be protected. When dealing with hecklers, comedians ought to receive even more leeway. But that does not mean there isn’t a line to be crossed. You don’t bring a gun to the playground, even if you are being taunted and have no intention of using it. Tosh and Richards were reacting in self-defense, regardless of whether they brought the attack on themselves, but they went too far in using words associated with historical and ongoing injustice. The mic and stool bring the freedom to offend that may not stop at our neighbor’s nose, but there are still some places that even we comedians cannot put our fists.