The recent exodus of comedians from The Second City may signal a disturbing shift in the performer-audience dynamic.
We’re nearing the end of the most controversial and cartoonish election year ever (please God, do not let Sarah Palin and Donald Trump be merely the setup for some horrifying rule-of-threes joke in 2020), and what has it done for comedy? Has this election cycle inspired enough jokes to tire your diaphragm—or are you like me and just tired of this election, period?
It seems the answer is the latter for a quartet of comedians in Chicago, where four of the six original actors in The Second City e.t.c. revue “A Red Line Runs Through It” have left the show they wrote together. The Second City’s longstanding history of social and political satire is partially responsible for Chicago’s legacy as a great comedy city.
Asking whether Trump caused bad audience behavior or if he simply opened a previously-taboo door to expressing it freely is like asking which came first: the rancid chicken or the rotten egg.
The e.t.c. is one of the company’s two main stages. It’s the highest aspiration for many of the city’s improv and sketch performers, as a result of the fact that it’s one of the only full-time paying comedy jobs available. So what could go so wrong that a majority of these professional comedians would be inspired to quit?
Unrest at the temple of satire
According to The Second City CEO Andrew Alexander in an interview with Chicagoist, “Over the last six months, we’ve seen a much higher level of audience verbal shout-outs, and sometimes those have become racist.”
Peter Kim — one of the “Red Line” actors who recently quit the show — gave one example of such shout-outs in an interview with CBS Chicago affiliate WBBM: “The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was a man was sitting next to a Hispanic couple when we asked a question to…[a] completely different lady. We said, ‘Hey, ma’am, what is something small that pisses you off, like getting stuck in traffic?’ He decided to scream out, unsolicited, ‘Sitting too close to a Mexican,’ and he was sitting next to a Hispanic couple.”
Alexander even told Chicagoist, “In 44 years of this work, I’ve never seen anything like it. The audience seems to feel like they have license in very unpleasant ways. Ninety-nine percent of people are cool. But the jerk who used to keep his mouth shut now feels like he has the right to say something.”
There are many factors at play here, which have led to the departure of not only the four cast members but at least three managers, as well. In an early review, the Chicago Tribune called “Red Line” “admirably fearless” and “a show with more political guts than you’ll find anywhere else in town.” This review sheds some light on the level of heckling the performers have met. In my experience, racist heckling is more likely to happen when the audience feels challenged by the material being presented onstage.
Is the rise of Donald Trump a variable in this equation? Peter Kim told WBBM, “I really think he [Trump] gave people carte blanche to act and behave hateful.”
From heckling to hate speech
I’m a Chicago comedian with friends who have performed on both The Second City Mainstage and e.t.c.’s “Red Line.” Understandably, the friends affiliated with that theater declined to comment on this article.
Comedy audiences now run the risk of coming to shows with expectations of intimacy and equality with the comedians. That expectation overlooks the fact that the comedians are still the experts in the art of performance.
I talked to Chicago stand-up comedian Kolin Bohannon, who has a visible physical deformity: He was born with four fingers on his right hand and only one bone in his right arm. When I asked whether he noticed a change in comedy audiences since Trump became a serious presidential candidate, he responded with a hard, “NOPE!”
“Most people are the…worst, and their shittiness is only exacerbated when they drink,” Bohannon said. “I’ve been heckled more times than I can count by people attacking my hand/arm. But that’s not a unique situation. I’ve witnessed many of my close friends and colleagues having to deal with audience members shouting slurs about the color of their skin or their weight or any other imperfections.”
He continued, “It sucks; it’s wrong; and it feels terrible. But it’s a reality of being a performer and something with which we have to deal. We chose this career path and shitty people are part of it. If you can’t deal with that and move on, you will have a hard time having a career in comedy.”
Bohannon’s “most people are the worst” theory provides a direct contrast to Andrew Alexander’s claim that “ninety-nine percent of people are cool.” We’re approaching philosophical territory about human nature here, but if we take Bohannon’s claims at face value, then asking whether Trump caused bad audience behavior or if he simply opened a previously-taboo door to expressing it freely is like asking which came first: the rancid chicken or the rotten egg.
Part of what makes the situation with unruly audience members at The Second City so upsetting is that it happened to people who already had careers in comedy. The actors who quit were getting paid to perform at the highest level of achievement in live improv and sketch comedy. They were not amateur provocateurs or open-mic comedians defensively dragging shocking material from the dark recesses of their brains to avoid bombing. They were pros who decided they had enough.
Which came first: the election or the heckling?
Maybe the real question should not be whether or not Trump emboldens hecklers, but just why people heckle in the first place. Personally, I believe audiences are changing, but it has very little to do with Trump. They’re changing less along political lines than aesthetic ones.
Deep into the second comedy boom, the line between performer and audience member has been blurred more than ever. Even the tourist types who populate the audiences at The Second City know — or at least know of — Louis C.K., a pioneer of the $5 comedy special sold directly to fans. Their kids may have taken classes at The Second City.
The younger audience members listen to podcasts and fund their friends’ web series on Kickstarter and GoFundMe. All of this is to say that people are now used to being “in” on a comedian from the ground floor. They’re supporting comedians from the time they are nobodies, rather than waiting to be surprised by whomever happens to show up on their TVs.
It seems inevitable that some of these comedy fans will assume a familiarity with comedians that’s more a function of the means by which they support the comedy rather than a reflection of what the comedian actually wants or what the comedian-fan relationship has been historically. Compounding this further is the fact that a live performance is about as intimate a mixture of comedian and fan as one can find. Comedy audiences now run the risk of coming to shows with expectations of intimacy and equality with the comedians. That expectation overlooks the fact that the comedians are still the experts in the art of performance.
The performers have trained and honed their craft for years, often decades, to make it look effortless and carry off the appearance of just having a conversation with the audience. When an audience member chimes in on that conversation, they may not even realize that they are interrupting a delicate rhythm. As Kolin Bohannon mentioned, booze does nothing but increase that lack of awareness.
What’s worse, for all of the general population’s savvy as incubators of burgeoning comedy careers, many people don’t understand the difference between a stand-up show and the improv and sketch performances they see at The Second City. Often, for them, it all falls under the umbrella of “comedy.”
Bohannon explained, “Stand-ups have the advantage of bailing on a joke and dealing directly with a heckler, but improvisers and sketch performers can’t break a scene and call out someone who is being disruptive.”
Perhaps this inability to speak directly to problem audience members mid-performance contributed to the situation snowballing at The Second City: Tensions couldn’t be released, so they built up, and the exodus we’re seeing now is the resulting explosion.
Not everyone hates hecklers, though. No less than Chicago Tribune theater critic Nina Metz co-authored an article a few years ago expounding on what she saw as some of the benefits of heckling. [Full disclosure: Nina Metz reviewed a show I wrote and performed in.]
Metz wrote, “I am always secretly thrilled (and nervous!) when someone else does it. Even when a comedian is working on new material, there’s a lingering sense that what we’re hearing has been pre-thought and prepped in some way.”
It’s flabbergasting to me that a critic—someone who theoretically should understand the job of a comedian almost as well as comedians themselves—could misunderstand the form of the comedy show so fundamentally. (After all, “comedian” is a job, and for what possible job would you not expect someone to be “prepped” for their work?)
Metz’s article shows just how deep this misunderstanding runs.
It seems fitting that, in an election year when there is so much talk about which candidate is the lesser of two evils, some might conclude that heckling is a necessary evil—or at least one that’s not going away just yet, regardless of whether or not one of those candidates is the reason for the heckling in the first place.
“Heckling separates pros from amateurs,” Metz wrote, and Kolin Bohannon seems not to disagree: “The reality is that our job is to entertain a crowd, and oftentimes there is a person or group of people who are disruptive and can ruin the show for the rest of the audience. We as comics must understand that this is part of our job.”
Then again, four comedians at The Second City just quit their jobs. Maybe actions like theirs can help retrain comedy audiences and make “just yet” come a little sooner.