Comedians who, like Rock and Chappelle, are attacked on stage

On March 23, standup comic Sampson McCormick performed at the Win-River Resort & Casino in Redding, California, a venue he has headlined many times over the past decade. But this time it was different because it ended up being slapped in the face.

It started when a heckler interrupted his performance and McCormick, 36, cracked a few jokes at her expense. “I wasn’t being mean or anything, I just toasted her a bit and she got mad,” he said.

“The next thing I know, a big, burly man stormed onto the stage and punched me in the jaw.”

McCormick said he’s dealt with a lot of heckling in his 21 years on stage, “but that was the first fistfight I ever performed in.”

Amid two high-profile attacks from A-list comics onstage — first Chris Rock, who was beaten by Will Smith at the Oscars in March, and Dave Chappelle, who was attacked by a stranger at the Hollywood Bowl earlier this month — Comedians told Das Land says bystander violence is a growing problem.

During his 21-year career, McCormick said he's dealt with plenty of heckling but no actual violence -- until last March.
During his 21-year career, McCormick said he’s dealt with plenty of heckling but no actual violence — until last March.
Lauren Justice for the NY Post

Curtis Shaw Flagg, 37, president of Chicago’s The Laugh Factory, told The Post he’s seen an alarming rise in incidents over the past year as people feel increasingly encouraged to hit out if they don’t like a comic.

“Not long ago, a visitor got up in the middle of a performance and said, ‘I’ll wait for you outside, I’ll kill you,'” Flagg said. “After the show we swept the outside and there was no sign of the guy and the comic was intact. But no one felt safer.”

In recent weeks, the Laugh Factory chain – which has clubs in Hollywood, Las Vegas, Chicago, Reno and Long Beach – has equipped its venues with cameras and metal detectors and doubled its security staff at some locations.

Even while he was being attacked, McCormick managed to capture his attack on camera and document it on social media.
Even while he was being attacked, McCormick managed to capture his attack on camera and document it on social media.
Twitter/Sampson McCormick

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” Flagg said. “Chris Rock was the lighter. And Chappelle put a little more flame into the fire. These are the types we consider untouchable.

“I’m literally flipping through security apps while I’m talking to you,” Flagg added. “We want people to know when they’re coming in. If you try something, you will be treated.”

Many comics reacted to Rock and Chappelle’s attacks with fear and anger.

Howie Mandel told E! News, he “doesn’t want to go on stage. I’m just really scared.” Bill Maher called it a “war on jokes,” and Heather McDonald offered free front-row tickets to any cops who wanted to attend her shows. “Please DM me,” she wrote on Instagram. “I suggest other comedians offer the same.”

Meanwhile, in the past year, lesser-known stand-up comics have dodged punches in Australia, were attacked by angry rappers in Atlanta, and in New York, their private space was invaded by a “Real Housewives” cast member.

Comic Affion Crockett posted on Instagram about a woman who “stormed the stage like the Capitol” at his performance in Jacksonville, Fla. in November 2021. (She told the stunned comic that his jokes “offend a lot of people tonight.”) Several comics came online in Crockett’s defense, including Kathy Griffin, who tweeted “That’s why I’m not going on tour again yet… A ‘normal heckler’ doesn’t behave like that either. go on stage? I do not think so. She’s zombie-like.”

When Will Smith beat Chris Rock at the Oscars on March 27, Americans witnessed onstage violence against comedians right in their living rooms.
When Will Smith beat Chris Rock at the Oscars on March 27, Americans witnessed onstage violence against comedians right in their living rooms.
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Comics in the past, for the most part, didn’t feel physically endangered by cracking a joke.

Eddie Murphy, who made wildly offensive homophobic jokes in the ’80s, apologized after a 1996 San Francisco protest organized by gay rights activists halted one of his film shoots. And when Andrew “Dice” Clay hosted “Saturday Night Life.” In 1990, his monologue was interrupted by protesters shouting, “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Clay, go away!” Jerry Seinfeld once had a drink thrown at him, and Joe Piscopo had his nose broken by mobsters in New York.

But more often than not, telling lewd jokes wasn’t a ticket to abuse. When a video of Pauly Shore being punched by an angry viewer went viral in 2006, it wasn’t long before word broke that the whole thing had been staged.

That invisible barrier between audience and performer has disappeared in recent years, said Wayne Federman, 62, a standup comedy vet and author of the 2021 book The History of Standup from Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle.

Just two months after the Oscars, Dave Chappelle was beaten on stage at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.
Just two months after the Oscars, Dave Chappelle was beaten on stage at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.
TMZ/BACKGRID

“Jay Oakerson, Jim Jefferies, Jerry Sadowitz and Steve Brown have all been physically assaulted on stage over the past decade,” Federman said.

What has changed? 30 or 40 years ago, “the world was a very different place,” said Judy Gold, 59, a standup and author of Yes, I Can Say That: When They Come for the Comedians, We Are All in Trouble.

“People who attended shows didn’t have recording equipment back then. If someone didn’t like a comedian, they wouldn’t attend their shows or just change the channel. Since the advent of social media, everyone has a soap box. People feel powerful when they sit behind their electronic devices and spread hatred and conspiracy theories.”

Now people are taking their frustration out on everyone from airline employees to professional athletes to school teachers. A January poll by CBS News found that 54 percent of respondents believe the “biggest threat to the American way of life” is not natural disasters or foreign threats, but “other people in America.”

Comic Judy Gold said social media encouraged viewers who had previously avoided comics they found offensive.  Thanks to Instagram and Twitter, she said so now "have a soapbox."
Comic Judy Gold said social media encouraged viewers who had previously avoided comics they found offensive. Thanks to Instagram and Twitter, she said they now have “a soapbox.”
T Charles Erickson

Comedy clubs in particular can be powder kegs, Federman said, “because they typically combine tight spaces, drinking, proximity to the performer, and — sometimes — provocative comedians.”

Jamie Masada, the 68-year-old owner and CEO of the Laugh Factory, has run the legendary club’s original Hollywood location since 1979, booking everyone from Richard Pryor to George Carlin to Sam Kinison, and he’s never had anything like it seen vitriol seething in comedy audiences today.

“Just a few weeks ago, a young guy rushed past me and headed straight for the stage,” Masada said. “I thought, ‘Where are you going?’ And he said, ‘I’m going to talk to the comic.’ I said, ‘No, no, no, you can’t do that. That’s not how it works.’ Our security guys kicked him out, but that happens all the time these days.”

Masada, who recently spent more than $15,000 on new security cameras, called it “plastic surgery.” It won’t solve anything.” What he thinks is needed is a grand gesture.

Stand-up comic veteran Wayne Federman is the author of the 2021 book The History of Standup from Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle and cites examples of comics being physically assaulted on stage.
Stand-up comic Wayne Federman said comedy clubs are powder kegs because they mix “tight spaces, drinking, intimacy with the performer and — sometimes — provocative comedians.”
Caitlin Thorne Hersey

“Will Smith and Chris Rock should go into a stadium, hug, say it was a mistake, and we’ll film and commercialize it all,” Masada suggested. “I’ll pay for the whole thing.”

Flagg agrees that we need to start having more civilized conversations. He recalled a recent confrontation at the Laugh Factory, when an offended bystander cornered a comic at the club’s bar and grilled him over a joke he found offensive.

“They ended up having an open and honest conversation about it,” Flagg said. “The weird thing is that this guy finally clicked why maybe he wasn’t upset about anything when the comic said to him, ‘I meant it as a joke.’ He said, ‘Oh, OK, now I see.’ This is just amazing to me. Why do you come to a comedy club if not for jokes? Are you expecting a TED talk?”

Jamie Masada, owner and CEO of the Laugh Factory, recently spent $15,000 on new security cameras but suspects they will do little to stem the on-stage violence.
Jamie Masada, owner and CEO of the Laugh Factory, recently spent $15,000 on new security cameras but suspects they will do little to stem the on-stage violence.
Getty Images

For McCormick, he’s not willing to sit down with every angry customer who doesn’t like his shtick. He is more concerned with how to protect himself from physical harm. “After my assault, I was told by the sheriff’s department that I could get a misdemeanor for defending myself,” he said. “Even after being hit first by someone twice my height.”

He said he will continue touring with a comedy act that he finds uplifting, funny and positive. And the next time he sees someone storming onto the stage with their fists clenched?

“I grew up in Anacostia, in downtown Washington, DC,” he said. “I know how to put out someone’s light if I have to. And if I have to get the fuck out of there, you won’t catch me because it’s me fast.”

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