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Opinion: For comedians, safety is a growing concern

Dave Chappelle looks on during UFC 264: Poirier v McGregor 3 at T-Mobile Arena on July 10, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
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Dave Chappelle looks on during UFC 264: Poirier v McGregor 3 at T-Mobile Arena on July 10, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

My father, who was a comedian, used to advise me when I was in a school play, "Don't worry if the audience walks out on you. Just if they start coming toward you."

In March, Will Smith slapped Chris Rock before an audience of millions at the Oscars, after Chris Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith, his wife.

And this week, Dave Chappelle was tackled onstage at the Hollywood Bowl by a man with a knife inside a replica gun. Security guards chased down the attacker and pulled him offstage. The Los Angeles city attorney's office has filed charges.

Dave Chappelle has been criticized for transphobic jokes in his standup sets and Netflix specials. He returned to that theme after the Hollywood Bowl incident, joking that his attacker was a trans man.

Chris Rock also happened to be on the bill, and came onstage when the assailant had been subdued, to ask, "Is that Will Smith?"

Other comedians are watching, and worrying.

"My first reaction when I saw Dave attacked was: 'Here we go again,'" said Curtis Shaw Flagg, who runs Chicago's Laugh Factory. "My second reaction was, 'Nobody's safe."

Mr. Flagg says there's been a recent increase in people trying to charge the stage at his club. He's hired more security, but knows that's hard for smaller clubs, which are staffed mostly by young, part-time servers.

"You have to give comics the opportunity to try and fail," he said. "Not every joke's going to work. Someone's always going to be offended."

Comedy can often challenge our views, or cement them. Jokes can make us grimace and squirm as we laugh...or don't. These days, anyone who objects to a routine can tweet a response, put a little scowling face on Facebook or post a 5000-word essay on Medium.

People in an audience can boo. Or just walk out, without committing assault.

Matt Walsh, the comic actor and founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade told us, "Even when Romans watched martyrs battle lions, they didn't jump in the arena to slap or stab the Christians for poor combat technique. If they were bored, they would leave early and tell their friends to meet up later at the vomitorium. Or as Cicero once wrote, 'Just shut your mouth and watch the show.'"

I'm not sure about his history, but I get the joke.

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