Wednesday, April 04, 2012

To: NY Comedy Scene Re: Heckling Video

Well, the "heckling video" has just been made private, so this post I was working on is essentially moot now, but to the 69,000 of you who saw it, here's what I have to say:

Yesterday, a video that had already started to go viral in the comedy community was shared on The Huffington Post, which brought it to an even wider audience. The video's title, "Heckler Gets DESTROYED!," implies that this would be yet another video of a comedian on stage handling a heckler in the audience. There are lots of those online, some now infamous, like this one where Bill Burr tears into a Philly crowd so incredibly that he, perhaps unfortunately, has inspired a whole generation of younger comics to jump at the chance to be confrontational with audience members.

But, instead, the video features a young girl named Emily getting her comeuppance, as some would have you believe, for being disruptive during the open mic where this was filmed.

Like Carol Hartsell at Huffington Post Comedy, my first reaction to this video was that it had to be an April Fool's prank, since it was filmed on April 1st. Hartsell says, "No crowd could possibly be that mean to one performer, we thought." Not to mention the fact that it seems virtually implausible that any female comedian, no matter how green, would start a set in the year 2012 with "birth control tampons." But in an interview with Hartsell, Adam Cozens, the comedian who filmed and uploaded the video, confirmed that the incident was not staged. Cozens told Hartsell, "Prior to this incident, she and her friends talked and heckled and yelled all throughout the host's opening time, being repeatedly told by the host, as well as comics sitting around her to be quiet (in not always those kind of words). Of the 15 or so comics that went on prior to her, she talked during each and every one of them."

It's important to note that Cozens said "she talked during each and every one of them," not that she heckled or made fun of every one of them. The implication in the title of the video is that she was making fun of each and every comedian who went up before her, but accounts by those who were there describe her as more of a general disruption than a mean-spirited heckler. I asked Cozens to give me an example of the sort of heckling she was doing, and he said, "Something about "Don't forget to tune in to watch 'Whitney,' Thursdays on NBC," which is harmless and kind of funny. Cozens joked, "Yea, she was NASTY!"

I wasn't there so I can't attest to her behavior, which is part of the problem with this video. The viewer isn't privy to any examples of this girl's prior misbehavior, only the "little mercy" she was shown from the comedians in the audience. Most importantly, this woman was not only taped without her permission, but then subsequently exploited on the web. (As of this writing the video has nearly 69,000 hits.) Many who've seen this video wonder why she wasn't simply asked to leave. Cozens told Hartsell, "Around the time that it was all coming to a head and it was make or break time in regards to giving her the boot, it was decided to just put her on stage and handle it the way we did." So taping her without her permission in order to punish her was a premeditated act.

Even if Emily were rudely heckling every single comedian who went up before her (and it doesn't seem like she was), one person heckling one other person seems a benign act compared to a room full of mostly men attacking a woman who was clearly so nervous to do comedy that she had to get drunk first. (Note to those who want to try comedy: never drink first.) The behavior of the comedians in the audience is at best childish (big surprise!) and at worst barbaric. This should be viewed as the hazing incident it is, meant to intimidate and harass a newbie female who dared disturb the balance of power. Some have argued that a male comedian who behaved in the same way would have been met with the same response, but that's doubtful. Female hecklers are notoriously reviled by male comedians, which is not to say that other female comedians there weren't bothered by her behavior, but rather to draw attention to the latent sexism behind the act of embarrassing this girl online. Putting her in her place, as it were. This is the first video of its kind as far as I know (of an open mic-er being attacked by an audience of fellow comedians) and it's no coincidence that the subject is female.

While some comedians - male and female alike - continue to suggest that gender has nothing to do with what happened, others are willing to analyze the incident more critically. Comedian Josh Homer told me, "Watching that video was like watching gang rape. It was premeditated and over the top. It was pure mob mentality." He continued, "If that was my sister up there being treated like that, I would have burned The PIT to the ground." Indeed, watching this video is like watching a stoning. Or, as comedian Mike Lawrence tweeted, "Viral videos are the new Scarlet Letter."

I'm particularly disturbed by the fact that many people who weren't there continue to maintain that "she got what she deserved!" The willingness of people who weren't there to accuse this girl of things they didn't see her do and then to thrill at her punishment is telling. Additionally, the way some people remain ignorant of the obvious abusive nature of this exchange says so much about how violent our culture at large has become, how volatile comedy rooms can be and how anger is often at the root of what makes comedians funny. This is what happens when that anger comes out without a punchline. (Though I will admit the line, "Your hair is shitty!" is hilarious.) I'd like to commend the host for intervening eventually, though I'm not sure if he was in on the premeditated act of asking her to go up so she could be ridiculed.

To those that would counter, "What do you expect? Comedy is hard! Be rude to comedians, this is what's gonna happen!" I will say this: I might not take umbrage with this act if it happened in an isolated room. It's the uploading of this footage for the world to see that seems like the particularly cruel and unusual punishment. What's worse is that as a result of the fact that this video was shared online, Emily felt compelled to attend another open mic last night and film an apology:

Thank God for the comic at the end of this apology video (who I'm told is Scott Chaplain) who says, "Anyone who actually wants an apology is ... an idiot. Seriously, don't ever apologize, have you watched their sets?" Not only does he prove himself funny, good-natured and insightful, he also makes an important point. While I think it's fair Emily felt compelled to apologize for interrupting other people (after all, that's 1st grade etiquette), what about the apology she's deserved for the way she was treated? I asked Cozens about that and he told me he'd rather not comment publicly, but that he does feel remorse for uploading the video. (Which is perhaps why it has been made private.)

When I contacted Cozens about this saga, I told him, "I hesitate to even mention the fact that by sharing this girl's abysmal material with the world you've set women in comedy back 50 years." That's perhaps the most unfair part of all of this. The comedians who supported sharing this girl's drunken open mic set with anyone willing to witness this train wreck would certainly not support filming a well-known comedian working out new material in a loose room. This material isn't ready for anyone's consumption, let alone the judgmental eyes of the entire Internet. These terrible jokes about tampons and menstrual cups play into every negative stereotype about women in comedy, which comedian Nathan Rand notes has given "some idiots ... an excuse to shit on all women who do comedy." He told me, "I'll say that one thing I do find really disturbing in the comments is the amount of misogyny displayed by the misinformed. She was a heckling jerk who then went on stage and got booed while telling an unfunny, hacky joke. There are more awful male comics than there are awful female comics because there are more men in comedy, period." Um, no pun intended, I imagine.