I saw Doug Stanhope once in Memphis, TN. Something he said about mid-way into his headlining set caused an audience member to yell out, “Fuck Larry the Cable Guy!” This being a Stanhope audience, the exclamation of course elicited a small burst of applause. But to my surprise, Stanhope chose not to encourage or even ignore the outburst, but instead turned the guy and immediately responded, “Fuck YOU!” He followed this up with one of the greatest things I’ve ever heard: “I hate Larry the Cable Guy, Jeff Foxworthy, all those guys-- but I’ll still side with them every time over you: the dumb audience member.” Again surprising me, the audience supported this with a larger round of applause than the inciting comment had gotten. What an open-minded group of mushroom-users!
As comics, it’s our JOB to try and surprise you. We say the unexpected in order to try and make something new fire in your brain that will make you laugh. Comics also being dark mother-fuckers, we’ll say really fucked-up things in order to try and surprise both the audience and ourselves. It’s part of the art form. It’s part of the agreement that audience members enter into when they walk into any comedy night not otherwise labeled. Surely, it’s a comic’s responsibility-- if he so chooses-- to weather that with how dark he thinks the audience is. And obviously a few comics over the past few years have made some bad choices in that regard. But I still have no problem with those comics who jump into a Weirdness Boat and tell the audience to either hop in or drown.
Daniel Tosh didn’t really want that woman to get raped. Tracy Morgan won’t really kill his son if he’s gay. Michael Richards wasn’t even going to hang that guy upside down with a fork in his ass. (And by the way, my biggest problem with that outburst is that I’m pretty sure that’s not a thing we EVER did to black people.) Anyone who stops and thinks for half a second will realize that these guys don’t actually wish any ill will upon their verbal targets. These are guys who went dark in order to get an extreme reaction-- AKA what they pay us the big bucks and drink tickets for.
As audience members, you’re either one of the open-minded, mentally allowing us to say whatever we want, and knowing that if we say something homicidal, we probably don’t mean it-- or you’re one of the audience members who interprets every single thing we say literally. (Is it weird that the latter is often the same people who interpret the Bible literally? Do these people just have a problem interpreting things? Please no one show any of them Blade Runner, they won’t get it.)
Look, audience members, you can’t all be comics (though by the looks of some of these open mics, you certainly seem determined to try). But you can also avoid being a dumb audience member. Just be open-minded, hop into our Weirdness Boat, and even if we sink along the way, you’ll die laughing.