Hecklers have always been part of the live comedy show, but comedians see them as obstacles to doing their jobs.
No moment in popular culture is more charged and anxious than when a stand-up comic battles with a heckler. It usually ends with a knockout insult and a huge laugh. But when things turn ugly, as happened three times this month, it can expose the gap between comedians and patrons who see this clash very differently.
In a now notorious incident, the loutish comic Daniel Tosh directed an off-the-cuff rape joke at a woman challenging him at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles. The details of the joke are in dispute, but a post from an anonymous audience member set off the controversy, describing how Tosh's premise -- that rape jokes were funny -- earned a rebuke from a woman shouting, "Rape jokes are never funny!" He responded: "Wouldn't it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now?"
Three days later, a heckler ended an exchange with Tammy Pescatelli, a veteran comic, by tossing a wine glass at her at a club in Jacksonville, Fla., scratching her cornea. When Pescatelli tried to have the attacker arrested for assault, she said the police officer told her: "You should expect it. These things happen at a comedy club." The next day, a heckler threw a drink on Eddie Griffin at a club in Pleasanton, Calif.
Like the police officer, audiences generally see heckling as a standard and often hilarious part of the live comedy experience. Comedians loathe hecklers, and even those who see dealing with them as part of the job also tend to think the lines of decency shift when responding.
Elayne Boosler has written: "The rule about heckling is this: You fire at a cop, get ready to die." Richard Pryor once stabbed a heckler with a fork at Cafe Wha?, according to "Comedy at the Edge," by Richard Zoglund. Others see heckling as a violation of the contract between artist and audience.
As comedy gains status as an art form, tension between comics and hecklers will probably only rise. Other performers don't have to so consistently put up with patrons who feel it's appropriate to disrupt their work. But a comic's job is to be funny, and in a clash with a heckler, the biggest laughs go to the harshest insult. In the case of Tosh, the issue is complicated by the understandable sensitivity to rape jokes.
Tosh, who has a high profile thanks in part to his Comedy Central series, "Tosh.0," was the subject of widespread outrage. Even as he apologized, clumsily, on Twitter, colleagues like Patton Oswalt, Jim Norton and Amy Schumer came to his defense, which surprised some and made the controversy even bigger.
"Among many comics, getting heckled is viewed almost like being physically attacked," stand-up comedian Erin Judge explained in an interview. "Judging a comic by his or her response to a heckler is seen as unfair. And among many feminists, the necessary response to a culture of violence against women is vocalization: Speak up, speak out, talk back. So this is a collision of two cultures I'm a part of and their taboos."
On "The Daily Show," Louis C.K. tried to bridge the gap: He suggested that men listen more, though he was unusually mealy-mouthed expressing the comedian's point of view.
Most critics are not absolutists about rape jokes: There are comedians who have told ones that aren't cruel or threatening. But behind most successful jokes are many bad early versions. A recent episode of Louis C.K.'s TV series "Louie" that portrayed a sexual assault is a carefully constructed finished product. Louis C.K. trying out a joke at a club is not. The difference should matter for critics.
And yet, comics shouldn't fool themselves. Everything Tosh says onstage is open to criticism. He's an artist responsible for his words. But the old rules of comedy no longer hold.
Once you could save your risque material for the clubs, then clean it up for bigger rooms or television. Now your audience can shift in an instant. Comics should know that when they make a joke about rape, they have no idea who might be listening.
"I'm worried about comedy," Pescatelli said. "This society would have never allowed Carlin, Pryor, Dangerfield, with what he said about women. Rickles? Forget about it. These people would not have had careers."
This romantic notion that stand-up is the last completely uncensored place has taken a beating online, but comedians believe strongly in the importance of exploring limits.
"If you go into comedy with too many filters and restraints, you won't find out what you want to say," said comic Tig Notaro. "When you go to see someone who has a loose-cannon mouth, typically that's what you are going to get."
The comedy world would be better off with far fewer rape jokes, which have become a hackneyed way to get a cheap laugh. But the reason there are so many rape jokes is that they work. As Tosh now knows, telling them carries a potential price, but so does changing the unfiltered, anything-for-a-laugh ethos of comedy clubs.
The laughter of live crowds is actually a more egalitarian metric than is approval from gatekeepers in late-night television or Hollywood. It's also more amoral, because we often laugh at things we aren't supposed to: tragedy, tastelessness, violence. It might be that part of the reason audiences like heckling -- or at least loudly respond to it -- is the threat of looming disaster.
It's important to remember that those onstage are trying to do a job.
"I can't defend Daniel's words because I didn't see the joke, but it sounds like he was trying to make a funny situation out of an embarrassing one," Pescatelli said. "Look, we're at work. I'm trying to make a living making people laugh. I'm a mother. And this is what I've got to put up with?"