Tammy Pescatelli's assault by an audience member in Florida came hot on the heels of a heckler interrupting Daniel Tosh's set and causing a feminist blogospere furor by posting up her account. Add that to events around Los Angeles in the past month - Erik Griffin was charged onstage by a large, drunken audience member at The Comedy Store at almost the exact same moment that a very disruptive audience member was being chastised by Russell Peters down the street at the Laugh Factory. The audience member went so far as to wait outside until after the show to continue his war of words with Peters. More recently, Sam Tripoli was spat on by an Armenian man in the crowd who had been heckling and then couldn't take it when Tripoli engaged him to quiet him down.
Put that all together and you have to wonder, is this a trend? Have audiences forgotten what it means to be part of an audience?
Comedy is a unique art form in that sense. Good comedians make every performance look spontaneous, to the point where casual audience members often believe that they make up entirely new sets every time they take the stage. Comedians are trying to make a connection with the audience, many premises and tags come in the form of a question, and audiences are encouraged to get drunk while watching the performance. You put those things together and you often get hecklers who don't understand that they are heckling. They either believe that their input is actually desired by the performer on stage or think they are "helping" him in some way.
And that's where the trouble begins. It's also compounded by the unwritten rule that it's the comedian's job to take care of a heckler. Disruptive audience members at a play or a movie get spoken to or escorted out by an usher or manager, but when it comes to comedy shows they tend to only get involved once it's escalated. But, again, casual audience members probably aren't aware of this. What the comedian sees as doing his job and proving he has the skills to handle a heckler, that same uninformed audience member will take as a personal affront.
So, yes, audiences have either forgotten how to be audience members... or they never knew how to be in the first place. So, what's the solution? Better audience education - how? More rapid intervention by staff? Or should hecklers start to be prosecuted by the law as an example and deterrent?