We've seen the effects of Donald Trump's presidential candidacy seep into almost every corner of American life: elementary school classrooms, parent-child relationships, Facebook feeds. And, it turns out, the audiences at comedy shows.
I often find myself in rooms filled with people that have never seen someone like me — in their everyday lives, much less telling jokes at a comedy club. As a gay Korean comedian I have to spend a little extra time with my audience, making sure they get to know me, and feel comfortable enough with me to sit, listen, and laugh. Mick Napier, of The Annoyance Theater, calls this protecting the audience — we are providing a context for them to watch us. Specifically when I perform stand up, the work is introducing who I am, so we can move on, and joke about inherent commonalities that make us all human: failure, family, and of course, butt stuff.
In the summer of 2012, I moved from San Francisco to Chicago, and one of the first rooms I played was a traditionally black comedy club on the South Side called “Jokes and Notes.” Performing at black comedy venues is a unique challenge for someone who’s used to performing in predominantly white clubs because their audience will audibly let you know whether they like you or hate you. At a white club, when you bomb, you sit in the weight of awkward silence. I sought out Jokes and Notes for this exact reason: Heckling is built into the work, and any comedian worth their free beer will tell you that if you can work black rooms, you can work anywhere.
I took the stage, and at first, some men in the audience squeamishly flinched at the mention of butt stuff. One gentleman, on a date, was horrified, and yelled out in protest. I responded, “Bitch, like you could handle this! Stick to yo girl, boo boo.” They exploded. Men and women stood on their feet and stomped in jubilation. I had handed him his ass, and they were eating my ass up; then fervently begging for seconds.
On more than one occasion, straight men have come up to me after shows and said “you make me uncomfortable, but you’re funny as hell!” Then, as they go in for a high-five, I go in for a deep hug. We both blush, and share a brief moment of vulnerability.
As a loud, queer Asian man, I am obsessed with comedy for this reason. It’s a powerful weapon that you can wield to instantly dissolve sociocultural barriers. Making someone laugh allows you to share common ground with a complete stranger, the antithesis of xenophobia. It’s a universal language much like other things I obsess over: food, music, or math (insert lazy Asian joke here).
I’ve been obsessed with comedy for the better part of a decade, and during that time I’ve become really good at shutting down hecklers with nimble, pointed retorts served with saccharine charm. This is the Peter KimTM brand. What hecklers are looking for is attention and validation. Hecklers are never alone. They are with people who they desperately want to show off in front of, like a potential mate or a group of friends to whom they feel inferior. Simply put, hecklers are tightly wound balls of insecurity.
How heckling changed after Donald Trump’s rise
But in the fall of 2015, I started noticing something quite different in audiences. I was working for The Second City, the iconic comedy theater whose illustrious alumni include Bill Murray, Tina Fey, and Keegan Michael-Key. For a comedian in Chicago, it was absolutely a dream job. Because of its legendary status in our culture, the building drew wide audiences from all around the country, mostly liberal white people. But there seemed to be an increasing segment of the audience that started booing when we made jokes about Trump. It was hard to tell if the demographic of our audience was changing, or if quiet conservatives were becoming inflamed.
As the year went on, I noticed a swell of discomfort and anger, especially directed toward women, gays, and people of color. When asked for improv suggestions, the simpletons in the audience went from yelling “Dildo! Gynecologist! Proctologist!” to “Whores! Harambe! Ferguson!”
Incidentally, Donald Trump, a man running for president of the United States, had publicly called Mexicans rapists, shamed Megyn Kelly’s period, called Carly Fiorina ugly, said Syrian refugees are terrorists, accused Muslims of cheering 9/11, incited violence against his protesters, and promised to forcefully remove immigrants from our nation — all before or during November 2015.
The vitriol in the audience intensified as the months passed; in the form of a man dragging his wife out of the theater while yelling “fucking liberals can go to hell!” a man calling me a faggot while I was exiting the stage, a man yelling “don’t clap for him” while I was in full drag, and a man yelling shit about me being Asian.
And then there was the incident that made me decide to quit Second City, and to take a step back from performing altogether. A man screamed that he was “sitting too close to a Mexican.”
Something that was happening to our nation was being reflected in our audiences. The idiots were transforming into pointed, angry mobs. This was way beyond heckling at a comedy club. It was hate speech, sanctioned by the biggest, most tremendous idiot of them all.
Donald Trump is not a joke
I remember last fall, when Donald Trump was starting to rally hard, a lot of people around me were convinced he was a joke. Even some of the most liberal white comedians I knew were doggedly supporting Bernie Sanders, while completely ignoring the steady rise of an obvious fascist movement, flippantly discounting him as a fool who would never make it to the Republican primaries. They were more concerned with idyllic socialist issues and campaign reform than the very real threat of the rise of white supremacy.
Then came the summer, and the same people who thought Trump was a joke in the fall were shouting “Bernie or Bust!” and “Protest Vote!” phrases that proved blindness to their own privilege. Because how can someone possibly choose to abstain from voting after witnessing Trump propose a Muslim ban, refuse to condemn the KKK, make fun of a disabled person at a rally, and disparage the parents of a Muslim soldier? You can’t, unless his threat doesn’t seem immediately real to you, like global warming. (Nice try, China).
Last year, Saturday Night Live, even after huge protests, invited Donald Trump to host and joke around in front of more than 10 million viewers. There is no way Lorne Michaels would invite Trump to host SNL unless he didn’t believe in the implicit danger of Trump’s hate speech.
Article after article came out against Trump’s platform of racism and misogyny and white liberals around me would clutch their pearls and gasp, “I can’t believe he said that!” He started gaining in polls and packing his rallies with American humans who truly believe that America should be white, and liberals were like, “I can’t believe there are people like that in 2016!”
Time doesn’t change people; people change themselves
Since leaving The Second City, trolls have come out of their hollow to express their disgust with my decision. Some choice responses include:
“Second City gook quits o'er offensive audiences”
“You are the pussification of America”
“Faggot who makes a living offending people quits due to Trump supporters offensive behavior”
You might be sitting there thinking, “I can’t believe people actually said that!” Well, they did. And guess who’s not shocked?
As a working comedian, I’ve had the chance to tour all around this country, and I realized that most white people in America feel like I am infringing upon their land and their traditions. They feel an ownership of this country and constantly ask me where I’m from. When I say New York, they laugh and say “you know what I mean … where are you from, from?” As if a human that looks like me cannot possibly claim this country as my own. It feels like a bunch of savages shouting, “You not look like me! Explain!”
Well-read, city-dwelling liberals continue to ignore the fact that these people still exist. How often do you hear a liberal exclaim, “but it’s 2016!” As if because we moved forward in time, we have automatically progressed. But time doesn’t change people; people change themselves. If you are a white liberal and have never sat down with your POC friends and discussed their daily oppression, there is no way you would understand the gravity of the rise of Trump. You have to actively practice diversity and empathy to experience progress, or you’re just screaming into the HuffPo echochamber behind the comfort of your MacBook Pro.
Lazy, intellectual “wokeness” is part of what led us to Trump, and it’s not funny — it is scary as hell. The time is now to do the hard work that we pretended was done. We must actively diversify our daily lives and choose curiosity over judgement; we need to make a concerted effort to humanize strangers by treating them how we would like to be treated. Let us start by making a friend and tasting their food, dancing to their music, or even laughing at their comedy. After all, there are so many basic things we can all relate to, like playing with our butts.
Peter Kim is a Chicago-based writer, performer, comedian, and designated gay trickster. His credits include Zanies, The Laugh Factory, The Second City National Touring Company, and The Second City e.t.c. — where he was nominated for a Jeff Award in the critically acclaimed revue A Red Line Runs Through It.