Katt Williams is a comedian who is no stranger to run-ins with the law and with other folks. And lately, his run of legal troubles have been adding up: he attacked an aspiring rapper on his tour bus at an Oakland hotel and then (two days later) led cops on a high speed chase for reckless driving in Sacramento, California; then he also got sued by his female personal assistant for allegedly punching her at his house and causing her serious and permanent injuries. But for many comedy watchers, there is one particular incident in Williams’ line-up of recent troubles that raises a new kind of question in the way that comedians relate to their fans. And the answer to that question may be something that comics might want to pay attention to. Here’s what happened:
This past November, Williams and events promoter Live Nation collaborated on a comedy gig at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, CA featuring Williams. However, a mere 10 minutes into his set, Williams became provoked by the actions of a heckler and reportedly had a serious meltdown. As the story went, he took off his clothes and challenged the audience to a fight, and then attempted to fight at least three members of the audience. Needless to say, by the time the fracas ended, the show itself was over as well. The fans were not amused one bit. In response, a disappointed audience member named Brian Herline, acting on behalf of all the other audience members who attended the flopped event, filed a lawsuit against both Williams and Live Nation.
For starters, the ‘class action’ nature of this lawsuit is something that should be pretty easy to maintain and Herline and his posse likely won’t have a problem with it. The idea of a class action is designed to allow folks who have suffered a ‘common injury or loss’from a ‘common source’ to pull their resources together in order to obtain whatever relief or remedy they are entitled to get under the law. So, in this case, as long as the audience members (the plaintiffs) keep themselves on the same page, they’ll be just fine. But, of course, if, for instance, some of them are seeking a refund of their ticket price while others are claiming damages for assault and battery, then the lawsuit can no longer survive as a class action. The simple explanation for that would be that if the people bringing the lawsuit together are actually seeking different kinds of remedies from the court, it implies that they probably suffered different kinds of losses as well.
Anyhow, what we have in this case seems like a proper class action in which all the audience members are reportedly seeking unspecified damages for “Katt Williams’ non-performance.” To put it all in layman’s terms, Williams and Live Nation are being sued for not living up to their promise to Herline and the other audience members who attended the event. But what exactly did the comedian and his promoters promise to the audience? Well, first of all, when people talk about ‘promise’ in this way, it implies that there is some sort of agreement between the two sides: the comedian and his promoters on the one part and the audience members on the other part.
In this context, it is fair to say that paying money to see a comedian’s performance may be no different from paying money to see a movie. In the movie case, we can assume that in exchange for the moviegoer’s ticket price, he is promised a chance to see the movie he has paid for. Since the moviegoer’s deal is simply to see the movie, if he happens not to like the movie after he sees it, then tough luck. Of course, if the movie theater does not keep its promise to show him a movie, then the moviegoer is entitled to “rescind” or cancel the contract and receive ‘damages’ in return. Typically, the ‘damages’ he would receive in this situation is the chance to get his ticket price back. Translation: there are two promises in this situation and each promise is the price or ‘consideration’ for the other promise. Simple as that!
Similarly, in the situation involving a comedian and a paying audience, the understanding is that in exchange for the cover charge that the audience pays, they get a chance to see the comedian perform. Clearly, what a comedian’s audience is promised is a chance to see the comedian perform. And just as in the case with the movie, whether or not the comedian’s audience like the performance they get is a different matter altogether. But again, just like the movie theater, the comedian and his promoters must at least deliver a performance. This is where Williams and Live Nation may have a real problem in this case. The big question here is: Did they at least deliver a performance that day considering that Williams went bonkers after just 10 minutes, got mixed up in a fracas and brought the show to an end? Could it be a defense in Williams’ favor that a heckler interfered with the show? Well, the odds are not looking too good for Williams’ side with these questions.
Usually, when a comedian is sued for damages for non-performance in a case like this one, it is essentially a breach of contract action. And in a breach of contract case, the person sued might choose to play the hand that his efforts to deliver the thing he had promised was frustrated by the actions of the person to whom the promise was made. In this case, a guy in Williams’ position might try to say that his attempt to give his performance was frustrated by hecklers who were members of the audience. But will that be a good enough defense? Probably not! Because when the court begins to look at the whole case, part of what it could consider is something called ‘custom or usage’ in the industry – meaning what the usual practice is among comedians at a performance.
As it happens, hecklers are known to be a problem at comedy performances. Yet, as a practical matter, hecklers can always be removed from the venue of a performance, in the same way as somebody trying to disrupt a theater performance on Broadway or someone heckling an invited speaker at a college campus. Besides, a ‘reasonable’ professional comedian would be expected to find a less disruptive way to handle a heckler rather than to take the heckler’s bait, walk off the stage and challenge the audience to fights. In short, considering that Williams’ actions do not seem ‘reasonable’ under the circumstances, especially when judged by the standards of other professional comics in similar situations, the defense of blame-the-heckler likely won’t be available to him.
Still, there may be more to this case by the time the dust settles down: Williams’ problem may not end with just giving back the audience’s ticket prices to them. The part about him not performing as he promised is a matter of contract law. But then, he may have committed a ‘tort’ as well. For instance, any instance of actual fighting with any members of the audience would likely have rendered him liable for the tort of ‘assault and battery’. By definition, an assault occurs whenever one person puts another person in fear of imminent physical contact. On the other hand, a battery occurs where one person actually makes an offensive physical contact with another person without the consent of that other person or without any lawful justification for making that kind of contact.
Well, there seems to be little doubt that none of the audience members at the event consented to Williams’ actions toward them. Plus, it is hard to see what lawful justification (such as, maybe, self defense or something else) that Williams could have had for his aggressive actions toward the audience. So, if Williams did stop at merely challenging folks in the audience to fights, as the lawsuit seems to suggest, then he is perhaps liable only for an ‘assault’. In that kind of situation, since he didn’t actually make physical contact with anyone, he’ll be spared the more serious hassle of an actual ‘battery’ claim.
And as long as we are talking about claims against Live Nation for Williams’ actions, the assault and battery claims will not lie against them. Otherwise, to say that Live Nation will be liable for these actions will mean creating “vicarious liability” against them for the actions of Williams. ‘Vicarious liability’ is normally reserved for situations where one person controls and directs the actions of another person such as the kind of situations that exists between a master and a servant or between an employer and an employee.
In the case we have here, it is clear that even though Live Nation brought Williams to the show, Williams was not an employee or servant of Live Nation. This means that he was not subject to their control and direction in the way he did his job. So, as a professional comedian, Williams remained an ‘independent contractor’ throughout the event. (An independent contactor is a guy who decides the ways and means of doing his job.) Actions like going offstage and threatening to fight folks in the audience is an “intentional” act and the law will not hold promoters like Live Nation liable for the intentional wrongdoing of an ‘independent contractor.’
This case is also kind of unique for another reason. For example, this is a case where a comedian is being sued for what the comedian does at a performance rather than what he says onstage. Obviously, saying and doing stuff are two different things: What a comic “says” onstage enjoys free speech protection. However, what an irate comic decides to “do” at a performance, whether onstage or offstage, is a different matter altogether. And this is one big reason why Williams is in such a weak position in this case: when he went offstage in a fighting mood, he lost all the normal protections that a comedian would normally enjoy for what he ‘says’ while onstage. His ‘free speech’ protections deserted him.
Needless to say, whatever the temptation, it is never a good idea for any comedian to get offstage and confront an audience. One of the biggest things the comedian would lose in such a situation is the protection of First Amendment. As matters stand here, Williams’ position in this lawsuit isn’t a pretty one. His best move ought to be to find a way to settle this one and just move on.
Please stay tuned for my upcoming book “Comedy Under Attack…” Coming soon!