Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle Attacked Onstage:  An Open Season on Comedians?

First, there was the slap heard around the world this past March when comedian Chris Rock was attached by actor Will Smith as he stood on stage during the last Oscar ceremony in Los Angeles. Then, not long after came the vicious assault on comedian Dave Chappelle by a crazed audience member at the Hollywood Bowl in May.

As one might expect, many are now wondering whether we might be entering an era where comedians have to worry about becoming victims of physical assaults by people who are unhappy with their shtick onstage. Bill Maher has described the situation as a “war on jokes” and other comedians like Kathy Griffin, Howie Mandel and more have said they won’t be going back onstage at least in the meantime. So, if there is a war on comedy, what then can be done to address the situation? Before answering this question, it may be worthwhile to try to figure out what options for redress are available to any comedian attacked onstage as Messrs. Rock and Chappelle were.

Well, the obvious person to be held legally liable here is the attacker himself (or “tortfeasor” as lawyers would say). The aggrieved comedian’s quite simple claim here is one for damages for battery, which is a claim asserted against someone who has made an unlawful physical contact with somebody else without any lawful excuse. Now, how about the venues responsible for hosting both the comedians and their attackers? Here, most ordinary people would think the comedian should be able to sue the event venue and thus make them liable for not taking steps to prevent the attack on the comedian. But, alas, it doesn’t work that way in the law and this expectation will likely be disappointed. For starters, the law generally won’t hold one person liable for the “intentional” act of another person, unless, for instance, a special sort of relationship exists between them.

Typically, such relationships include, say, a master-servant situation or employer-employee situation where one person can be said to control the way and manner that another individual performs their job. These situations are often referred to as “vicarious liability” situations. But does that apply in this situation? Can one validly say that a vicarious liability situation exists between, say, the hosts of the Oscar ceremony and the actor Will Smith or for that matter any of the so many celebrities and other guests at the ceremony?

The all-too-predictable answer here is no. Because Will Smith and the other guests are merely “invitees” (albeit lawful ones) to the ceremony. They are no more related to the event hosts than someone who attends a show at a comedy club and while therein decides on their own to beat up another patron of the comedy club. Liability for such “intentional” acts falls upon the person who did the act, rather than the venue. Unless of course the event hosts had reason to know or should have known that such a danger existed and yet did nothing to prevent it. In such situations, the event hosts would be liable to any injured “invitees” who become victims of any particular dangers that were foreseeable and therefore preventable.  Long story short, comedians who get injured in situations like the ones here, like Rock and Chappelle, can generally only go after the guy who attacked them and not the venue. And if the attacker is a man of straw who can’t even pay his own rent, or is otherwise a loser, then tough luck.  (Of course, the district attorney could bring charges, but that’s a different thing altogether.)

So, when it comes to preventing attacks upon comedians for doing their jobs, there, sadly, seems to be no effective way of making that happen, given that there isn’t much that can be done to the event venues where such incidents happen. Nor in fairness can one say that the venues are in a position to prevent such occurrences anyway.

Well, so are we now in a new era where it is open season on comedians who offend people by their material? The good news is no: for all the buzz surrounding recent events involving Rock and Chappelle, there doesn’t appear to be some sort of noticeable trend of attacks on comedians to a degree that is out of the norm for their line of work. The new aggressiveness is more of a society-wide problem. There seems to be a new climate of incivility and extreme behavior from members of the public that is manifesting itself to the detriment of working people or staffers in public-facing jobs, whether they be airline employees, restaurant workers, transit workers, and yes, comedians, too. One explanation is that thanks to the pandemic and the resulting lockdowns, people seem to have been cooped up for too long and thus to have gotten just a bit more on edge than usual and, naturally, appear to be acting out more. Perhaps social scientists can tell us the expected trajectory of the extreme behaviors that we have been witnessing lately, but it is doubtful that they will become a “new normal” and, for what it is worth, comedians seem to be in no greater danger from hyper- agitated members of the public than other working people in public-facing jobs.

Speaking of the world of comedians, it is certain that getting confronted by offended people for what they have said onstage is an old problem that goes with the territory of standup comedy: sometimes the confrontation happens onstage, sometimes off stage. As far back as the 1970s New York comedy scene, for example, Joe Piscopo infamously had his nose broken by mobsters at the Improv, with a chipped tooth and black eye to boot, while a few weeks later Jimmy Brogan got confronted and “was scared to death” by a fearsome mobster after he got offstage at Catch A Rising Star and was forced by his would-be assailant to admit that “he wasn’t funny”. (“I apologized like a madman,” Brogan reportedly said.) So, between the cancel culture activists and those actually rushing the stage at them or confronting them afterwards, comedians are no strangers to folks who want them to shut the heck up. But the show must go on, even if the circumstances be different. There’s no canceling comedy. This too shall pass.


*Editor’s NoteAt the moment the author is seriously working hard to finish writing a new book on a rather tight deadline. So please bear with us if upcoming posts do not appear as regularly as they should during this, hopefully, quite short period. However, in the meantime, please do dig into the many other posts contained in the archives, which are readily available for your reading pleasure. There are two “categories” of articles: “Comedy Legal” and “Other Controversies.” You can find all of them at the “Categories” box on the sidebar. Please keep reading!