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Comedians face heckling, free speech issues


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Comedian Chelsea Peretti likes to feel out her audience before proceeding with her stand-up routines.  

On Friday night, wearing all black, Peretti took the stage at The Comedy Attic, microphone in hand, spotlight illuminating her face.

“I’m always trying to take the temp a little bit,” she said to the crowd, joking. “See where everyone’s heads are right now and stuff like that.”

Peretti performed once Thursday night and two times both Friday and Saturday nights at The Comedy Attic.

Peretti, who is currently touring the U.S. before heading off to the Montreal Comedy Festival, wrote for the fourth season of the NBC show “Parks & Recreation” and has also written for “The Sarah Silverman Program,” the “MTV Movie Awards” and “The Nick Kroll Show”.

Peretti has also performed at multiple stand-up festivals and has established the YouTube comedy projects “Making Friends” and “All My Exes,” along with the launching of BlackPeopleLoveUs.com.

Recently, Peretti has received backlash for expressing support of comedian Daniel Tosh on her Twitter account.

In March of this year, Peretti appeared on comedian Daniel Tosh’s “Less Is More” Comedy Corner on Comedy Central. Earlier in July, Tosh performed at the Laughing Factory Comedy Club in Los Angeles, where he allegedly made a rape joke and provoked a female audience member.

The audience member, who has remained anonymous, later wrote a blog post on Tumblr.com about the experience, alleging that Tosh retaliated and said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like five guys right now?”

On July 10, Tosh apologized on his Twitter account with a link to the audience member’s blog post, followed by another post reading, “The point I was making before I was heckled is there are awful things in the world you can still make jokes about
them. #deadbabies.”
 
Two days later, Peretti wrote “PRO TOSH BRO” on her Twitter account.

Then, Twitter user “Amadi” wrote, “A day after saying she’s pro-Tosh Chelsea Peretti is trying to regain feminist cred. It doesn’t work like that. #fail.”

“I’ve been reading these things all day,” Peretti said after her first routine Friday night.
Joshua Murphy and Conor Delehanty, both current contenders at the 4th Annual Bloomington Comedy Festival at The Comedy Attic, each did a stand-up routine before Peretti took the stage.

At one point during Peretti’s routine, a woman from the crowd yelled, “You got this, girl” after Peretti asked, as a joke, if anybody wanted to end the show for her. In response to the woman in the audience, Peretti said, “I know you’re a good person.”
Peretti admitted to The Comedy Attic owner Jared Thompson that she thought the woman’s comment was negative heckling, which Thompson said the club has a strict policy against.

“I was in a bit of a weird head space and, like, it’s always weird also when someone yells out, like you can’t tell if it will be an issue,” Peretti said.

Since Thompson and his wife opened The Comedy Attic in September 2008, a video has always been shown before every performance requesting that the audience refrain from heckling the comedians.

“Stand-up comedy is the only art form that, for whatever reason, people think they’re involved in the show,” Thompson said. “The quick answer is that if someone were to do what the lady did at the Tosh show, we would have completely removed her immediately. ... Any club should do that.”

According to LAUGHSPIN, an online publication about comedy, comedian Tammy Pescatelli wrote editor-in-chief Dylan Gadino about being assaulted at the Comedy Zone in Jacksonville, Fla. According to Pescatelli’s letter, a drunken audience member threw a glass of wine at her head after an unpleasant verbal exchange. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Department did not press charges.

“I mean, we’re lucky to have a town that seems like it’s maybe above this sort of thing,” Thompson said. “But you know, it’s just scary from time to time, and hopefully this thing will settle down a little bit with the audience trying to participate and be part of the show.”

After Pescatelli went to the State Attorney’s office the morning after the assault, she wrote that she was told that because the club called the non-emergency police line and that the officers didn’t arrest the audience member, the case would probably not be pursued. Pescatelli also wrote that she received a feeling of bias — that comedians should expect heckling — from the justice department.

“Comedy is or maybe WAS the last bastion of free speech,” she wrote. “Who will standup for standups?”

Melinda Kashner, a server at The Comedy Attic who participated in last year’s Comedy Festival and is also competing in this year’s, said Tosh’s rape joke has turned into a feminist issue raising awareness of how women are treated in comedy.

“The thing is, that woman got offended, and she has every right to, and instead of telling her to calm down and take a joke people should think about why rape is such an issue in this society,” she said. “And people should stop taking audiences’ reactions so lightly because people reacted in this way for a reason, and I think it’s because rape is a neglected issue in this country.”

Peretti said the biggest challenge in stand-up comedy is being honest while connecting with people, adding that other challenges include crowd management, dealing with people who think women aren’t funny, traveling and working for clubs that underpay.

“But the creative aspect to me is the one that I try to focus on,” she said. “Which is just like wanting to be, you know, to actually make something that I love every night.”

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