Like enriched uranium, the combined elements of cell-phone cameras and YouTube can work for good.
Ask Gotham-based comic Bill Burr.
One month before Michael Richards Chernobyled his career on the Laugh Factory stage, Burr heated his up by nuking the City of Brotherly Love at the Tweeter Center in Camden, N.J., just outside Philadelphia.
After watching two of his friends and colleagues get pummeled onstage by the merciless crowd of 10,000, Burr went on the offensive.
“Fuck the Liberty Bell — shove it up Ben Franklin’s ass,” ranted Burr, who counted down the minutes of his set, promising not to leave a second too soon. “Three fuckin’ minutes left. What’s next, the Phillies? That faggot-assed team named after a female horse? …”
And those were just the milder parts of the routine. No official count has been made, but Burr must have used homophobic slurs at least a dozen times while referring to Philly. He also told the crowd, “I really hope all of you run into all of those black people you love so much here in Camden — I hope you all get carjacked!”
Strangely, the audience — denizens of a city notorious for once booing Santa Claus during a halftime appearance at an Eagles game — ate up this abuse.
“I attacked a city,” says Burr, explaining why beer bottles weren’t thrown at his head. “(Richards) attacked a race. You know what the real difference is? Mine was funny, his wasn’t.”
Even stranger, the grainy YouTube video of his screed — which like Richards’ far more publicized rant, was captured by cell-phone cams in the audience — seems to have only added heat to Burr’s career.
After the Camden show, a number of YouTube viewers drove to his gig in Cleveland hoping for another hostile tirade. He wouldn’t go ballistic again, but he was glad to sell the extra tickets.
“It’s encouraged people to come out to the clubs,” Burr says. “The HBO special (he had his own “One Night Stand” in 2005) was still bigger, but the video definitely got people interested. When I go out on the road, radio stations want to know what happened.”
While the myriad nuances involved may vastly differentiate the Richards and Burr scenarios, a common thread is crystal clear: The emergence of viral video means that what happens in the club no longer stays in the club.
“Now they even have a camera you put in your hat or at the top of your purse,” says Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada, who says he met with civil rights leaders in the days after Richards’ appearance and talked them out of marching on his club.
Masada was managing the theater the night Richards delivered his career-altering rant. He says he’s not ready to start checking bags for phones, but he’s nervous about what’s to come. The viral phenomenon may be harmful to live comedy, he fears.
“How are you going to completely stop it?” asks Tommy Morris, talent coordinator at L.A.’s the Comedy Store.
For his part, Morris gave it a try when comedians Joe Rogan and Carlos Mencia engaged in a nasty confrontation on the Comedy Store stage earlier this month.
Rogan had enlisted a friend to shoot footage of his act for online posting. During his performance, Rogan accused Mencia of stealing jokes from other comics, even referring to the Comedy Central star as “Carlos Menstealia.”
That provoked Mencia — who happened to be on hand — to climb onto the stage. Rogan and Mencia screamed at each other for about 10 minutes. Later, Rogan edited the club footage together with interviews with other comics, creating an online docu that accused Mencia of lifting other people’s material.
The stunt has generated lots of publicity for Rogan, but it’s questionable as to whether it’s helped his career. On his blog, he reported that he’d been dropped by his agency, Gersh, which also handles Mencia. He also noted that he’d been told to take a break from the Comedy Store.
“We were going around the room saying, ‘Close your phone!’ ” recalls Morris of the confrontation. “But we’re not going to tell people to check their phones in. We don’t police people — we’re like a jazz club. And these phones are really quick. People don’t have them up in the air, they have them low.”
Morris thinks he knows exactly where this is all headed. “There will be people who will try to stage things and get attention,” he says. “The in-between people who never get where they want to go, they’ll be the ones to stage things.”
He also thinks comics might be more choosey with their words onstage. “It might be a good thing in that it’ll get comics to be careful,” Morris says.
“Comics can’t really afford to be self-conscious,” adds comedian Lewis Black. “But you may want to keep certain things in a lockbox, both personally and professionally.”