When Curtis Shaw Flagg, president of The Laugh Factory Chicago, witnessed Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Academy Awards, a sinking sense of déjà vu set in.

“We’ve had more instances lately of audience members trying to charge the stage,” says Flagg. He describes an incident four weeks ago in which a mother accompanied by her son in his 20s were targeted by a string of comics at the club for being an unlikely pairing.

“When the third or fourth comic got on stage, it was his turn to have fun with them. And he said something to the effect of, ‘Oh, this is a healthy relationship,’” Flagg recalls.

The pair had been taking the jabs in stride until then, but for whatever reason, those words triggered the son. Says Flagg, “He starts yelling at the comic. The comic was like, ‘OK, calm down there.’ And next thing you know, the guy is trying to get on stage.”

A quick-acting security guard grabbed the man and ejected him from the club, leaving his mother sitting mortified at her table. The comic was unharmed.

Chris Rock was not so lucky.

As the industry reels over Smith’s attack — drawing stinging and angry rebukes from A-list comics like Kathy Griffin (who tweeted, “Now we all have to worry about who wants to be the next Will Smith in comedy clubs and theaters”) and Joe Rogan (who said on his podcast that it “sets a terrible precedent for comedy clubs”) — the live-comedy gatekeepers are reevaluating security protocol while bracing for whatever comes next.

Smith’s reaction is indicative of an overall mood shift in the standup-comedy world, says Laugh Factory owner and CEO Jamie Masada. Masada has noticed an atmospheric change inside his clubs since they reopened to the public, first to limited capacity in March 2021 and then to full capacity about six months ago. Audiences, he says, are on edge.

At a recent performance at the Hollywood club, a comedian started coughing on stage. “Everybody, except three people that stayed, all left. They got their money back and left,” Masada says. (The comedian later told the club owner the coughing was due to an almond he’d eaten before he went onstage — not COVID-19 or another illness.)

“For two years we are locked in. Now it’s the war in Ukraine — this monster started killing innocent people. How do you react to that? What do you do? You’ve got to let it out sometime. I’m surprised that’s not happening more often, because people are holding everything inside. They don’t know how to release that anger,” Masada says.

And it’s not just the audience. Masada says that throughout the two years of the pandemic, he’s lost count of how many comics he’s had to bail out of jail for DUIs. “Comedians are doctors of the soul,” he says. “They want to make people laugh and can really get lost if you rob them of the opportunity.”

But Flagg says that while the isolation of the pandemic has made things worse, audiences have grown more aggressive inside his club since the election of Donald Trump. “It was really bad in between 2016 and 2020,” he notes, “where if you said something about Trump and there was a supporter in the crowd, they just had to make their selves known. It all just became like this intellectual battle — as opposed to people just sitting down, enjoying the jokes.”

Even prior to the Will Smith slap, Masada was concerned enough about the safety of his comics that he added an extra security guard at the Hollywood club. In Chicago, Flagg had done the same. But the Smith attack is precipitating further changes.

“There are conversations happening as we speak about beefing up security, having someone that’s maybe near or by the stage,” says Flagg, whose second security guard is typically stationed behind the audience. (Audience members who heckle at the Laugh Factory are given two warnings — then ejected from the club if they do it a third time.)

“I’m going to talk to my staff, just for this weekend, and say, ‘We definitely need you by the stage now. That is your post.’ Just in case someone is just trying to recreate a moment or feels emboldened by what Will Smith did. And it’s unfortunate,” he says, adding that the club has recently been weighing the pros and cons of installing metal detectors at the doors.

“There’s going to definitely be some sort of announcements and things made pre-show to let the audience know, ‘Hey, this is all in good fun — but don’t you even think that you can engage with the comedian and you definitely cannot physically engage or try to approach the stage,’” Flagg adds.

Not all club owners are as concerned. Noam Dworman, owner of the Comedy Cellar — with locations in New York City and Las Vegas — has seen his share of chaos, having hosted Louis C.K.’s first stand-up sets after the comic admitting to sexual misconduct in 2018. (The appearances were protested outside the West Village club.)

But Dworman hasn’t noticed an increase in audience misconduct at his clubs prior to the Academy Awards, and is doubtful Smith’s attack will inspire copycats.

“We’ve never had anything like that in our history,” he says of Smith’s slap. “We’ve had audience members offended at personal jokes and who have had tiffs over the years. But very, very rarely have they [turned physical].”

Were someone to mimic Smith’s attack, Dworman says, “We wouldn’t bounce them. We would hold them and have the cops called immediately. There is no way we would let somebody go. He would be arrested, for sure. What happened to Chris was 100 percent wrong. It’s just crazy. Chris was doing the traditional role of an Oscar presenter.”

The mood among Comedy Cellar comics — the clubs are favorites of superstars like Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr and Rock himself — is one of “100 percent outrage,” Dworman continues. “Outrage at this Hollywood culture, which looks to their left and looks to their right and then decides what to think as sheep. This was a terrible thing that happened — and they shouldn’t be cheering it or cheering him.”

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