Dave Chappelle was violently onstage and this is an assault on all comedians

Dave Chappelle is lucky to be alive.

That’s not hyperbole. On Tuesday night, while performing at the Hollywood Bowl as part of the “Netflix Is a Joke” festival, the comedian was tackled by a lunatic in the audience who boom-rushed the stage with a weapon.

It’s nuts to consider such occupational hazards in any other occupation. I scribble these silly columns in my basement and it’s unfathomable to imagine being about 400 words in and catching an assailant in my peripheral vision smashing through the tiny window with a crossbow.

Standup comedy was already one of the hardest jobs on the planet. If you’re an accountant at H&R Block, you don’t have to worry about getting heckled as you crunch writeoffs. If you’re an ER doctor, there is minimal risk of getting canceled over a saucy bedside joke.

But in this age of outrage, to be a comic is to be a mob target.

In one clip of the incident, published by TMZ, the attacker suddenly scales the stage and bolts toward Chappelle, knocking him down before security beelines toward the madness. The assailant, identified as 23-year-old Isaiah Lee, runs around a giant video screen. He is promptly caught and beaten.

In one gnarly photo, Lee is strapped to a stretcher, post-arrest, his eyes puffy, one arm looking like it was on backwards as his elbow points toward Pluto. It’s not clear who affected this broken-bone vengeance, though even celebrities Jamie Foxx and Busta Rhymes got in their licks.

The festival included several comics. Moments after the attack, Chris Rock joined Chappelle onstage, grabbed the mic and asked: “Was that Will Smith?”

That’s an A-plus ad lib. And Chappelle continued his set like a champ. But the larger question that remains on Wednesday is this: how do we protect our court jesters who are increasingly under siege for having the temerity to say stuff others are too timid to broach?

The authorities have not yet disclosed the suspect’s motive. My guess, based on the scant footage available, includes alcohol and/or mental health issues. Still, at a time when there is a war on comedy — a war on ideas — it’s unsettling to realize someone was able to sneak into a major festival with a weapon described by TMZ as a “replica of a semi-automatic” that “also weirdly had a knife attached to the gun.”

I’m picturing a retractable bayonet. I’m also wondering why Chappelle’s team dutifully locks up phones but somehow misses weapons passing through metal detectors. If I were Chappelle, I’d feel much more comfortable onstage knowing someone might be recording a controversial trans joke as opposed to reaching for a snub-nosed revolver.

This guy allegedly pulled his gun-knife before lunging at Chappelle. Again, I’m not sure what he was planning or thinking. But one of the greatest comics ever could have been murdered onstage. That is no laughing matter.

It’s frightening. And it hints at the blurred lines between online grievance and fantasy, and the hasty manifestation of real-life folly. The late author Max Eastman once observed, “It’s the ability to take a joke, not make one, that proves you have a sense of humor.” He was right. He was so right.

Unfortunately, too many among us can no longer take a joke.

When I condemned Will Smith for slapping Mr. Rock at the Oscars, I was genuinely horrified by emails from those who defended Smith and deemed his violent assault perfectly justified. They didn’t word it that way. But that’s what they were saying: a joke was now grounds for physical retribution.

Knock, knock, who’s there… Pow!

But comedians have never mattered more, precisely because they are uniquely equipped to smother cultural insanity at a time when nobody can agree on anything. Ironic detachment is a blessed firewall in polarized times.

Comedians keep pushing the envelope as society writes disingenuous apology notes. Comedians keep searching for the big picture as the rest of us are trapped in our high-def small screens of intra silo conflict.

In the moments after Tuesday’s assault, Chappelle called Foxx onstage to thank him for donning a sheriff’s hat and coming to his rescue. Foxx said: “Listen, I just want to say, this man is an absolute genius. We’ve got to make sure we protect him at all times.”

Agreed. We should be protecting there our comedians. It’s getting to the point where they might start performing from inside steel cages. If this keeps up, comedy clubs will be retrofitted with barricades and moats. There will be more security on hand than Moldova has soldiers.

An open mic should not become an open season on the talent.

The crazier things get, the more important comedians become. It’s been this way for millennia. You don’t need punch lines in Xanadu. But you need to laugh when the world feels like it is lurching sideways. As soon as people start viewing jokes as political or social manifestos, that’s when comedy veers toward future tragedy and the power of laughter is muted.

This wasn’t a close call for Dave Chappelle.

It was a wake-up call for all comedians.


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