On October 9, comedian Peter Kim left Second City's E.T.C. revue show A Red Line Runs Through It. During the course of the evening, harmless heckling had turned into vitriolic hate speech directed at both the performers and the audience, and Kim had had enough. In a personal essay published by Chicago magazine he wrote: "Since September 2015, people in the audience have hurled increasingly racist, homophobic, and misogynistic comments at me and my castmates: comments demeaning my Asian ethnicity, using the f-word to degrade my homosexuality, and shouting 'whores' at the women. But this time, [someone] was attacking another audience member, and that felt like a whole other level."
Yet this month Kim's returning to Second City. The reason: Crowd Sourced, a comedy showcase that relies completely on crowd work. Every week Kim and three guest comics have the opportunity to talk back.
"When people yell at us we really don't have a chance to engage," Kim told me while reflecting on the event nearly a month later. "We do, but it kind of sacrifices the integrity of the show."
It was important for Kim to return to the building where the incidents occurred. "I wanted to be in the same place where the same people might come so I could have a chance to talk back and shut down hecklers if they have hate speech," he says. "I think the key story is that these hateful people were out there anyway. It's not specific to Second City—clearly, after the election you see them coming out in droves."
Stand-ups begin the performance by joking around with the audience and playfully picking on people, but that approach has made a lot of the participants connect more seriously and emotionally. While Kim's armed with a microphone and prepared to confront anyone in the crowd who turns to hate speech, the sets so far have turned into meaningful interactions wherein the performers and audience members open up about things they might not normally talk about.
Kim admits that, out of sadness and fear, he wasn't feeling quite ready to take the stage on the Monday after the election (he blames the influx of hate speech at Second City on Donald Trump's campaign and now his presidency). But that night stand-up Jonathan Euseppi used his time to talk to a member of the crowd (also named Jonathan) about how they were both overweight as kids. Kim says it's one of his favorite moments of the show so far.
"Watching two men so politely and so lovingly connect on their weight issues felt amazing to watch, and I don't know if [Euseppi] would have ever crafted that as a set," Kim says. "He was just trying to connect with a fellow human being who happens to have the same issues as him."
The performance's November stretch at Second City is a test run for a concept that Kim hopes to continue elsewhere. He says that he knows that things in the world might get worse before they get better, but that the best way that he and other comics who feel unsafe can combat present-day circumstances is by taking control of the shows they're in and not just ignoring or avoiding the problem.
"I'm triggered myself, and I'm still very scared," Kim says. "Every time I get onstage I'm still very scared. I'm kind of almost asking for it because I want us to deal with it. It could get dangerous, but you know, I guess that's kind of the thrill of live performance in general." v